When daytime TV pioneer Phil Donahue left the airwaves in 1996, he was tired. Swimming against the current of daytime trash talk that had emerged in his wake was exhausting and demoralizing. He quietly signed off after a 30-year career, swearing off TV, vowing never to return.
But you can't keep a good man quiet.
As a recent guest on The View (ABC) to promote his new MSNBC talk show, Donahue was immediately asked why the change of heart.
"It's like Jesus said to the guests at the Last Supper. If you want to be in the picture, you have to be on this side of the table."
Donahue got back in the picture last week as host of his new primetime news-talk show, Donahue. Looking like a silver-haired kid itching to make a break onto the playground of talk TV -- this time, on cable -- Donahue was a shock to the status quo. His is the lone liberal voice among the pack of conservative know-it-alls that dominate national TV news-talk shows. On his Monday night premiere, Donahue captured over a million viewers. His numbers surpassed those of CNN rival Connie Chung, but only attracted half the numbers of his Fox News Network rival Bill O'Reilly. At press time, the show appears to be holding its own.
It's great to see ol' blue eyes back on the tube. But more importantly, Donahue provides a forum to see and hear voices rarely heard from on the more prevalent, conservative news-talk shows (another exception is Bill Moyers' Now on PBS). Where else, for example, has Sen. Russell Feingold appeared on primetime talk? The democratic senator from Wisconsin was the only member to vote against the USA-PATRIOT Act, the new domestic intelligence law that many fear is a threat to civil liberties. Viewers got to hear his side of the issue on Donahue. Ditto for Scott Ritter, the ex-republican and former UN weapons inspector who says that there's no reason to declare war on Iraq. Come again? Haven't heard that perspective on the conservative chat-fests.
In one of the more delicious moments on Donahue, Cliff May put his foot in his mouth and didn't pause to choke. May, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee, appeared to defend the USA-PATRIOT Act. When Center for Constitutional Rights representative Bill Goodman spoke against the Act, using the example of José Padilla being held without formal charges for his alleged role as a "dirty bomb" suspect, May snapped, "Do you really think he's innocent?"
Well, there is that niggling democratic idea that suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
Unfortunately, Donahue isn't much of a traffic cop, necessary when passionate guests with divergent views appear to debate an issue. The premiere episode in particular was cacophonous and unruly to the point of absurdity. I had the sick feeling chairs and fists were about to fly Jerry Springer Show-style.
Donahue does better one-on-one, as when he had a spirited but respectful conversation with conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. The two verbally jousted over the new court ruling to banish "one nation, under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Although Buchanan tried to muster up that finger-in-your-face, pit-bull stance, even he seemed to be happy in Donahue's company, as the two traded barbs and collegially joked with each other.
"I got a show, Patrick! Somehow a liberal got in," Donahue said in his classic droll style.
"It's affirmative action," Buchanan replied.
Donahue airs live, weeknights at 7pm on MSNBC and rebroadcasts at 10pm.
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