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A festival of opinions, informed and otherwise

Times Staff Writer

THERE are actually guests every day on “The View.” And no doubt a few people tune in for the chance to see John Lithgow or Lorraine Bracco. But most “View"-ers are there for the ladies -- Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Rosie O’Donnell. Especially Rosie O’Donnell. Because while it is possible to catch Lithgow or Bracco on Dave or Oprah, the only place you’re going to see O’Donnell compare the furor over the recent capture of a British naval crew by the Iranian government to the Gulf of Tonkin or reduce Hasselbeck to near tears is “The View.”

And it’s much more satisfying to see these moments in real time than to have to wait a few hours for them to make the YouTube rounds. Indeed, if you employ one of O’Donnell’s favorite research tools and Google “The View,” you will, on most days, come up with a list of “recent news” entries long before you hit the show’s website. In the last few weeks, these included calls by conservative pundits for O’Donnell’s dismissal, on the grounds that some of her comments, including those about the capture of the now-released British crew and the collapse of Building 7 of the World Trade Center amount to treason. Or bad journalism. Or something.

Never mind that O’Donnell is not a journalist, that she offers her opinions as opinions. And as for treason, well, if a growing suspicion of the Bush administration and an antiwar sentiment are treasonous, then we are largely a nation of traitors.

Still, it is both refreshing and disturbing to see the skepticism and bulldog tenacity that once marked the great news outlets upheld most visibly by a comedian hosting a talk show. Especially one who is more than happy to spend many minutes a day discussing “American Idol.”

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But it is certainly very good television, as the half-million viewers who have joined the show’s audience since O’Donnell became one of its hosts last year seem to prove. In the last year, the women of “The View” have perfected their act -- surrogates for everyday (albeit mostly liberal) Americans gathering in the break room or the carpool to rattle their newspapers and offer opinions about the war in Iraq or Don Imus or last night’s “American Idol.”

It is an unusual and often disconcerting mixture. Historically, talk shows have either devoted themselves to politics or avoided the subject altogether. Women-run talk shows especially have most often restricted themselves to social or personal issues -- racism or the war might be addressed but through individuals’ stories rather than discussions of policy, which TV execs have tended to leave to the wonks.

The women of “The View” are anything but wonks. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few things to say on most any subject. This is the attraction and the limitation of the show -- they offer opinions on a welter of issues with little or no expertise.

Think of it as Internet television -- a group of bright, often amusing, totally non-expert people discussing the events of the day. Walters is the doyenne, bringing experience and gravitas to the show (O’Donnell is never as loud or mouthy when Walters is on). Comedian Behar is the wisecracker who steps in with a joke or a little common sense. (In another era, she would have had a cigarette at all times and been Thelma Ritter.)

Hasselbeck, a veteran of “Survivor,” has the mien (and the penchant for lip gloss) of a Republican sorority gal and often gets the sympathy vote because she is so clearly outgunned.

And then there’s O’Donnell, who seems to be making up for all those years in the closet by being out about everything and whose presence and sheer volume often, unfortunately, turn “The View” into a one-woman show. “I say you’re young because it is the only way I can justify the horrible things you believe,” she said recently and icily to a stricken Hasselbeck. O’Donnell is the relentlessly political friend you had in college, saved from being a complete pain only by her sense of humor.

“Do I look thinner?” she asked last week. “Because I started a diet this morning.” A diet she began, she explained, because when people e-mail her to tell her how much they hate her, they always call her fat, lesbian and anti-American, “and fat is always first. Like they don’t have a problem with gay or a communist or whatever but that I’m fat gets them. Not that I’m trying to get thin,” she added. “I just want my size 18 pants to fit better. Size 18, that’s a real-woman size, am I right, ladies?” she asked the studio audience.

“Size 16 is a real-woman size,” said Behar. “You go for a size 16.”

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“Yeah, OK, 16.”

And so it goes. While the show does embody a traditional female dynamic -- cross-talk, constant interruptions, mostly good-hearted disagreements -- it is very much of the moment. Rarely has the mainstream media presented information in such a nonhierarchical blur -- the Anna Nicole Smith story given equal weight with the Scooter Libby trial, the Michael Richards or Don Imus rants commissioning dragoons of reporters for stories leading news hours that included suicide bombings and corruption in the U.S. Justice Department.

This is reflected clearly on the show. Was Katie Couric too hard on the Edwardses? Should the soldiers who ran Abu Ghraib be in jail for torture but Donald Rumsfeld go free? Is a no-carb diet really healthy? All seem equally important on “The View.”

This is something O’Donnell calls attention to even as she perpetuates. Many media outlets seem more concerned with riding the news cycle than reporting the news, as if dwelling on the war or the environment would seem like harping. O’Donnell is not afraid to harp -- on the casualties that occurred while America was “distracted” by less important though more titillating topics, on the current American policy on torture, on the infringement of civil rights under the Patriot Act.

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Just a little speculation

NEITHER regular viewers nor sponsors seem particularly outraged by her various insinuations, including that the government may have been complicit in 9/11. But then, in a country run by people who, it is now generally acknowledged, entered a war on false pretenses while punitively firing U.S. attorneys and outing CIA agents, what’s so shocking about a few conspiracy theories?

It was interesting to see how they handled the Imus scandal, with Hasselbeck beating the drum for his firing (with her arguments for discretion and accountability, you had to wonder if she was getting a few digs in at O’Donnell) and the rest making arguments about free speech and the peril of the “thought police” even as everyone decried racism and sexism. “That’s what’s great about this show,” Behar said at one point. “You can hold two opposing viewpoints.”

Which, of course, is the mark of either genius or madness. Or, in this case, the sisterhood of “The View.”

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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