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Reminder: MSNBC Helped Lie Us Into War

"I am not sure exactly when the death of television news took place," Chris Hedges writes for Truthdig.

"The descent was gradual - a slide into the tawdry, the trivial and the inane, into the charade on cable news channels such as Fox and MSNBC in which hosts hold up corporate political puppets to laud or ridicule, and treat celebrity foibles as legitimate news. But if I had to pick a date when commercial television decided amassing corporate money and providing entertainment were its central mission, when it consciously chose to become a carnival act, it would probably be Feb. 25, 2003, when MSNBC took Phil Donahue off the air because of his opposition to the calls for war in Iraq."

"Donahue and Bill Moyers, the last honest men on national television, were the only two major TV news personalities who presented the viewpoints of those of us who challenged the rush to war in Iraq. General Electric and Microsoft - MSNBC's founders and defense contractors that went on to make tremendous profits from the war - were not about to tolerate a dissenting voice. Donahue was fired, and at PBS Moyers was subjected to tremendous pressure. An internal MSNBC memo leaked to the press stated that Donahue was hurting the image of the network. He would be a 'difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,' the memo read. Donahue never returned to the airwaves."

*

Reflecting on the failure of pundits and journalists who were dead wrong about the Iraq war to suffer any consequences, I wondered how the Chicago media covered this depressing episode. Not very well, it won't surprise you.

Phil Donahue's landmark talk show was produced in Chicago from 1974 to 1985, but the normally parochial local press barely paid attention to his MSNBC debacle.

The only non-AP article I found in the archives was a column by Phil Rosenthal, then a TV critic at the Sun-Times, now a business columnist at the Tribune, that complained Donahue was boring and preachy. After all, it's just war!

"When MSNBC hired Phil Donahue last summer, it thought it was bringing in the firebrand who instinctively sensed not only what would interest viewers but how to frame complicated, controversial issues in a way they would find provocative but not off-putting," Rosenthal wrote in February 2003.

"What it got was the preachy old guy who, while campaigning for the media to take Ralph Nader seriously in the 2000 presidential race, found he kind of liked being on TV again."

Let the marginalization begin.

"Its last edition is set for Friday, leaving unsolved the mystery of how Donahue seemed to forget almost everything he once knew about making compelling television in the six years between the end of his pioneering syndicated talk show and the launch of his sleepy, short-lived and little-watched cable show last July.

"Come on. Even CNN's mediocre Connie Chung has been kicking his butt, more than doubling the paltry 446,000 viewers Donahue has been averaging this month."

Little-watched and paltry, true enough. But not the whole story, as we shall see.

"Now Donahue's on the way out and struggling MSNBC, in preparation for war, has expanded Lester Holt's Countdown: Iraq, one of its stronger shows, to take Donahue 's place."

One of its stronger shows? It had worse ratings than Donahue. Rosenthal missed the real story here: MSNBC was replacing a show that questioned the war - a journalistic show on news network, in other words - with a show pumping the war.

"MSNBC probably should have pulled the plug after Donahue drew a measly 0.1 rating - or just 137,000 households - for a discussion on embryo adoptions one Friday night in August.

"Even if you could overlook how close a 0.1 is to having no viewers at all, it begged the question of just what the hell Donahue thought he was doing that night.

"Was this some kind of act of Nader-esque corporate rebellion against General Electric, which owns MSNBC, or did Donahue actually think a straight-on discussion of embryo adoptions was a great topic for a warm summer evening as the weekend beckoned?"

Again with Nader. Nevermind that his corporate rebellions are in the right. Then with the Friday night programming. It's a news network! Plenty of entertainment up and down the dial.

"Donahue was a scold - and a boring one at that."

Mission accomplished!

*

In response to Rosenthal's column, John Butler of Morton Grove wrote this letter to the editor, given the headline "Donahue Was Classy Voice In Trashy Milieu":

I found Sun-Times television reporter Phil Rosenthal's scathing attack on Phil Donahue highly offensive. It is true that the recently cancelled Donahue show did not do well in the ratings, but to me that is a horrible reflection of America's television viewers, who obviously prefer watching trash shows like Joe Millionaire and Jerry Springer than Donahue's well-researched, highly informative show.

The Donahue show showed far more objectivity, balance and fairness than most TV talk shows. Phil treated his guests with respect, and he was always scrupulously fair in making sure that all of his guests were given a fair opportunity to express their usually very divergent views. In fact, on one occasion when a conservative guest abruptly left the show because he thought he wasn't being given a fair chance to express his opinion, the Donahue show gave this disgruntled guest an entire hour on a future show so that his conservative views could be expressed. In stark contrast is Chris Matthews on Hardball, who consistently interrupts his guests and cuts off people who are expressing opinions he disagrees with.

I strongly disagree with Rosenthal's description of Donahue. By openly expressing his liberal point of view, Donahue was never the boring, preaching scold that Rosenthal perceives. Despite the fact that many of his more conservative guests frequently made insulting remarks about Phil's liberalism ("bed-wetting liberals"), Phil Donahue handled these insults with far more class than his offending guests when they were on the receiving end of criticism about their conservative views.

It is a sad commentary about the "dumbing down" of America when MSNBC can cancel a classy show like Donahue's while hiring Michael Savage, a radio talk show host noted for his unabashed bigotry.

Even Donahue defenders like Butler, though, didn't know the full truth.

*

From a footnoted Wikipedia entry - we'll get to the original sources, don't worry:

"The facts: In 2002, Phil Donahue returned to television to host a show called Donahue on MSNBC. Its debut Nielsen ratings were strong, but its audience evaporated over the following months. In late August 2002, it got one of the lowest possible ratings (0.1), less than MSNBC's average for the day of 0.2.

"On February 25, 2003, MSNBC cancelled the show, citing low viewership. However, that month, Donahue averaged 446,000 viewers and became the highest rated show on the network.

"Other MSNBC shows, including Hardball with Chris Matthews and Scarborough Country, averaged lower ratings in 2005.

"Later, the website AllYourTV.com reported it had received a copy of an internal NBC memo that mentioned that Donahue had to be fired because he would be a 'difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.'"

*

"Mr. Donahue's show had been growing slightly over the past few months, and he was actually attracting more viewers than any other show on MSNBC, even the channel's signature prime-time program Hardball With Chris Matthews," the New York Times reported.

"Mr. Matthews's show has averaged 413,000 viewers over the last month."

*

"Although Donahue didn't know it at the time, his 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," Rick Ellis of AllYourTV.com reported that March.

"That report - shared with me by an NBC news insider - gives an excruciatingly painful assessment of the channel and its programming. Some of recommendations, such as dropping the 'America's News Channel,' have already been implemented. But the harshest criticism was leveled at Donahue, whom the authors of the study described as 'a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.'"

The marketplace that made Donahue more popular than Matthews and Scarborough - who still have shows.

"The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a 'difficult public face for NBC in a time of war . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives.'

"The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes 'a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.'"

NBC News decided instead to help lie us into war, which it did not deem a nightmare scenario.

*

"An e-mail from a network executive, also leaked to All Your TV, suggested that it would be 'unlikely' that Donahue could be used by MSNBC to 'reinvent itself' and 'cross-pollinate our programming' with the 'anticipated larger audience who will tune in during a time of war' by linking pundits to war coverage, 'particularly given his public stance on the advisability of the war effort.'"

War as a marketing opportunity to exploit.

*

The Tribune paid even less mind to the Donahue imbroglio than the Sun-Times. First, there was this AP report by David Bauder:

"MSNBC fired Phil Donahue on Tuesday, abruptly ending the veteran talk show host's return to television after six months of poor ratings."

No mention that his ratings were the network's highest. Bauder slightly corrected that oversight in his follow-up story, though he put the ratings facts in a Donahue claim instead of outright stating its truthfulness:

"Phil Donahue struck back at MSNBC on Wednesday for his firing, suggesting the network was too quick to pull the trigger and that it might be trying to 'out-fox Fox' with conservative voices.

"Donahue's political talk show, a distant third in the cable news ratings for his time slot, was abruptly pulled from the air after Monday's show. The show premiered July 15.

"The legendary talk show host said his show's ratings were better than anything else in struggling MSNBC's prime-time lineup."

*

A Tribune news quiz that March simply stated that the show was cancelled for lack of interest.

*

In 2008, in a piece about a film Donahue helped produce, Body of War, the Tribune reported that "Donahue, who at 72 has lost some of the bounce but none of the passion that he brought to his talk show, opposed the Iraq war from the start. He's convinced the anti-war tone of his MSNBC talk show, which aired for a little more than six months, contributed to its demise. An NBC memo that was leaked after the cancellation noted that his show presented a 'difficult public face' as the nation prepared for war."

It was in the 17th paragraph.

-

See also: When Bill Moyers Probed Media And Iraq.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on April 5, 2013


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