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?”)