television: Left Wanting 

Phil Donahue is back and just as liberal, dramatic and argumentative as ever.

But in his new venture on MSNBC, Donahue, the poster-boy liberal, the liberal's liberal, seems to have become a caricature of himself as he attempts to run with the big dogs in prime time.

MSNBC bills it as a nightly hour of analysis and discussion. It's not. It's a cockfight of far-left host vs. right-wing guest, seasoned with an occasional guest sympathetic to Donahue's views — or vice versa. "Tune in and watch me beat up on those malevolent conservatives and then tug at your heart for causes I believe in," he seems to enjoin us.

His first week on the air set the tone for what was to follow. To a guest who favored Bush/Ashcroft domestic initiatives: "Is [the Bill of Rights] a quaint idea that only works when we're having fun?" A verbal melee ensued, long on heat but short on light. Another night, with conservative author Ann Coulter as his guest, Donahue was wide-eyed and aghast at her claim that Clinton's dishonesty set the stage for today's corporate fraud. The two were a perfect match if all you were interested in was watching two people roar at each other: She had as much concern for advancing civil discourse as he did, which is to say not much.

Later in the broadcast during an interview with Kemba Smith, he rolled up his sleeve to show where he wears his heart. She's the Hampton University coed who was busted for being a drug-money mule and served six years before being pardoned by Clinton. Gone was all trace of antagonism as he prompted her to talk about the "self-esteem issues" — her words — that led her into an abusive relationship and then into federal prison.

Don't misunderstand. I don't criticize Donahue's new show because it's liberal in its orientation, not at all. I criticize it because it's shamelessly overboard, unapologetically cartoonish, unabashedly one-dimensional and about as informative and morally centered as a WWF Smack-down.

With his long history as a (somewhat) respected broadcaster, Donahue should be ashamed of himself. And so should those who watch. Ashamed, but not surprised. It's merely television throwing a tantrum like a 2-year-old who wants attention. And, as Walter Cronkite used to say every night in a far different context, that's the way it is. S

"Donahue" airs Monday through Friday at 8 p.m. on MSNBC.



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