Joe Conason's Journal

The Donahue experiment proves that MSNBC will hire almost anyone -- even white supremacist Michael Savage -- except a mainstream center-left host.

Published February 28, 2003 5:11PM (EST)

No Democrats need apply?
Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura and Michael Savage all have something in common -- aside from past, present or future airtime on MSNBC. Each represents a smallish minority segment of public opinion in America, and none are Democrats. Donahue is an ardent Naderite whose candidate received less than 3 percent of the 2000 presidential vote. Ventura is (or was) a leader of the remnants of Ross Perot's feeble third-party movement. And Savage, who also declares a pox on both major parties, can only be described as a noxious white supremacist. (Aside from his moronic opinions, Savage is unusually cheesy, even for a talk-radio hate-monger. Check out these little picture galleries of his birthday party and his New Year's celebration.) It is remarkable that G.E. and Microsoft, the proprietors of MSNBC, would desire any association with the likes of Savage. Both companies must be quite confident that women, blacks, Latinos and gays will happily purchase their products no matter how insulting, inflammatory and demented their broadcasts are.

Almost forgotten now is the cable network's ill-fated experiment with Alan Keyes, the religious rightist who competed for nuisance value with Gary Bauer during the 2000 GOP primaries. Keyes still nurses a deep grudge over the cancellation of his MSNBC slot, as anyone who visits his Web site will quickly discover. He remains convinced that his dismissal was motivated solely by politics, and not because of poor ratings, awful performance and a banal viewpoint available on Christian Broadcasting Network and many smaller fundamentalist broadcast outlets. He insists that his show was "building substantial momentum in its last weeks."

Donahue's supporters voice similar complaints, possibly with greater justification. As the daytime TV veteran points out in his genial way, his ratings were better than any of MSNBC's prime-time programs, although he couldn't come close to competing with Fox's ranting, bullying O'Reilly.

What the strange Keyes and Donahue experiments showed -- and what the Savage and Ventura hirings prove again -- is that MSNBC will literally hire anyone except a mainstream center-left host. Slate's Jack Shafer argues that self-identified liberals, under 20 percent of the viewers of any cable news channel, form too small an audience to support a successful prime-time program. Yet the statistics cited by Shafer also show that moderates and liberals together outnumber conservatives. And network president Erik Sorenson has apparently forgotten that among the most successful prime-time cable programs in recent years was Rivera Live, fronted by a strong, unapologetic liberal who delighted in free debate. The most interesting show right now is "Hardball," because Chris Matthews has dared to question Bush policy on Iraq. Critics have often scorned Matthews and Rivera. Neither is without his flaws, to be sure. Compared with Savage and Ventura, however, they look like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor.
[11:45 a.m. PST, Feb. 28, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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