The single moment of inspired television during the Saturday debut of MSNBC's controversial "Savage Nation" came early, during an exchange between the fidgety, leatherclad star, Michael Savage, and a caller identified only as "Steven from New York":
Steven: "Hi, Michael. I've been listening to you for years and I'm really glad I'm on your first show."
Savage: "How do I look, Steve? You like my makeup?"
Steven: "You look terrific. The jacket looks like vinyl, but I'm sure it's leather."
Savage: "Nah! Don't you dare say that! And inside it I have real fur!"
Steven: "First of all, I really can't wait for you to take on these guys from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting --"
Savage: "Nah! Don't even mention them! I don't refer to any of the people who are slandering me! They are irrelevant!"
Steven: "OK, OK. I want to ask you. My girlfriend is from Mexico, one of the places you call a 'Turd World Nation.' Who --"
And with that, "Steven" was quickly cut off by an MSNBC operator, and Savage was left to chuckle grimly at the "nice set-up call" before briskly moving on.
"Steven," Salon learned after the show, was actually veteran media activist/prankster Scott Pellegrino, of the late Web site Media Attack. Pellegrino has an impressive record of sneaking past screeners, perhaps most notoriously when he called into "Larry King Live" in 1996 and thanked Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) "for everything you've done to keep down the niggers," prompting Helms to thank him -- before quickly backtracking. This time, in his roughly 15 seconds of air time, Pellegrino managed to set in sharp relief the dire problems with "Savage Nation," MSNBC's most obvious effort to emulate the enormous success of Fox News.
First off, he was right about the jacket. Not only does it have the lacquered sheen of low-grade Naugahyde, the entire show gives off a strong whiff of cable access, from the host's poorly trimmed goatee to the bulbous, plastic-looking microphone, which may well be straight out of a Toys 'R Us "Larry King Starter Set." Savage never even bothered to talk into the "mic," and of course never needed to, since the real one was attached to the front of the jacket.
But it also should be clear now that Savage -- and MSNBC -- won't be able to separate the criticisms of his radio show by FAIR and other lefty watchdogs ("Turd World Nations," referring to countries south of the American border, is a Savage favorite. So are references to the "homosexual perversion") from his TV show. Last week, MSNBC president Erik Sorenson said such comments "will not be permitted. And if they do happen, they won't happen more than once." It'll be more difficult than that to fool viewers into thinking that somehow, magically, this isn't the same guy.
Maybe the show's producers' idea was to try and prevent one of Savage's notorious outbursts, like the one last summer where he attacked an Oregon group that organized a boycott of his radio show sponsors by saying "I'm gonna warn you again: If you harm me -- and I pray that no harm comes to you -- but I can't guarantee that it won't," or the one last week when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation started up a similar campaign. "You stinking rats who hide in the sewers! ... You think I'm going to roll over like a pussy?" Savage yelled, before threatening to lobby Attorney General John Ashcroft to go after their funding.
On Saturday's show, the only callers allowed to talk to Savage were his most exuberant fans. According to Pellegrino, "I told the screener that I was upset about these bozo liberals like Martin Sheen, these movie stars, and who do they think they are to talk, blah blah blah, and I said, 'I love Michael Savage, I think he's so great.' And she said, 'Oh, great!'" No other caller challenged him on anything.
That makes MSNBC's statement last week, defending the show as a "a legitimate attempt to expand the marketplace of ideas," particularly dishonest. But it also creates a show without an ounce of spontaneity or conflict. As a result, the most obvious problem with "Savage Nation," based on its debut, is one not even the strongest critics of "The O'Reilly Factor" or "Hannity & Colmes" could hurl at those Fox shows: It's excruciatingly dull.
In a Salon article last year on the surging popularity of Fox News, Charles Pierce pointed out that these kinds of "chat shows are little more than a form of professional wrestling aimed at the parents of the kids who watch actual professional wrestling." But not allowing anyone on the show to challenge Savage leaves him to grapple with straw men, and lame ones at that.
Savage's first major target was CBS' Dan Rather, whose interview with Saddam Hussein he derided as "outrageous propaganda." When he watched it, Savage tells us, "after 15 minutes, I thought [Saddam] was nicer than George Bush!" He exhorts his audience: "Was that propaganda, in your opinion, or was it journalism?" And then he claims that Rather's great error was in not providing the "context" for viewers to understand the true evil of Saddam. "It's as though he has the footage of the Auschwitz death camps and he chooses not to show them for political correctness."
That led to Savage's big gimmick: Repeated showings of graphic "hidden" footage out of Iraq. The video shows several scenes of what appear to be dead bodies, including a close-up of what appears to be a young boy. The footage has a time stamp of 1988 in the corner, and bears the dateline "Ajaja, Northern Iraq."
And that's it. Where did this footage come from? Who are these dead people? How did they die? Who has allegedly been hiding this footage? Was it footage of Saddam's 1988 Anfal genocide against the Iraqi Kurds? Savage never says. For all his talk of the graphic video's importance, he doesn't seem to know anything else about it.
It was an amazingly base ploy. His only argument for showing the shock video: Americans don't understand that Saddam is a barbaric murderer. Of course, he cannot name any such Americans, probably because none exist. Later, he bemoans "liberals" for not facing up to all of those whom Saddam has killed through the years, whether the number is "30,000 or 100,000." In fact, such columns of the great liberal conspiracy as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International cite reports that put that figure safely over 100,000. As a propagandist, Savage is not a very good one.
But his loyal followers don't seem to be looking for much information. How dumb are they? Let's consider "Todd from Idaho," who called in to thank Savage for running the gruesome images of the dead people from overseas, but thinks he should be showing gruesome images of the dead people from Sept. 11 too. Savage, naturally, agreed.
Savage: "I wanted to see the footage of the American citizens who jumped out of the windows because they were burning to death!"
Todd: "I'm with you."
Savage: "I wanted to see the footage of the Americans who hit the floor and are smashed like a watermelon on the ground!"
Todd: "We're behind you Michael, keep going."
Savage: "Not just that, Todd, but I think the American people have to understand the horror and the terror and I don't know why we're being kept from it. Do you, Todd?"
Todd: "No, but the liberals want us to forget 9/11."
Savage: "I don't know the reason. There is a gigantic conspiracy to keep us in a sort of pacified, idealized, infantilized state, Todd."
Todd: "They want us to --"
Savage: "And I don't believe in it. I believe psychological nudity is a great, great thing."
It never got much smarter or more coherent than that.
According to a leaked NBC memo on the Web site AllyourTV.com, Phil Donahue's short-lived, poorly rated show created "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" while MSNBC's "competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." But does MSNBC really think Savage is the conservative Americans want to identify with? Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity at least find token Democrats -- who usually look disheveled, and like they'd be afraid to peer into a mirror -- to kick around on their shows with a practiced, condescending "tsk, tsk." But the likes of O'Reilly and Hannity always strive to seem reasonable.
Savage seems either incredibly dim or just plain nuts. Or just really, really terrible on television. Without any opposition, he still had a hard time scoring simple political points.
Antiwar Hollywood, a favorite target of conservatives, was brought up repeatedly. He gave a "Hollywood Idiot of the Week" award to filmmaker Martin Scorsese, whose critical comments have been mostly restricted to saying things like, "One hopes that this kind of war can be done diplomatically, with intelligence rather than wiping out a lot of innocent civilians," and "There are a lot of Americans who feel that this is economic and part of it has to do with the oil, maybe most of it."
Savage's gripe with the "Gangs of New York" director: "How can a man who builds his career on such violent imagery claim that he is into peace? I don't understand the connection, do you?" Not really, no.