The day before MSNBC announced that it was pulling the plug on Phil Donahue’s nightly show, the man who pretty much invented talk TV was interviewing actress and author Rosie O’Donnell. But this was not the standard celebrity interview. Rather, Donahue led O’Donnell through a serious discussion of her feelings about whether the US should go to war with Iraq. “Well, I think like every mother, every mother that I’ve spoken to, every day when I go to pick up my kids from school, every person I’ve spoken to has said they’re against this war, for basic reasons,” said O’Donnell. “I don’t want to kill innocent mothers and children and fathers in another country when there are alternate mean available, at least at this point.” And when Donahue asked why anyone should take what celebrities say about war seriously, O’Donnell came back, “Nobody wants to interview the mother of the two kids in my daughter’s class who feels the same way. I stand with thirty-six women every day outside the elementary school. And if any newscaster wanted to speak to any member of the PTA across America, I have a feeling they would say the same thing I’m saying. I’m not speaking as a celebrity. I’m speaking as a mother and I’m speaking for the mothers who don’t have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show.”
As of Friday, no one will have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show. The show has been cancelled, and with it will be lost one of the few consistent forums for progressive voices on cable television. Just this month, Donahue’s guest list has included Rep. Bernie Sanders, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Institute for Policy Studies foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis and Global Exchange director and “Code Pink” antiwar activist Medea Benjamin. And it is a pretty good bet that, now that Donahue is going off the air, we will not soon see another show like the one where he featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins in front of a crowd of laid-off Enron employees. And we certainly are not likely to see such a show on MSNBC, which appears to be veering hard to the right in its programming–adding former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and former US Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Florida, as regular contributors,and conservative talk radio personality Michael “Savage Nation” Savage as a regular host. MSNBC will temporarily replace Donahue starting next week with an expanded version of Countdown: Iraq, hosted by Lester Holt. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Media analyst Rick Ellis makes a strong case that Donahue is being elbowed off the air at this point–when his ratings have actually been ticking upward–precisely because it appears that a war is coming. According to Ellis, 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 study “suggested that Donahue presented a ‘difficult public face for NBC in a time of war'” and expressed the hope that that Donahue’s show might become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” NBC executives aren’t commenting on Ellis’s report. But no one is seriously questioning its validity.
That said, Donahue’s disappearance is about more than politics. Donahue’s show was never as successful as it could have been. Coming off a strong supporting role in the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000, and a series of television appearances that saw him challenge the conventional (Republican and Democratic) wisdom about September 11 and its aftermath, Donahue was to enter the cable wars as a pox-on-all-their-houses lefty who would open his show up to a freewheeling dialogue about war and peace, corruption and cronyism, Republican wrongheadedness and Democratic disappointments. In theory, the show sounded like it might actually allow MSNBC to credibly argue that it was “fiercely independent.” In reality, Donahue was sent in to battle Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Connie Chung with one lobe tied behind his brain. Pressured by desperate MSNBC executives to fit into the contemporary talk-TV mold (“Be like O’Reilly, only nicer–but not too nice”), Donahue was never allowed to be Donahue. For every program that featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, there were ten where Donahue was forced to ask polite questions of second-string conservative pundits.
Where his conservative competitors never worry about fairness or balance, Donahue was under constant pressure to clog his show’s arteries with deadly dull apologists for all things Bush. And when that got too boring, he was pressured to steer the show away from politics and toward the glitzy and the maudlin. The show got worse and worse, the ratings dipped, and Donahue often seemed physically pained by the absurd demands that were being placed on him.
Finally, when every dumb idea known to cable television had been tried, someone got the bright idea of allowing Donahue to do what he used to do best–interview interesting guests and then take questions from a live audience. The guests were better–Tutu was great, and so was Pat Buchanan. The crowds were enthusiastic. And the ratings were rising.
In its final, more substantive incarnation, Donahue was actually beating the much more aggressively promoted MSNBC program, Hardball With Chris Matthews. By the same token, with an average nightly viewership of 446,000, Donahue was still trailing far behind CNN’s Connie Chung and Fox’s O’Reilly. Now that Donahue has been ditched, conservative commentators and network executives will tell themselves that there is no audience for progressive voices on television. They will, of course, be wrong on the broad premise– some of O’Reilly’s best shows feature feisty progressives like US Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Bernie Sanders. And they will be wrong more specifically about Donahue. We will never know for sure whether Phil Donahue could have seriously competed with conservative hosts like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. What we do now, for sure, is that MSNBC executives were never willing to trust Phil Donahue–or the American television viewing audience.