© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2003
He doesn't have the media profile of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. And his television show won't debut until Saturday evening.
But firebrand radio talk show host Michael Savage has already brought a growing controversy to struggling MSNBC.
The dustup began in mid February, when the cable TV news network announced that it was hiring Savage, whose syndicated radio show is heard on 300 stations and whose book, The Savage Nation, occupied the top spot on the New York Times' bestseller list for three weeks in February. He will host a 5 p.m. show on Saturdays.
News that yet another "conservative talk radio phenomenon" (MSNBC's words) was joining the world of cable TV talk might not have been a big revelation. After all, the channel features shows by Pat Buchanan, Curtis Sliwa and Alan Keyes.
But Savage takes his views to a different level.
Known for hard-line stands on a wide range of topics, Savage has called developing countries "Turd World nations," said that Hispanics "breed like rabbits" and decried "homosexual perversion" in the United States.
One excerpt of his show featured on TalkRadioNetwork.com, the Web site of his syndicator, includes a news update called the "Turd World Watch," complaints about a "feminized, homosexualized America" and the description of a horrible crime in which a woman's baby was shot by two muggers.
"There's no description of the race of the shooters . . . that's the new politically correct, gelded press for you," Savage says in the sound bite. This comes after a derisive reference to black politician Al Sharpton that implies, with no evidence, that the criminals were black.
Since MSNBC announced the hire -- touting that the format of Savage's show would be based on his radio program -- protests have been building, notably by liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the National Organization for Women and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
But MSNBC president Erik Sorenson has one request for critics: Wait until you see the show.
"He hasn't said anything bigoted or hateful on MSNBC," Sorenson said. "His main thrust for us is going to be national security. I'm going to watch his show . . . and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt."
And if the terms "Turd World" or "homosexual perversion" should pop up?
"Those statements as quoted by GLAAD and FAIR are not appropriate for MSNBC," Sorenson said. "Those kinds of statements will not be permitted. And if they do happen, they won't happen more than once."
Sorenson wouldn't say whether the use of such terms on Savage's radio show would affect his status on MSNBC. The level of the controversy seems to have surprised the executive, who is working to rebrand MSNBC yet again, this time as a news-focused outlet with aggressive coverage of possible war with Iraq.
Savage has responded, telling the New York Post that he's being targeted because of his "conservative beliefs" and threatening to urge his listeners to pressure the Justice Department into investigating the groups protesting his hire.
"If we let these bastards win, they will have elevated themselves to being a de facto national television censorship board," Savage told the newspaper.
In the Tampa Bay area, Savage's radio show airs at 6:30 weeknights on WWBA-AM 1040. Jeff Lebhar, sales manager for WWBA, said that such incendiary talk is the name of the game for radio shock jocks looking to hook supporters and detractors with outrageous statements.
"He's got the No. 4 (radio) talk show in the country and a bestselling book, so there are a lot of people who seem to like what he's saying," Lebhar said, noting that the station dropped its Orlando Magic broadcasts because of the complaints generated when Savage's show was pre-empted. "There's nobody on (radio) at night that has a bigger name."
Still, does success excuse bigotry? And at a time when race remains an incendiary topic (just ask Trent Lott), should one of the country's most powerful news organizations wait for further evidence of Savage's insensitivity?
"The issue here is that (MSNBC) is a journalistic endeavor . . . and (hiring Savage) is stooping to a level that I think undermines their journalistic credibility," said Cathy Renna, news media director for GLAAD.
The group, which two years ago led a boycott of talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's short-lived syndicated TV show because of her antigay statements on radio, hoped to meet with MSNBC and NBC executives this week.
Some say the writing is already on the wall at MSNBC, which last week canceled Phil Donahue's weeknight show after six months and announced the hires of two Republicans as commentators, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Pensacola attorney, and former House majority leader Dick Armey. (Irascible independent Jesse Ventura also will host a show, probably at 10 p.m. weekdays.)
Renna, like many media pundits last week, wondered if a sea change was under way at the third-ranked cable news network.
"You hire Michael Savage, you dump Phil Donahue and hire Dick Armey . . . it's like the trifecta of (antigay issues)," Renna said. (Armey made headlines in 1995 by using a slur to describe gay congressman Barney Frank during a radio interview.) "If this is about a corporation that wants to live the diversity statement on their Web site . . . there are some fundamental differences here."
Sorenson has heard that criticism a lot lately: By jettisoning Donahue and hiring noted Republicans, MSNBC is courting the viewers that have made Fox News a success.
A Washington Times article last week quoted an internal MSNBC memo noting that Donahue, 67, was deemed "a tired, left-wing liberal" whose antiwar, anti-Bush sentiments represented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war."
Even Donahue released a statement last week saying that he believed the network may have canceled him in an effort to "outfox Fox" and failed to give his program enough time to match the competition. (According to the Associated Press, Donahue averaged 446,000 viewers in February, compared with 2.7-million for Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor.)
But Sorenson said the memo quoted by the Washington Times does not exist and the hires of Armey and Scarborough were an attempt to add voices supportive of Bush.
"Bush supporters who are viewers tell us they feel strongly that we don't have many, if any, of those voices on air," said Sorenson, who noted that much of his time these days is spent discussing war coverage with the channel's top anchors. "It's ironic that Phil's show is canceled for business and performance reasons and people with special interests . . . try to make the suggestion that (MSNBC) removed the only voice against the war. Just about every host on MSNBC is against the war."
True enough, some media reporters wrote last year that Donahue wouldn't make it to 2003 and his show was so labored that even some liberals had a tough time watching it.
Also, Donahue faced another hurdle: Every TV news outlet's audience is dominated by older, more conservative viewers. About 40 percent of those watching CNN, MSNBC and Fox News identify themselves as conservative, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Still, hiring a talk show host noted for his insensitivity to Third World nations as the country stands on the brink of war with Iraq and struggles to keep a lid on post-9/11 anti-Arab sentiment seems foolhardy and just plain wrong.
In a cable TV news environment that provides far more heat than light, surely MSNBC can find better ways to earn a ratings point.
To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.