- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

It is MSNBC's turn to get bashed, and bashed again.
Only a few weeks into its much ballyhooed reinvention, "America's Newschannel" has slid in the ratings, prompting gleeful critics to pounce upon the network, not to mention Phil Donahue, its prime-time point man.
Journalists characterized his ratings as so microscopic they were unmeasurable. Some did the math, figuring that last Friday night, Mr. Donahue only drew 136,000 viewers nationwide.
"To focus on one hour on one Friday night in August is not fair, and it's not balanced," said MSNBC spokeswoman Paulette Song yesterday.
But it makes for delicious reading.
"Schadenfreude seems to be a favorite emotion among TV journalists. There's nothing like covering catfights," observed Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Indeed, Nielsen's newest cable-news ratings puts the Fox News Channel in first place, followed by CNN and MSNBC a ranking which has remained basically unchanged for months. In the coveted 8 p.m. slot, Fox's Bill O'Reilly weighed in with an average 1.8 million viewers, CNN's Connie Chung had 723,000 and MSNBC's Mr. Donahue had 397,000.
The prime-time rivalries of Bill, Connie and Phil offer intrigue, particularly among those viewers who joke about "Dona-who" or "PMSNBC" at various online news sites. Mr. Donahue, who came out of retirement in mid-July to rile conservatives with his untrammeled, old-school liberalism, also draws abrasive press criticism.
He is "barely registering on Nielsen charts," noted Variety magazine yesterday, adding that Mr. O'Reilly was the "cable king." The Atlantic Journal-Constitution observed that both MSNBC and Mr. Donahue had "yet to captivate viewers."
The Drudge Report characterized him in "total collapse" with "the lowest Nielsen ratings possible," while the New York Post figured he only drew "136,000 viewers nationwide," in his August 23 broadcast, or the equivalent of two Yankee Stadiums full of people.
Yet much depends on the translation of the numbers.
According to MSNBC, their prime-time ratings had "double-digit growth" in August, compared with figures from a year ago. Mr. Donahue's 397,000 viewers were an 80 percent jump from Brian Williams' 202,000 last August.
Meanwhile, others found fault with Mr. Donahue's politics beyond its liberalism.
"Floundering disastrously," wrote Andrea Levin in the Jerusalem Post yesterday, "MSNBC recently launched Phil Donahue, an outspoken pro-Palestinian talk show host."
Still, he found unlikely allies in the alternative media, which lauded him for interviewing Jean Charles Brisard, author of "Forbidden Truth," a book that says the Bush administration maintained secret diplomatic ties with the now-ousted Taliban regime to protect "big oil" interests, ultimately resulting in the September 11 attacks.
In mid-August, devotees at one Internet conspiracy site organized a massive e-mail campaign, sending pleas to hundreds of journalists to "tell the truth like Mr. Donahue."
Could this all be a rite of press passage for MSNBC? With a revamped prime-time lineup and a huge promotional campaign, the network makes an alluring target for anyone out to chronicle the follies of the high and mighty.
Others have been pilloried. Just days after her debut on CNN in June, Connie Chung was called a "rookie in debut" and "acted ill at ease, almost terrified," according to some accounts.
Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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