“I mean, holy cow, somehow a liberal got in! This is going to be interesting.”

Phil Donahue’s own words, uttered on the premiere show of his much heralded return to talk news, neatly summarizes MSNBC’s marketing strategy in giving him the series in the first place. The talk news genre, combining current events with commentary by a particular personality, has of late been glutted with conservative viewpoints.

This holds particularly true for the cable news channels MSNBC and the Fox News Network (thus far, CNN appears to be maintaining a focus on reporting more than opinionating). Taking up the torch of right-wing radio dynamo Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly leads the conservative charge on Fox (The O’Reilly Factor), and Alan Keyes used to reign on MSNBC’s Alan Keyes is Making Sense, recently cancelled. Such commentators spend their camera time bashing all things “liberal,” while television executives afford them platforms in order to tap into their considerable audiences.

Given this conservative element of talk news, MSNBC’s announcement of Donahue’s show raised more than a few eyebrows. With Donahue, the host “pioneered” the daytime talk show format during the 1970s and ’80s until the rise of Oprah did him in 1996. During his run, however, the host was an active participant in the political (read: Democratic) arena. In 1984, he moderated the Democratic Presidential debate and, as MSNBC’s website points out, “During the 1992 presidential campaign, Donahue presented a unique and unprecedented television debate between then-candidates Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown.” Donahue was also an extremely vocal supporter of Al Gore during the Supreme Court wrangling that decided the Presidential election of 2000.

Donahue’s well-documented liberal leanings would seem to clash with the current, conservative monopoly in talk news, but if his first show is any indication, the conflict will be a mild one, if at all. With a few words of gratitude to MSNBC, Donahue launched right into his first show’s topic: a debate surrounding the rumored invasion of Iraq by the United States. Rather than declare his own views, Limbaugh- or O’Reilly-style, Donahue instead played moderator to a panel of three, if “moderator” is the appropriate term. Whether hampered by rust or reservation, Donahue allowed former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Republican Senator James Inhofe, and the Iraqi National Congress’s Ahmed Chalabi to run roughshod over his mild-mannered protestations for civility. While political panel shows like Hardball (also on MSNBC) depend upon lively, even volatile exchange, debate quickly turns unintelligible without a forceful personality to direct the conversation — and Hardball‘s Chris Matthews is nothing if not forceful.

Donahue was visibly overwhelmed by the venom and ferocity of the guests’ attacks against one another. After being talked over by both Inhofe and Chalabi, Ritter retorted in exasperation: “I’m not going to debate these madmen.” Undeterred, Chalabi accused Ritter (who was suggesting caution with regard to invading Iraq), of being personally funded by Saddam Hussein. The quality of the debate was disappointing. Rather than a debate on the merits of opposing viewpoints, the program degenerated into a pointless shouting match of personal insults.

Again and again, Donahue’s self-described liberal politics were effaced by the show’s format. Unable to control his furious guests, much less get a word in edgewise, Donahue seemed at a loss on his own show. The second segment featured Donahue interviewing Tonya Ingram, sister of CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann, who was the first American combat casualty in Afghanistan. Again, the format steered clear of any provocative material, as Donahue solicited Ingram’s compelling but utterly predictable view on John Walker Lindh’s guilty plea. While questions remain concerning evidence of Walker’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan and his treatment by U.S. military interrogators, Donahue opted to ignore these difficult issues. By giving a platform to Spann’s sister alone, the show instead offered dramatically one-sided and unenlightening observations. Again, the format handcuffed the host and the progressive dissent that has been his calling card and what seemed to be the premise, or at least the selling point, of his new show. Where the first segment effaced the host’s viewpoint with overbearing guests, the second segment’s guest offered Donahue the opportunity to say nothing more confrontational than, “You are a member of a very, very large family of loved ones.”

Not until the third segment, during which Donahue engaged Pat Buchanan in a debate about the omission of “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, did the host express himself without restriction. His impassioned approval of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren, who refused, even during World War II, to pledge allegiance to anything other than their God, offered a glimpse at what the show could be. Donahue looked good set against a lively opponent whom he also clearly respects.

The show’s fourth segment was an interview with Bob Costas, a synergistic tête-à-tête which allowed the pair to plug Costas’ role in NBC sports as they roundly condemned steroid use in baseball. Once again, there was little room for meaningful debate (can anyone make a compelling case for steroid use in professional sports?) and there was little risk of Donahue adopting any sort of controversial or divergent stance. While a raging contest between political opposites is surely not be the only formula for a successful, or entertaining, talk news program, MSNBC’s buildup that Donahue would be a liberal fish swimming against the conservative stream was hardly fulfilled.

All that said, it is, of course, too early to judge. And it is worth noting that, even as he acknowledged his distinctiveness, Donahue also acknowledged his shortcomings. After his exchange with Buchanan, he was apologetic. He might have been referring to the show in its entirety when he noted, “I didn’t think we’d be screaming like this… maybe we ought to go back to the drawing board here.” Subsequent programs, following the premiere, suggest that he and the producers still have work to do, though their tweaking — in guest selections and format — has started to reveal more of Donahue’s politics and personality, delivering more of the goods MSNBC promised.

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