Time Out New York

A Dialogue with Donahue

It's never easy to be in the middle of a war, but in early 2003, Phil Donahue found himself embroiled in two. Seven months earlier, Donahue had been lured back to television after a six-year hiatus to host an issues-and-answers program for perennial ratings underdog MSNBC. His new bosses were hoping the white-maned veteran of talk TV would give the struggling network the jolt it needed in the battle for cable-news supremacy.

On the other side of the world, however, a real war was gearing up -- in Iraq -- and it was Donahue's unabashed, on-air opposition to that conflagration that spelled the program's ultimate demise. "[He presents a] difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," read a leaked NBC memo, "…at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag."

After the boom was lowered in February 2003, Donahue remained unbowed. "We weren't Elvis," he says, "but we often led MSNBC's nightly ratings. We deserved to be nurtured, not canceled." Today, Donahue, 70, who is married to actress-activist Marlo Thomas, watches the action from the sidelines, but is no less engaged: He continues to attend peace rallies and publicly press for a withdrawal of American troops. I caught up with Donahue by phone at his home in Manhattan.

Bruce Kluger: Two-and-a-half years ago, MSNBC cancelled your show, in large part because it expressed an anti-war message -- a sentiment that is now embraced by a majority of Americans. Do you feel tempted to say "I told you so?"

Phil Donahue: No, those are awful words. What do we possibly gain from that? That wouldn't do anything for the troops. I'd be standing on top of the pain of all these families, glorifying myself. Criticism, I'm used to that. But nothing ever comes from saying "I told you so."

Does the fact that you were right all along frustrate you, or is it weirdly satisfying in a way, knowing you weren't crazy?

I'm still bewildered by how naive I was. When MSNBC first announced my show, there was this notion that Donahue, this 29-year veteran with name recognition, was going to save the network. In fact, headlines said, CAN DONAHUE SAVE MSNBC? Now, I'm not exactly the youngest member of the choir here, and I actually thought I was going back on television with a show that would be able to make a contribution toward the dialogue about the Iraq war, and that this would give it commercial value. I wasn't ashamed to be concerned about ratings. The size of the audience is the coin of the realm, and if you don't draw a crowd, sooner or later you'll be parking cars. I honestly thought that having an anti-war voice in the middle of all the drum-beating would be good strategically for a network that was trying to gain some traction.

A genuine anti-war voice.

Yes. I wasn't cute about it, I didn't finesse it. I was outspokenly against this military effort, so it wasn't like I was ambushing anybody. I thought this anti-war voice would distinguish us, and to put it very crassly, be good for business at NBC. But I never anticipated how truly hostile the management team would be to an anti-war voice, not only within the corridors of NBC, but at all the commercial networks. That's why I call myself naive � for not understanding how badly all of this would be received.

After MSNBC pulled your show, you released a statement that said, "It took almost three years for Fox [News Channel] to overtake CNN. We had six months."

Right. Look, we weren't Elvis. We did not burn down the town at MSNBC. What we did do was often -- not always, but often -- lead the night. The tent pole of the evening. We never beat Fox, but nobody else did, either. And because our numbers were good enough -- relative to the rest of the programs on the network -- we deserved not to be canceled but to be nurtured. To be promoted.

But as the program made its way into its very short, unhappy life at MSNBC, management became very, very concerned. I was conducting aggressive interviews with conservative people who couldn't wait to bomb something. I was suggesting that Rummy was a kind of a wise-guy secretary of defense, going out there and performing for the reporters at his news conferences. Remember, I was working for General Electric [the parent company of NBC and MSNBC]. You know, one of General Electric's biggest customers is the Pentagon. Do I know for a fact that that's germane [to my show being canceled]? No, I can't prove this. But I can prove that a memo was certainly leaked to the media in which management said I was presenting a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war … at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

What's surprising to me is that NBC News had been taking surveys to determine what people watched and what people liked. I mean, the news division is doing focus groups to determine what people like? The news division is supposed to gather the news, whether it makes people happy or not. But we've become so corporatized.

In your public statement, you also criticized General Electric's CEO and chairman of the board, Jeffrey Immelt.

Yes, we did criticize Immelt for going on Fox and saying he wished that MSNBC was more like Fox. It was hardly good for the morale of the hardworking people at MSNBC to see the chairman of the board of General Electric make that comment. It was certainly a mistake for him to do it, and I think he'd probably say so himself now.

I mean, it was tough to realize that not only was I going over the side, but I was taking a lot of our team with me. And we had a fabulous team -- young, passionate people who really gave a damn -- smart, nice and with a real good pedigree within the industry.

Is it possible to be anti-war in this country and have your own show?

Yes -- if you're a comedian. You can't report on the war and have your own show unless you're funny. It's got to be "I oppose this war….ba-duh-bum!" Don Imus is against the war, Jon Stewart is against the war. Bill Maher and Al Franken are against the war. They all have good consciences -- and God bless them all, I wish we had more of them. But what distinguishes them from the rest is that they're all funny, so they can have their own show. Bill Moyers can't.

What's happening to the progressive voice in American politics?

It's muted.


Because the Republican Party has spent millions of dollars marginalizing the dissent and protest of the progressive voices. Liberal is the political idea that dares not speak its name. The people who own and manage the great networks of America today are -- and I choose this word thoughtfully -- frightened of the word liberal. You may recall that around the time Walter Isaacson got the job as president of CNN, there was this kind of whispering campaign going on, saying, "CNN is liberal." Well, the first thing Isaacson did after he got the job was rush to Washington to call on Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich and other right-wing Republicans. [His message was] "We're not liberal!" Because people won't watch you if you're liberal.

What's happening at the crossroads of news and entertainment? Since 2003, you've moved from the playing field to a perfect 50-yard-line seat, so your perspective has got to be clearer. Are things getting worse?

Well, Fox is the megaphone for this White House. So I suggest that any future president -- before he's elected -- should start planning meetings to determine which network is going to be his. I mean, that's the way it appears now, right? "Bush is wonderful, Bush is good, let's not worry about the neighborhood!"

To give you an example, take The Beltway Boys. You have Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, who sit there and essentially start at one place and end at exactly the same place. "Oh, sure there are problems with the Republicans and the administration," they say, "but these are overexaggerated!" Fred Barnes almost had a vapor attack and fainted on live television talking about [Iraq war mom] Cindy Sheehan. "Cindy Shee-han! Cindy Shee-han! Who is she? She's getting all her press because it's August, and it's a slow press month! Cindy Shee-han!" [Makes a hissing noise]. Holy cow, I couldn't believe it! They just sit there -- it's unbelievable! You've got to watch this.

Now, imagine a show called The Beltway Girls, with Amy Goodman and Maxine Waters. It could never happen, it's unthinkable. Why? Because they're on the left. And this is what the American people have to recognize: The voices of proud Americans on the left side of the political spectrum are muted. Occasionally, they will appear on Fox and other stations as guests, but they are like the dolls in the carnival booth on the midway. They are there to have objects thrown at them for the amusement of the onlookers.

And what's the name of that other Fox show in the morning?

Fox & Friends.

Right, Fox & Friends. The day the country marked the 2,000 dead in Iraq -- it might've been the next morning -- the host of Fox & Friends is saying, "What is it about 2,000? Why are we making such a big thing about that? I mean, we're certainly sorry and all, but what's this 2,000? Why is this such a news story? What's the point?"

In other words, no criticism of Bush is tolerated. There are disagreements, there's a kind of a fig leaf of varying opinions, but it's always about some superficial political consequence of this or that act. It's never about anything substantial.

Ever think of just turning off the TV?

No, I'm fascinated by this. I believe you're culturally illiterate if you don't watch any of these things. And yet a very small section of the American populace is watching cable television. CSI gets, what, 27 million viewers? The king of cable gets just outside 2 million. OK, no small number there, and in my neighborhood, we'd call [Bill] O'Reilly a hit. But the more important question is, who are these people who are watching the food fights? I think they're important. I think they give us a sense of where America has been, and where it's going.

You mention Bill O'Reilly. You faced off with him on his show, The O'Reilly Factor, last month, and by anyone's standards got the best of him. He barely got a word in edgewise. How did you do that? Did you do research?

No, I didn't have a strategy. I'm not that well-organized. In a lot of ways, he kind of hurt himself. This whole huff-and-puff thing. Didn't he say he'd throw me out of the studio or something? I mean, hey, pretty insecure there, right?

Calling him "Billy" may have helped that.

You know what? The Irish do this. I grew up with Patty Callahan and Timmy O'Brien and Jimmy Breslin. It's a part of Irish culture that the first names of males are always two syllables. So, all of my friends who are William, I refer to them as Billy. It wasn't necessarily meant to be some sort of slur; if anything, I may have presumed a friendship with O'Reilly that doesn't exist. Anyway, a lot was made of that, but it certainly wasn't an intentional thing.

You are arguably the godfather of talk TV, having practically invented the format, then running with it from 1967 to 1996. When you look at the shows Donahue ultimately spawned -- from Oprah to Ellen -- are you proud of your progeny?

I don't want to be the old guy sitting in his rocker one day, looking back and saying, "It ain't what it use to be. When I was on TV …" I've seen so many people walk bitterly into the sunset, complaining, "We've lost our soul." So when I'm asked about the shows that followed mine, what I usually say is, "I love them all -- they're all my illegitimate children." And we should also remember that Donahue was the show [that] brought you male strippers.

That's right. What was that all about?

A little nonsense now and then is treasured by the best of men. And by the way, male strippers wasn't my idea -- I didn't know where the hell I was going to clip their microphones. But, no, I couldn't believe it, I mean, those guys came out and started taking their clothes off and the audience went berserk! I've never seen anything like it. And the audience is all-female -- your mother is there, your grandmother, your baby sister, they're all having the time of their lives! I stood there … stunned. And you know what? The next day we had Dick Gephardt on for a whole hour.

In many ways, we knew we had to entertain people. You can't say "Ain't it awful?" five days a week and succeed. That's why I'm not going to sit here and act like the monsignor, telling you who's committing sins. I understand what these shows are doing. It's just that now we've moved into a male-strippers-five-days-a-week genre. It's all about degree. You won't see Dick Gephart or Trent Lott or anybody else for a full hour on a daytime show anymore.

What about the Dr. Phil-type shows?

We did lots of those, too. "My Husband Doesn't Kiss Me Anymore" -- that sort of thing. People still come up to me at airports and say "Thank you, Mr. Donahue" -- they call me "Mr. Donahue" now. "Thank you. Because of your show, I got out of an abusive relationship." Or, "Because of your show I came out to my parents." I get a lot of that and it makes me feel good.

I would wish this odyssey on anybody I love. It was a wonderful, wonderful ride.

And nothing like the MSNBC experience.

Nothing like it at all. When I was in syndication, I was the gorilla in the room. We did whatever we wanted to do. Nobody censored us. It was fabulous. If some station out there in the heartland didn't like a certain show, they could cancel us -- but I'd still be on 113 other stations. It was a syndicated program, the most honest way to deliver material on television. One vice president of programming -- while he was shaving -- could not cancel my whole career. In the case of MSNBC, that was not true. I didn't have the protection I had in syndication. I didn't have the democracy. It was emotional, it was very unpleasant, I didn't like it and I don't want to do it again. I mean, when it came to guests, we had to have two conservatives on for every liberal …

That was an actual formula?

Yes. I had gone into this thing at MSNBC feeling sky-high, thinking that we were really going to be something different. What I didn't expect was the resistance from these people. And right after we were fired, they hired Michael Savage.

Who lasted about 10 minutes, before being fired himself for making anti-gay comments.

Yes, but they knew who he was at MSNBC. And during all of this, I often wondered about the "MS" in MSNBC. I'd think, "Do Bill and Melinda Gates watch this?" Then I saw Rupert [Murdoch] being interviewed on TV, probably Fox, and he said -- with no hostility at all, more like with wonderment -- "I'm not sure why MSNBC is having so much trouble gaining traction." And I thought, "Well, you know what, Rupert? I'm not sure either."

Do you think you know now?

Well, the very real agony here is that the liberal point of view is not going to get you ratings. [Makes his voice sound ominous] Liberals are unrealistic. Liberals are wimpy. Liberals don't like war. Liberals are for unions. I mean … unions? If you're a Republican white male suit running a network, why the hell would you want to have somebody on promoting unions? Unions drink coffee and are worried about pay raises!

Liberals are for minimum wage. Liberals never saw a cause that they didn't want to spend your money to fix. Liberals sing "Kumbaya." Liberals are for gay people getting married. Liberals don't want God in our schools. If a kid sneezes in a public school, liberals don't think the teacher should be able to say "God bless you!"

And you want to know the biggest coup de grace? Liberals don't like God. Conservatives have God, liberals don't. Conservatives are for life; liberals are for death and choice.

The thunderous, relentless, organized spending of millions and millions of dollars by the radical Republican conservative fringe -- in cahoots with evangelical, messianic Christians -- has marginalized the liberal, progressive, left-speaking members of our populace so effectively that significant numbers of Americans now believe all those canards. It is unbelievable what they've done!

And this also has to be said: This administration believes that all men are created equal unless we're scared. This administration has shredded the Bill of Rights. We have people in cages for going on two years now -- no papers, no visitors, no phone calls, no lawyers, no nothing. You're fooling with the soul of America here! And by the way, watch what you say. To these people, the First Amendment -- the notion of free speech -- has become a quaint idea. It's not very practical in these times. These are the same people who give prizes to children at all these wonderful banquets at the Rotary Club or the Daughters of the American Revolution for writing essays -- 25 words or less -- on "Why I'm proud to be an American." And yet when it comes to actually standing behind the Bill of Rights, they're the first ones to turn their backs, to drop their tools and run away from this magnificent idea called the United States Constitution. And the American populace is largely standing there mute. I never used to be able to figure out how the hell we could put 120,000 Japanese-Americans behind the fence [during World War II]. I'm no longer bewildered.

George Clooney's current biographical film of Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck, speaks to many of these issues.

Good Night and Good Luck is a wonderful, cinematic reminder of how easily we can be intimidated, and how the whole threat of being accused of being unpatriotic is a very, very effective silencer. It's the best and easiest way to mute the population. And the media has gone along with it. This administration says, "You can't cover the bodies coming home at Dover [Air Force Base]," and the entire United States media establishment says, "OK."


Because access is everything in Washington, and if you're the executive producer at one of the big news shows and you piss off Karl Rove, you're not going to get Condi or Rummy or any of those guests who would legitimize your show as a serious, important program. Suddenly you're going to be shut out, wallowing alone, with a boss saying, "What's wrong with you? How come those people got Colin Powell and we didn't?"

There's an unwritten, subliminal need to curry favor here. There's a reason why Michael Moore was never on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. He's probably the No. 1 hated figure in the White House, or certainly he was last year.

Think about it, Michael Moore was literally being considered as Time magazine's Man of the Year in 2004. His film [Fahrenheit 9/11] was at the center of the presidential campaign. And yet he was never invited to be on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. He was on George Stephanopoulos, but he was taped and edited. Very edited. He was invited on Larry King Live, but when the White House refused to send a balancer, he was canceled.

I think all of this is Karl Rove. So what we're looking for now in the media are more and more reporters and journalists who don't care if the White House doesn't call them back. Sy Hersh is a good example. People who aren't beholden to the big nipple of information that is the White House and legitimacy. We're looking for journalists who don't have to be popular, who are willing to engage in the very inelegant job of sticking their nose under the tent to see what our self-righteous political leaders are planning for us. It's a very unbecoming activity for anybody, but that's the job.

Your wife, Marlo Thomas, is also known for having strong political opinions. Any ideological battles on the home front?

Well, we had a tough time with Ralph Nader. I was on Ralph's bus in 2000, and that upset Marlo. In fact, they wrote about that in a New York Times editorial. They said, "Marlo Thomas should give her husband a civics lesson." I've always wondered what the hell that civics lesson would be. That I shouldn't follow my conscience and support who I want? But I did get off the Nader bus in '04 along with a lot of other people. I mean, Marlo knew who she was marrying and so did I, so there's hardly any surprise there.

You come from Cleveland, went to Notre Dame, built your career in Chicago, and now divide your time between New York and Connecticut. By my calculations, that's three blue states to two red states.

Wow, I've never heard it parsed that way.

Which do you consider your real roots?

I guess I'm still a Cleveland boy. I grew up with the Cleveland Indians -- like Larry Doby, the Jackie Robinson of the American League. Spanish-speaking ballplayers were beginning to make their talents visible in the Bigs. We had a Jewish third baseman, Al Rosen; we had a 24-year-old matinee-idol-type player-manager shortstop, Lou Boudreau; we had [owner] Bill Veeck. We had the Cleveland Browns -- Marion Motley and Otto Graham. I mean, pictures of these guys were on my wall! We had four clearly defined seasons. We had the aroma of burning leaves in October, heralding the coming of winter and Christmas. We had a wonderful spring, where suddenly crocuses and robins were appearing. I thought everybody had this, you know? It wasn't until I started spending a little time in California that I realized, Wow, I really miss that.

What was your neighborhood like?

West Side, very blue-collar, working class. My neighborhood was Irish Catholic, which was great. All the bishops and the monsignors were Irish. We had our own parade. We had the best music -- I mean, I felt sorry for people who weren't Irish and didn't have that music. [Laughs] And then in 1980, I married a Lebanese girl and the music of my life got even better.

I guess I'm a late learner -- too soon old, and too late smart. I began to see the importance of cultural diversity. We bussed our children because we thought the Catholics were raising another generation of racists. All of our statues were white -- Jesus was white, the Holy Spirit was a white bird, God the Father was a white old man with a white beard, the guardian angel was white. Essentially, we believed that you couldn't come out of this experience without having the vestiges of racism in your soul. It's not conscious. Racism is a lot like cancer -- you don't always know you have it. So to give our children a diverse childhood, we sent them to a downtown Catholic school, much to the anxiety of neighbors who thought we were going to sell our house to black people. I learned a lot during those days.

I had Noam Chomsky on my show at that time. I remember asking him, "What are you trying to say?" Now remember, I'm a kid who came of age in the '50s -- Eisenhower, America Victorious! Lend-Lease. The Marshall Plan. America, America! The grandest and most noble!

So I'm talking to Chomsky in '67, '68, and I said, "What is it you're saying?" And he said, "Never, ever trust the state." And I thought, "What?!" I mean, we weren't raised to protest. We weren't raised to question. We were raised to wave the flag. To pledge allegiance. "My country, right or wrong." It's a terrible, terrible trap. Here were all these guys dying to protect our way of life, yet at the very center of all that is the right to protest; and when it comes to protesting about something that's really important -- like the advance of a war -- we're told to shut up and sing.

So I suppose I'm out there trying to say, "Look, if we can't protest now, then at least stop sending all these men and women to die." OK, so we'll have a neo-Mussolini telling us what's good for us, but let's not waste their blood anymore.

I'm sorry to orate so much.

No apology necessary.

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