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Phil Donahue Steps in to Balance the Scales

Television: Amid the talk-show ascendancy of conservatives, the veteran host's return later in the year is something of a shock to liberals.


Let's hear it for free enterprise. Under what other system would a big corporation give a communist a nightly national talk show because its executives believe he can make them richer?

Not that MSNBC pundit-to-be Phil Donahue is really a communist, or even a socialist. He's never advocated the overthrow of the government, unless stumping for a Ralph Nader presidency counts as a coup attempt. No matter how pink his designated prime-time opponent, Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly, might paint him before their face-off begins later this year, Donahue is nothing but an old-fashioned, unapologetic, card-carrying liberal. But that in itself is so rare nowadays in the electronic media that serious leftists are in a state of shock and disbelief.

"It's a very unusual decision," said Peter Hart, co-host of "CounterSpin," a weekly radio program produced by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a nonprofit organization that watches the media for right-wing bias. "What will be interesting to see is what kind of audience response [Donahue's program] gets. It could be a breakthrough for the left on American television."

FAIR is founded in part on the notion that the left typically gets the short end of the media stick. Some people--including perhaps former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, author of "Bias," a bestseller that charges rampant liberal prejudice among the major networks' news divisions--may dispute that. But the apolitical numbers are pretty clear: Conservative commentators in the Rush Limbaugh vein dominate talk radio from coast to coast, and the cable news revolution has steered the balance of TV punditry starboard as well.

O'Reilly may see himself as a "no-spin" gadfly, not a conservative, but it's not feminists, tree-huggers and social-justice crusaders who have made him the biggest drawing card in cable news. His "O'Reilly Factor" is on FNC twice a night, Monday through Saturday. Conservative Alan Keyes can be heard nightly on MSNBC, while CNBC also has given the Wall Street Journal's editorial board its own weekly show.

Political southpaws, meanwhile, can count FNC's weekend "News- watch," which includes FAIR founder Jeff Cohen in its panel of four; Bill Moyers' weekly half-hour on PBS; and two of the political pugilists on CNN's "Crossfire."

Except FAIR doesn't consider "Crossfire's" latest nominal liberals, veteran Democratic Party strategists James Carville and Paul Begala, properly credentialed leftists at all. "Begala and Carville are guys who got Bill Clinton elected," Hart said. "They're centrists. They're even further from the left than [their predecessor] Bill Press."

Alan Colmes, the left-leaning half of FNC's "Hannity & Colmes" duo, gets no better marks. "He's probably a bit more liberal than Begala or Carville," Hart said. "He's also a whole lot less forceful. He tends to sit back. Sean Hannity dominates that show."

Why there are so few truly leftist commentators on TV--people who might challenge fundamental assumptions of our economic system and our lifestyle and broaden the national conversation--is hard to pinpoint. It's not as though liberals have dwindled to a tiny minority--remember, half the people who voted in the 2000 presidential election, give or take a few, sided with the Democrat. But they apparently don't have the same urge to have their beliefs reinforced--or dittoed--on a daily basis as some conservatives do.

Hart believes that the corporate ownership of TV and radio is a factor. "Media owners don't want to hear that message articulated very often," he said.

But he also acknowledges that the left simply hasn't produced TV or radio personalities as commanding and entertaining as Limbaugh and O'Reilly. He mentioned former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, whose syndicated radio show never caught on, and filmmaker-provocateur-author Michael Moore ("Roger & Me," "Stupid White Men") as possible candidates, but it's hard to imagine either of them doing a nightly show.

Hart noted that liberal-progressive magazines like In These Times and the Nation might be a good place to find potential TV stars, but he also pointed out that there's "no infrastructure to develop that on the left."

Which is why Phil Donahue, 66, is suddenly, bizarrely, the Great White-Haired Hope of both the American left and a cable network owned by General Electric. They both need a recognizable, articulate entertainer to improve their respective competitive edges.

Politics make for strange bedfellows, commerce stranger still.


Noel Holston writes about television for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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