Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blowin' with the wind

In a story published yesterday, The New York Times notes something we’ve quietly observed for about a year now: that the MSNBC cable channel has shifted in its willingness to take on the Bush administration, with some of its more popular chat hosts going after the administration as reliably and automatically as the Fox News Channel is ready to praise that administration to the skies.

Emboldened by consistently high ratings for “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” a program whose host, Keith Olbermann, has sought to take on the role of a latter-day Edward R. Murrow in confronting the Bushies on just about everything, MSNBC is now even entertaining the idea of giving unrepentant madcap leftie Rosie O’Donnell her own prime-time show. If it happens, O’Donnell would join Olbermann and Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” as on-air champions of the left.

Longtime viewers of MSNBC will note that it wasn’t that long ago that Phil Donahue, another chat host with a decidedly left-leaning agenda, was cashiered from the network – ostensibly because of poor ratings, but possibly as a result of reaction by MSNBC brass, who issued an internal memo ordering Donahue’s dismissal for being out of step with America’s then-mostly hawkish sentiments about the Iraq war.

“He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives,” the memo read in part. The memo, leaked to the All Your TV Web site, warned that Donahue’s program could be "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Maybe Donahue was just a victim of bad geopolitical timing. Since his dismissal in February 2003, the U.S.-led war effort has endured a steadily increasing death toll, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, controversies about cowboy contractors killing unarmed civilians, financial oversights, and growing concerns about the role of Iran in the conflict and political instability in neighboring Pakistan. All strong reasons for a shift in popular sentiment about the war, and for reporting sensitive to that shift.

Whatever the specific reasons, it’s been clear for many months – certainly since the midterm elections last year -- that MSNBC feels more confident about taking on the administration, with increasingly confrontational questions for its apologists and excusers. MSNBC is clearly moving with the populist tide.

“[W]hether by design or not, MSNBC is managing to add viewers at a moment when its hosts echo the country’s disaffection with President Bush,” The Times reported yesterday.

For sure. The Times reported that “Tucker,” the early-prime-time program hosted by the tireless administration apologist Tucker Carlson, is in danger of cancellation, according to an NBC jefe who spoke to the Times under cloak of anonymity.

Even Joe Scarborough, the one-time Florida congressman who retooled himself for cable television and was once the host of MSNBC’s nakedly conservative “Scarborough Country,” has lately had a change of heart, if not of political temperament.

“I’m just as conservative as I was in 1994, when everyone was calling me a right-wing nut,” Scarborough told The Times. “I think the difference is the Republican Party leaders, a lot of them, have run a bloated government, have been corrupt, and have gone a very, very long way from what we were trying to do in 1994. Also, the Republican Party has just been incompetent.”

Whether MSNBC’s new left-leaning perspective continues is anyone’s guess. The network still trails Fox in the ratings, and any military breakthrough stemming from the U.S. troop escalation early this year – if Osama bin Laden is discovered hiding in a spider hole somewhere in the Hindu Kush – might make MSNBC execs rethink the newfound liberal slant of their programming.

For now, though, MSNBC is riding this ninth ninth wave of popular opinion as far as it can. A prime-time show for Cindy Sheehan may not be far behind.
Phil Donahue photo by Alan Light

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, I think Rosie O'Donnell would be a terrible political commentator, and a terrible representation of the left. I'm glad that I read someplace that the negotiations fell through. They could find somebody better than that to represent a leftist perspective.

    Joe Scarborough, at least, is a Republican who realizes that the majority of the party has lost its way. His book about his time in the House of Reps. is a startling look at what really goes on in Congress, and why Republicans have become so corrupt. He's a good example of somebody who doesn't blindly yield to party leadership.


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