All the Right Moves

At MSNBC, liberal Donahue is out; Savage, other conservatives are in

CNN was once nicknamed the Clinton News Network, and Fox News takes heat for leaning towards the Bush administration. Maybe, because MSNBC has been so out of the ratings race and NBC News wants to guard the mother network's reputation, that news net's political leanings have been hard to discern.

Even when MSNBC moved to more talk programming last summer, liberal Phil Donahue seemed carefully counterbalanced by conservatives hosts like Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes.

That might be changing. Last week, advocacy groups and Donahue himself accused the NBC- and Microsoft-owned channel of adopting a more right-wing point of view, taking cues from Fox. The evidence: MSNBC hired inflammatory radio-talk-show host Michael Savage for a weekly show, unleashing a torrent of criticism by women's and gay activist groups. And then, as had been rumored for months, Donahue was given the heave-ho.

These were part of a flurry of recent personnel moves at MSNBC. Among other hires are conservative Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough, both former Republican House members. Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who was elected as an independent, will join the network in coming months.

For his part, Donahue, who hosted his last show Feb. 24, senses a shift to the right at the network. The New York Times
op-ed pages, he noted last week, reflect a variety of opinions on Iraq: "MSNBC's voice should be no less diverse." But hiring Savage, Armey and Scarborough "suggest a strategy to out-Fox Fox," Donahue said in a statement.

Savage attacks

MSNBC and NBC News execs were media-shy last week. Neither NBC News chief Neal Shapiro nor MSNBC President Erik Sorenson would comment. Instead, Sorenson released a batch of statements, defending Savage and promoting MSNBC as a place where "a range of voices have their say without any one dominating."

But such groups as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which helped kill conservative radio talk host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's syndicated TV show in 2000, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) are outraged by Savage.

GLAAD contends that Savage attacks "women, people of color, immigrants and the lesbian and gay community" on his radio show and in his book The Savage Nation,
which is also the name of the MSNBC show. GLAAD News Media Director Cathy Renna contends the network is "just giving Savage a national platform for his vitriol."

On its Web site and in press releases, GLAAD points to parts of Savage's book that, for example, say that California teachers "applaud homosexual perversion" and that hate-crime legislation "of course, was a payoff to the homosexual lobby pushed through Congress by those in the 'she-ocracy,'" female liberal politicians led by Sen. Hilary Clinton. There are five Web pages of excerpts.

Savage waves off his detractors, claiming they are using years-old comments to fuel a smear campaign against him. "They want to act as a censorship board of television," he said and invited representatives from GLAAD and other groups to come on his radio show.

Savage says he obviously has his backers, too. He points to the 500,000 copies of his book printed so far and says that more than 6 million people listen to his radio show, which is carried on 300 stations. "People need to understand this is not just a marginal audience."

He seems unconcerned about the groups railing against him. "I'm not interested in the gay issue; it bores me. And feminist issues are boring; they're passé," he said. He does seem interested in "the takeover of the United States of America by illegal aliens," as he wrote in his book, which is No. 4 on the non-fiction bestsellers list.

The Savage Nation, which debuts Saturday, March 8 in an afternoon slot, will have themes of "borders, language and culture" and reaction to current events, he said.

MSNBC is not placing restrictions on the show, he added. "As long as I don't say f-u-c-k, there are no boundaries."

Controversial personalities like Savage might help MSNBC in ratings but could tarnish NBC's journalistic reputation just at the moment the cable network quit calling itself "America's News Channel" in on-screen promos and adopted the more synergistic "NBC News on Cable 24/7."

"MSNBC needs to seriously consider its credibility as it chooses voices," said Bob Steele, senior faculty and ethics-group leader for journalism think tank The Poynter Institute.

Difficult public face

MSNBC's apparent right turn might be damage control. Last week, a report on Web site cited a NBC News internal report that said Donahue represented 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."

(Donahue's final guest was Rosie O'Donnell, an outspoken gay-rights advocate and anti-war activist.)

MSNBC and NBC officials could not confirm the report but said they wouldn't discuss leaked internal anyway.

In canceling Donahue, however, MSNBC sacrificed its highest-rated show.

After starting strong last July, Donahue
struggled. The debut show July 15 earned a 0.9 rating with a 1.1 million viewers, but the Nielsen ratings fell sharply, barely registering at all. In the fall, Donahue
began airing live with a studio audience, which helped a bit. Still, last month, it was averaging just a 0.5 rating with 439,000 viewers. Even so, it was performing better than MSNBC's second-best, Hardball With Chris Matthews, which averaged a 0.4 rating with 421,000 viewers in February.

Becoming Fox-like

At the same time MSNBC seems to be becoming more Fox-like, several recent moves suggest a closer link to NBC News: for example, featuring the broadcast network's correspondents more often and installing John Seigenthaler as weekday-morning anchor. (Amid the controversy, ABC's Sam Donaldson announced last Thursday that he had ended talks to join MSNBC.)

In the statement defending Savage's hiring, Sorenson said the network was aware of his reputation: "We also strongly defend his new show as a legitimate attempt to expand the marketplace of ideas."

So far, Sorenson has declined to meet with GLAAD, as have other NBC brass. The group says network representatives have told them to just "watch the show." Late last week, GLAAD Executive Director Joan Garry wrote to NBC Chairman Bob Wright, telling him, "Generating profits at the expense of minority communities is a flawed business strategy indeed."