Finally, Matt Drudge can stop plastering his webpage with Phil Donahue’s casket photo (the one where his eyes are glazed like Krispy Kremes, his face gray as snow piles in a gutter). MSNBC has been announcing a programming change every hour or so. This may be the most memorable schedule adjustment since the last rites of Alan Keyes, and the frequent announcements seem intended to make you aware that a certain party — indeed, a certain way of doing business — has passed from this realm.
Phil Donahue isn’t dead as of this writing. But his show is. And now voices that stayed silent during his show’s somnambulant six month run are making themselves heard. Recently, the NATION’s John Nichols and Ralph Nader have both asserted that Donahue’s show failed because he wasn’t allowed to be Donahue. Phil was undercut by the man, and helpless to say anything about this situation during his time on MSNBC, even as DRUDGE ran leaked memos weekly attesting that Phil’s show was a dead issue.
A dead issue, indeed. Donahue’s show was stillborn from the start, a fact tacitly acknowledged by Nichols and Nader both. Throughout his NATION piece, Nichols refers to such phenomena as “constant pressure to clog his show’s arteries with deadly dull apologists for all things Bush” and other ways in which MSNBC thwarted Donahue’s quest 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.” Nader, for his part, thinks the show might have drawn better numbers if MSNBC “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.”
Certainly, one can speculate that the show might have drawn better if MSNBC had pimped it during NOVA, or if they had taken out full-page ads in MOTHER JONES, IN THESE TIMES, et al. But if there was really such market demand for Phil Donahue, the show would’ve drawn without such inducements. The readers of such sophisticated journals are quite aware of Donahue’s existence.
As were the people watching on cable nationwide, even if Ralph Nader goes out of his way to avoid that fact. Nader goes so far as to link the show’s lack of market penetration with MSNBC not being in TV programming listings “in about half the country.” Hold on, Mr. President! For starters, how do you prove a claim like that? Did Nader really survey every paper with television listings nationwide?
I would expect that he didn’t. It would be nice if DONAHUE tanked simply because the suits at MSNBC were too busy playing Dungeons & Dragons to ensure their shows got ink in every smalltown paper’s TV Guide. Or that the show really was a thriving success, but that Donahue was undercut by an internal NBC report decrying him as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace . . . a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”
Whether Donahue’s was a difficult face for NBC to feature during “wartime” or not is an entirely debatable issue. What is less debatable, however, is what the MSNBC DONAHUE show actually was like to watch.
The program was utter torture. Too often, Phil seemed two questions behind his guests. Too often, he seemed to retreat into the cliches so typical of “fighting liberals”, who seem to prefer the spotlight and the company of celebrities to drawing lines in the sand.
Because lines definitely should’ve been drawn. If DONAHUE had led off with HITCHENS V CHOMSKY on its first night, it would’ve beaten out O’REILLY on the sheer strength of that matchup’s pyrotechnics. Likewise, I’m certain TAKI V BILL KRISTOL would’ve done a hell of a lot better than IN THE KITCHEN WITH FRANK GAFFNEY and EARCLEANING WITH ROSIE O’DONNELL, TV’S “QUEEN OF NICE.” The show should’ve been booked like the WWE, playing up the legitimate and very real schisms among intellectuals, bringing viewers fiery debate five nights a week. Instead, we got slop that often was unfit for Public Access cable.
But what do I know? I only watched the show off and on for about six months. I only watched Donahue stumble through his questions with a couple hundred guests. I only saw a man that looked ready for bed when he was supposed to be defending western civilization from the dogs of war. You could see it from the start, if you watched the show. Even before Labor Day, Phil Donahue was a dead man walking.
ANTHONY GANCARSKI is CounterPunch’s King of Nice. He welcomes comments at: ANTHONY.GANCARSKI@ATTBI.COM