Ousting a Rightwing Savage

It's Saturday afternoon at the home of Bill and Melinda Gates, and the family has gathered for a late lunch. The television is on and tuned to MSNBC, the cable news network the Microsoft mogul owns jointly with NBC (AKA General Electric). "Broadcasting from the studios of KSFO in San Francisco, MSNBC welcomes you to 'The Savage Nation,'" the announcer roars. In the next hour, Savage does his usual thing; slams immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, and Latinos, and for good measure he cracks back on the ACLU. Melinda looks at Bill: "Do we really need this in our house?"

In hopes of saving MSNBC from the dust bin of television history, top brass at the cable news network have come up with another brainstorm. This one appears to fuse the wackiness of Morton Downey Jr., the pompous rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, and the ideology of David Duke: Let's all welcome Michael Savage to the MSNBC family!

MSNBC has been getting creamed in the rating wars by both the rapidly rising Fox News Channel and that old news warhorse, CNN. Recently, in moves that have symbiosis written all over it, MSNBC fired talk-show host Phil Donahue and hired Savage and two other right-wing ideologues.

Entering MSNBC's "Class of 2003" is Michael Savage, the popular right-wing radio talk-show host, former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and former Florida conservative Congressman Joe Scarborough. Savage will host a weekly one-hour Saturday afternoon program, Armey will be a regular contributing commentator, and Scarborough will, for a time at least, host a nightly show.

Starting this weekend, viewers will be able to tune in Saturday afternoons to "The Savage Nation" and get a dose of what listeners to Michael Savage's daily radio broadcasts on KSFO in San Francisco have been hearing for several years. (According to Talkers magazine, Savage, with more than 350 outlets across the country, is the nation's fourth most listened to talk-radio host, behind Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Howard Stern.)

Michael Savage (AKA Michael Weiner) is a former peddler of herbs, who on the cusp of his sixtieth birthday is making his television debut. Savage's modus operandi is a blend of bigotry, narrow mindedness, inflammatory rhetoric, ridicule and self-promotion. Over the years, he's made a string of well-chronicled notorious comments: Hispanics -- they "breed like rabbits"; women -- "should have been denied the vote"; gays and lesbians -- "the gay and lesbian mafia wants our children"; immigrants -- "you open the door to them, and the next thing you know, they are defecating on your country and breeding out of control"; the ACLU -- "the greatest danger to the American public today is the ACLU." (For more Michael Savage in his own words, click here.)

The Hiring

Here is what MSNBC said about the signing of Savage: "The addition of Michael Savage to the MSNBC lineup was made with the full awareness of his reputation for controversy and confrontation. We respect the right of those who wish to protest. However, we also strongly defend his new show as a legitimate attempt to expand the marketplace of ideas. By bringing our viewers a wide range of strong, opinionated voices, MSNBC underscores its commitment to ensuring that its perspective programming promotes no one single point of view. We encourage debate and we would neither expect, nor want, our audience to agree with everything on our channel."

In addition to Savage's highly-rated radio program -- he's the number one drive-time talk show host in the Bay Area -- he's written a best-selling book titled "The Savage Nation." (In his book, Savage referrs to MSNBC as "More Snotty Nonsense By Creeps.") Savage also has a well-traversed Web site, MichaelSavage.com, billed as the home of "The Savage Nation and the Paul Revere Society: Men and Women Protecting America." In the spirit of opening a dialogue, a recent posting at the site features the banner headline: "The Sedition Act -- Time to Act. Time to Arrest the Leaders of the Anti-War Movement, Once We Go To War? We Must Protect Our Troops! Sponsor The Paul Revere Society!" The Web site also sells all sorts of Savage gear, including hats, CDs and a number of other books he's written.

Savage's success inspired Internet activist Thomas Leavitt to create a counter-Web site called SavageStupidity.com. According to a press release issued last July, Leavitt is an "entrepreneur and technical specialist who started his first Internet company (Web Communications, LLC) back in May of 1994 -- when Netscape was still Mosaic Communications and the Internet bubble wasn't even on the horizon." SavageStupidity.com is calling for a boycott of Savage Nation advertisers, and is "demand[ing] that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restore the "Fairness Doctrine."

Another anti-Savage Web site, Michael Savage Sucks, has announced a "Boycott of ALL MSNBC advertisers” that will begin on March 7th, 2003. Savage's radio advertisers include RockStar Energy Drink, Zims Crack Creme, Irwin Schiffs PayNoIncomeTax.com, Advil, Trim Spa, HotWire.Com, Alka-Seltzer Plus, Blue Emu, GEICO, Maximus, Cocoon GH, FreeCreditReport.com, Swiss America, Lear Financial, Matrix Direct, Dr. Royal Rife's Frequency Generator, LendingTree.Com, and DMI USA.

The Firing

The Savage hiring came on the heels of the network announcement that it had dumped "Donahue" -- the program hosted by the granddaddy of all television talk-show hosts, Phil Donahue -- from its nightly schedule. Although it had been on the air for only six months (he started with MSNBC in July, some seven years after his syndicated talk show ended) -- the network decided Donahue had to go. Although "Donahue" was not the station-savior that MSNBC had hoped for -- the show averaged 446,000 viewers while the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly drew 2.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research -- the program drew more viewers to the network than any of its other shows -- outpacing even motor-mouth Chris Matthews' "Hardball."

The real reason for Donahue's firing remains a mystery. According to Rick Ellis, writing for Allyourtv.com, Donahue's "fate was sealed a number of weeks ago after NBC News executives received the results of a study commissioned to provide guidance on the future of the news channel." The report, which was given to Ellis by an NBC News "insider," described Donahue “as 'a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.'" NBC appeared to be concerned that Donahue offered a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report went on to outline "a possible nightmare scenario" where the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

It's amazing to think that in a period when Americans are nearly evenly divided over whether to go to war with Iraq, as well as most other issues, Phil Donahue, the only openly liberal voice in the nighttime pantheon of talk television, would be summarily dismissed.

Dump Savage: The Movement

A number of organizations are protesting Savage's hiring, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Organization for Women (NOW), which pointed out that "It is very important that the corporations that own the media get the message: Profiting from hate will cost them the business of thinking consumers. That applies to GE, as well as Microsoft."

Savage's response to the protesters has been well, vintage Savage -- feisty, aggressive and threatening: "I'm going to find out where you get your money from. You live by handouts, all of you. You live off grants, all of you. You're a bunch of beggars, but you don't know how lucky you are. If you continue this, we're going to go after your funding sources. And we will do everything we can within the legal realm to cut off that funding! We are also going to go to the U.S. Justice Department under John Ashcroft! What you are doing is illegal!

"You think it’s 1965 and I'm South Africa? I've got news for you: it's not 1965 and it ain't South Africa! I'll cut your funding off, and if you break the law any further, I'll put you in jail!"

Commenting on the difference between the campaign that succeeded in getting Dr. Laura's television show off the air and any attempt to oust him, Savage said "When they successfully drove Dr. Laura off the air because she didn't kowtow or cater to them, it was under the regime of Janet Reno and Bill Clinton." He pointed out that "They had protection under the Attorney General's Office. That was then, this is now.

"We have a Republican president. We have a Republican attorney general. But more importantly we have a new climate in America. These days of economic terrorism are over," Mr. Savage said.

Media Whores Online, which bills itself as "the site that set out to bring the media to their knees, but found they were already there," suggests e-mailing Bill and Melinda Gates at their Foundation (info@gatesfoundation.org) and "asking them if they are aware of how the MSNBC network has been turned into a network of Republican hate... . Ask them to intervene for the sake of all that is decent."

And, in an Alert dated February 26th, GLAAD asked supporters to write MSNBC president and general manager Erik Sorenson, and NBC News president Neil Shapiro, and "encourage them to reconsider their decision to put Michael Savage on the air. Explain that Savage's bigoted, inflammatory attacks should not be associated with a network that values the integrity of its news brand," the ALERT requests.

For its part, MSNBC brass is no doubt hoping that the Saturday afternoon edition of "The Savage Nation" gets so much buzz and becomes so popular that it warrants a regular nightly spot. Won't that be cause for celebration at Bill and Melinda's house?

Bill Berkowitz is a columnist for WorkingForChange.com.

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