Tuned In

Can Rosie Punch Up MSNBC's Left Hook?

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It’s no The Price Is Right, but the New York Times reports this morning that MSNBC has been talking to Rosie O’Donnell about hosting a 9 p.m. talk show. The strategy: follow where Keith Olbermann’s success has led the third-place news channel and establish a nighttime platform of left-leaning–sorry, “passionate”–talk.

It could just work. If the Rosie deal goes through, it will probably spur the usual talk, like that around Air America’s launch, about the difference between liberal and conservative media habits and whether liberals can be appealed to with the same broadcasting strategies. Can you make a liberal Fox News? Could you make a liberal Rush Limbaugh? No, no, and it doesn’t matter. MSNBC doesn’t have to be as successful as Fox News. It just has to be more successful than MSNBC is, a much more clearable bar.

[Disclaimer: I know that “conservative” and “liberal” are catchall generalizations. For “liberal” here, just substitute, “people who got psyched when Olbermann asked President Bush to resign.”]

You have to wonder how Phil Donahue feels about all this. You may recall MSNBC’s hiring, and then firing, of Donahue as a liberal host after it worried that his anti-Iraq opinions were too out of step with the country as the war got started. Donahue’s firing was pusillanimous and shameful, but it is worth keeping in mind that if O’Donnell gets hired, it will be because of essentially the same “conspiracy” that got Donahue canned: the conspiracy of following the prevailing public winds and trying to ingratiate one’s self with the audience to make a buck. However journalists and their owners believe politically, it’s that “belief”–or lack thereof–you have to understand if you really want to understand how the media works.

That’s not a knock on Rosie; I’m just saying that her hiring would have been bolder and braver, say, before Katrina, the midterm elections and 3,000-plus dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But if it comes about, it should make for interesting TV. And if the strike drags on, we’ll have to take that where we can get it.