Great White-Haired Hope of Liberals

When Phil Donahue, the 66-year-old pioneer of talk-show television, landed a spot on MSNBC's prime time lineup, many left-leaning viewers rejoiced.

Donahue is a self-professed liberal with opinions decidedly to the left of most talk-show hosts.

Because of the dearth of left-wing voices, progressive viewers fondly anticipated Donahue's well-hyped July debut on MSNBC.

Don Hazen, the executive editor of the progressive Web site AlterNet.org, even urged readers to "vote with your remote," for "Donahue." "We'll be giving the message to TV executives that there is an audience for unconventional television programming with a decidedly progressive edge that is beyond what they imagine," he wrote.

What's more, Jeff Cohen, founder and executive director of the left-leaning media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, was hired as a senior producer for "Donahue." Cohen, who also was a regular panelist on Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch," is well-known in progressive circles as an astute media critic.

According to an Aug. 19 article in The New York Times, "Donahue" received the most promotion the channel has ever devoted to any program. Thus it seemed clear the corporate forces running MSNBC had nothing against Donahue's progressive tilt -- as long as he pulled the viewers.

Donahue's show competes against CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight" and Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" with Bill O'Reilly, the ratings leader by far. CNN is seeking to establish itself as a non-ideological purveyor of pure news, while Fox News Channel has adopted a broadcast style that clearly hews to the right.

According to a 2001 report by the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting organization, "Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement's well-oiled media machine."

Many progressives are hoping "Donahue" might serve a similar purpose for those on the left.

Unfortunately, Donahue's early showing has not been encouraging.

Although his well-promoted opening week was fairly strong with a daily average of about 660,000 viewers, the number of viewers dropped steadily in the weeks following. "Four weeks after his debut, Donahue has lost 40 percent of his audience," noted the Times' story. "Bill O'Reilly, whose Fox News show is the most-watched on any cable network, handily beat both Mr. Donahue and Ms. Chung's shows combined."

If this television confrontation was seen as a kind of proxy election--and many saw it as just that -- would it be accurate to say that O'Reilly and the conservatives have won?

Well, not really. First, the competition is not being fought on an even playing field. Rupert Murdoch, a media mogul with an ideological commitment to conservative causes, owns Fox News Channel.

Roger Ailes, the American who runs the channel for Murdoch, is a pugnacious former Republican operative and a veteran of the Nixon, Reagan and Bush-the-elder campaigns.

In other words, Fox is on an ideological mission.

On the other hand, MSNBC's maneuvers are purely commercial. General Electric and Microsoft, two of America's largest corporations, own the channel.

It's unlikely that the anti-corporate messages progressives expect to emanate from "Donahue" will go down easy with people like General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, who, according to the Daily News in New York, is the primary bankroller of Donahue's $1 million-a-year salary.

Donahue is locked into a format that is intrinsically favorable to right-wingers who tend to have strong, unequivocal opinions. It is less forgiving to progressives, who often need time to debunk conventional wisdom or bust biases.

In order for "Donahue" to succeed in this venue, the show's producers will have to tweak the formula. The convention of pitting ideological antagonists against each other is good theater and good for those with conservative biases.

But that format prevents the kind of context-laden discussion designed to shed light rather than heat on a subject.

Conventional wisdom holds that nuances are bad for Nielsen ratings; that is, viewers want verbal fireworks, not sober analysis. Until Phil Donahue busts that bias, the game is rigged against him.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

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