Floundering disastrously in the cable network ratings race, MSNBC recently launched Phil Donahue, an outspoken pro-Palestinian talk show host, as the centerpiece of an effort to gain viewers. But, after a brief flurry of interest in Donahue's intensively promoted program, his viewing audience has, in the observation of one media commentator, "cratered," and parent company General Electric is demanding the network shape up.
Anyone tuning in to current MSNBC programming - to the insufferable Ashleigh Banfield, whose reporting from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Middle America prompted a derisive Wall Street Journal op-ed, or to the thuggish Pat Buchanan championing the rights of alleged Islamic Jihadist Sami Al-Arian has to wonder how much more out of touch with public sentiment the network's strategists can get.
On August 22, for example, both Donahue and Buchanan focused on the controversy surrounding Al Arian, reportedly the erstwhile head of Islamic Jihad in America, who has been suspended from teaching at the University of South Florida. The university seeks to fire Al-Arian, who is under criminal investigation. Buchanan and his co-host Bill Press interviewed terrorism expert Steven Emerson who has followed the Al- Arian case. The exchange among the three amounted to a kangaroo court interrogation of Emerson in which the program hosts ridiculed evidence concerning the suspended professor's hate-mongering and terrorist affiliations.
Emerson cited Al-Arian's fundraising for terrorist groups during conferences which he organized at the university and to which he brought major terrorists.
But Buchanan responded: "We ain't got a bit of evidence..."
A heated and angry exchange ensued, with Buchanan and his co-host assailing Emerson.
Buchanan's vehemence was notable; he is ordinarily eagle-eyed in urging patriotism by Americans and is fervent in opposing, for example, the immigration of populations he believes will not assimilate well in the country. Yet he was not at all troubled by Palestinian immigrant Al-Arian's virulent anti-American and anti-Jewish statements or his apparent links to terrorist groups.
Instead, it is the critics of the fiercely anti-Israel Al-Arian who rouse his ire.
Later, Donahue interviewed Al-Arian personally in a surreal segment in which the host repeatedly expressed apologies to the professor for even raising the awkward matter of his extreme anti-Semitic and anti-American statements. "So, one more time, sir," he said, "and I know that you're probably getting tired of these same questions -- death to Israel did not mean you wanted to kill Jews, do I understand your position?" "Absolutely not. Absolutely not," agreed Al-Arian, who went on to compare himself to Patrick Henry.
Donahue opined: "The law of innocent until proven guilty doesn't seem to exist for Professor Sami Al-Arian."
He added, "You are swimming upstream, professor, and this must be quite a shock to you. I know that your life has been threatened. I assume you have security."
The day before, Donahue had effusively welcomed two other controversial anti-Israel speakers. Adam Shapiro -- dubbed the "Jewish Taliban" in the New York Post for his assistance to Arafat during an Israeli incursion into Ramallah and for his advocacy of violence, including suicide bombings, against Israel -- and Shapiro's Palestinian wife, Huweida Arraf, were given nearly an entire program to speak unchallenged.
Of the Jewish-Palestinian couple, Donahue said, "You take our breath away here..." He called them "Shakespearean almost...it's got romance, the violence that you have confronted..."
Tagged onto the close of the program was a brief segment in which a mainstream Jewish American was given a few moments to challenge the anti-Israel charges by Shapiro and Arraf. He deplored Shapiro's double talk in denouncing violence in English but supporting the "armed struggle" in an interview on Jordanian television.
Donahue's buffoonery may have suited afternoon talk- shows in the pre-9/11 world. But as America and Israel both face life and death issues involving terrorism and national self-preservation, his fatuous interjections are, not surprisingly, jarring to many viewers.
Add to this the likes of Buchanan and Banfield and it's little wonder Fox and CNN are leaving MSNBC in the dust.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date.