War may or may not be inevitable, but a one-sided discussion of US policy toward Iraq appears to be all but guaranteed on network television. Whatever the merits of MSNBC’s Donahue show, the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that led to its cancellation on February 25 illustrate the extent to which basic commitments to honest dialogue on the networks are collapsing as the threat of war becomes more real.

“We were hoping to break through the noisy drums of war on cable and become a responsible platform for dissenters as well as Administration supporters,” said Phil Donahue, referring to the feverish “Let’s get ready to rumble” rhetoric on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel and the terror alert-happy CNN. “The New York Times op-ed page features a variety of views regarding the Bush war on Iraq, including regular columnists who have been quite critical of the Administration’s foreign policy team. MSNBC’s voice should be no less diverse. The hiring of [right-wingers] Mike Savage, Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough suggests a strategy to out-Fox FOX.”

With Donahue shuffled out to allow for the expansion of a show called Countdown: Iraq, the right-wing spin machine kicked into gear to claim that liberals could not cut it on cable. But while it is true that Donahue’s style was never a perfect fit with talk-cable’s faster, rougher format–he often looked uncomfortable and regularly trailed in the ratings–the timing of his departure appears to have had a lot more to do with the politics of the moment than with traditional programming concerns. An internal study commissioned by NBC executives had expressed grave concerns that if war began, Donahue’s show would become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” The study was right about the flag-waving by the competition. As Donahue was being shown the door, Fox personality Sean Hannity was campaigning to get antiwar actor David Clennon fired from the CBS drama The Agency, and Martin Sheen, who plays fictional US President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s West Wing series, told the Los Angeles Times that network executives have “let it be known they’re very uncomfortable with where I’m at” on Iraq. “The closer the impending war gets, the more the networks seem to be moving to appear ‘patriotic’–which seems to mean not being outspoken, or even skeptical,” says AllYourTV.com analyst Rick Ellis. “I think the question of how the networks cover the war and how they interpret what it means to be patriotic is going to be a real issue, and what happened to Donahue points to why it should be an issue.” (Alone among cable networks, Black Entertainment Television is displaying skepticism, headlining its reports “Iraq: Is War the Answer?”)

Donahue, one of the most identifiable TV personalities in history and an unapologetic liberal, was hired last year by MSNBC to position the struggling cable network as the thinking American’s alternative to Fox and to the increasingly vapid programming on CNN and the three major networks. The theory was that Donahue would offer a program with a point of view–as does Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, the ratings leader in the time slot. In the weeks after Donahue went on air last July, it was possible to imagine that he might actually be allowed to do a show that mattered–initial programs featured Studs Terkel speaking at length about how a cable show that questioned the Bush Administration would be “an oasis in the desert,” Senator Russ Feingold discussing problems with the Patriot Act, Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins talking about corporate crime to an audience of 1,000 former Enron and WorldCom employees, and former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis discussing rising tensions about Iraq with Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee and conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru.

As summer turned to fall, however, the Bush Administration started to turn up the rhetoric about Iraq, and executives at MSNBC and its corporate parent, General Electric-owned NBC, pressured Donahue to dumb down the discussion–and to limit dissent. “Donahue was hired before Iraq blew up to be an issue,” said an industry source familiar with the development of the show. “When Iraq started to come into focus, the GE/NBC folks freaked out because they realized they had hired someone who might ask tough questions about US foreign policy.”

By October, Donahue was being forced to turn his show into a deliberately pale imitation of the programs to which he was supposed to be an alternative. While his ratings did beat those of other MSNBC hosts, he never drew the audience needed to compete with Fox or CNN. Network executives rejected proposals to build a liberal audience in the same manner that Fox had built a right-wing one, using advertising on conservative talk-radio and in conservative publications to get conservatives tuned in. Instead, Donahue’s show was micromanaged by NBC executives, who mandated a “more hawks than doves” booking policy when the discussion turned to war and who pushed Donahue to devote more time to “lifestyle” topics like the Atkins diet. Toward the end, when MSNBC put Donahue in front of a live audience, ratings ticked up. But by then, NBC executives were brandishing the study that labeled Donahue “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace” and warned he would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” The difficulty, explains Newspaper Guild president Linda Foley, is this: “Donahue was not willing to start from a presumption that the status quo, the establishment, is always right. As this war gets closer, it looks like that is becoming the only acceptable presumption around the radio dial, across the cable spectrum and on the broadcast networks.”