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How MSNBC Sabotaged Donahue

by RALPH NADER

Monopolist Microsoft and oligopolist General Electric–the co-owners of MSNBC–took their highest rated show off the air and sent Phil Donahue away on February 25, 2003. After choosing Donahue to host his own 8pm daily show only six months ago, the corporate managers micromanaged, mismanaged and refused to let Phil Donahue be Phil Donahue.

About the only freedom Donahue had was the freedom to say what he thinks. Beyond that he was often told what kinds of subjects to showcase and what kind of guests to have. And he was often chided for being too tough on some guests–shades of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, his competition for that hour, and the spitting, screeching, viper-like Sean Hannity.

In the past few months, the corporate “suits” even told Donahue that he had to have more conservative or right-wing guests than liberals on the same hour show. Still, Donahue persevered. His ratings were slowly increasing, despite the regular lacerations that the top brass inflicted on a show that was supposed to be the liberal counterpart of the right-wing, bellicose Fox fare stitched together by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

MSNBC, which was receiving ratings of about 440,000 viewers for Donahue, was aiming for1,000,000 people. Were they interested in one million predominately liberal viewers attracted to the legendary talk show host who, starting in the Sixties, broke apart on morning television the biases or taboos against women, minorities, gays and lesbians, downtrodden workers, consumer and environmental rights? Doubtful. For if they were, some of their promotional budgets would have gone for reaching liberal audiences of the kind who read Utne magazine, Mother Jones, or who watch various PBS outlets and other serious programming.

What emerged was quite different than that described by Steve Friedman, former producer of NBC’s “Today” and the CBS “Early Show,” who told a reporter: “I think MSNBC felt the way to beat Fox was to do a liberal version of what Fox was doing, and Phil was a good person to do that. I don’t know if they were really committed to that.” They were not. Instead, the top brass allowed other pulls to shatter the identity and consistency of the show–which, by the way, would have always provided for contrary views to those held by Phil.

First, always hovering in their minds are the corporate advertisers, who do not exactly like a Dr. Sid Wolfe exposing the harmful effects of brand name drugs. Right-wing radio and television talk show hosts dominate the electronic media because, unlike the rare liberal host, they attack government regulation, while the rare liberal may go after corporate crimes and abuse. Guess what? Corporations advertise and governments do not.

But there was more to the NBC officials’ calculations. A commissioned report for NBC’s internal purposes in December put the concern this way: Donahue was described as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.” Continuing, the study said that Donahue is “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…he seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” Unmentioned was that there were more pro-war guests on the Donahue show than those espousing an antiwar viewpoint.

In a pointed but polite manner, Donahue issued a statement that indicated what was going on behind the scenes: “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. The New York Times op-ed page features a variety of views regarding the Bush war on Iraq,including regular columnists who have been critical of the Administration’s foreign policy team. MSNBC’s voice should be no less diverse. The hiring of Mike Savage, Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough suggest a strategy to outfox Fox.”

Starting last fall, leaks from top NBC sources badmouthed their own Donahue show, leading to regular trade press rumors about the demise of the show. This is no way to maintain morale, much less run a business supposedly endowed with at least some recognition of the public’s right to diverse information and opinion. Top NBC executives, given their enormous pay, should start paying attention to simple improvements. For example, in about half the country, MSNBC is not even listed in the daily and Sunday TV cable guides, including Washington, D.C. If your programs are not even listed alongside CNN and Fox programs, there will be fewer viewers. I notified a top NBC executive late last fall about this remarkable omission. His response: “I’m astonished to hear that,” and he pledged to rectify the situation. Nothing has changed to date.

Donahue, in his gracious manner, paid tribute to the “worker bees” at MSNBC’s Secaucus, New Jersey headquarters. These are the same workers whose state income tax payments are in effect refunded to profit-glutted Microsoft and General Electric under a corporate welfare scheme that the two companies demanded from then Governor Christie Todd Whitman. Now that would have been a great Donahue show!

 

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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