Some viewers tuning into the first episode of Lawrence O'Donnell's new MSNBC show "The Last Word" Monday night might be forgiven for thinking: here we go again. Another liberal host on MSNBC.
Asked how he will try to differentiate himself from the slate of left-leaning anchors who come before him, though, O'Donnell answered very simply: he won't.
"NBC has done very well with three 'Law and Orders,'" he said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "Every new program has a pre-existing, comparable program. A new thing gets done on television about once a decade."
Besides, he said, people who wring their hands about the opinionated slant of cable news are deluding themselves about the media landscape.
People talk about cable news "as if there is a viewer out there who wants to go to Fox News and hear several different opinions fairly presented on a single issue," he said. "That viewer doesn't exist. That viewer goes to Jim Lehrer....To complain in some way about the way Fox programs its political talk, or the way MSNBC programs its political talk, is to pretend that there is no other discussion available on television."
Still, though he claims he won't rock the boat too much, O'Donnell will bring a distinct background to the MSNBC table, with a long stint as a legislative aide to former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as many years spent in Hollywood--where he was a writer and producer on "The West Wing."
O'Donnell acknowledged that his background will play a role in the direction of the show, but said he also understands that he can't let things get too wonky, or focus on pet issues that a broader audience might not want to hear about at length.
"If we left it entirely to me, we would do the first half hour on the valuation of the Chinese currency and the second half hour on the debt ceiling," he said. "But we're going to mostly have to do interests beyond just mine. I think that's one of the obligations of an hour like this...I'm sure in January I will say something about the Super Bowl. I will know who is playing in the Super Bowl when I read it in a script."
Where he does think his time in the Senate will play a major role, though, is in his outlook on the political landscape.
"I think that the perspective that that gives me is one of much greater sympathy to the degree of difficulty that everyone is facing in governing," he said. "I am surprised that they get anything done, whereas most observers who haven't worked in government are surprised that they don't get anything done."
One of his main jobs as a host, he said, will be to try to bridge what he sees as a fundamental gap between the audience's expectations of its politicians and the reality of what those politicians can accomplish. It is a gap that he thinks has been exacerbated by both cable news and by the broader media.
"I think the news media has been disastrous in its coverage of presidential campaigns," he said. "It allows the worst possible lies to be told by the campaigns, which is presidential candidates saying, 'If elected, I will do X,' when the truth is, 'if elected, I will beg the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and beg the chairman of the Finance Committee to do X.'"
However, O'Donnell stressed that he does not want to turn his audience into cynics, and said he wants his guests to shake up his conception of how political change can be affected.
"I need guests who are not overly controlled by their sense of the limitations of government," he said.
Someone who might agree with O'Donnell about those limitations, though, is his first guest: Vice President Biden. Later this week, O'Donnell will play host to Michael Bloomberg, David Axelrod, Meghan McCain and Levi Johnston, among others.
"The Last Word" airs at 10 PM weeknights on MSNBC.