Time Out New York, November 24, 2005
Hot Seat: Phil Donahue
Out in left field: Phil Donahue got bounced off the air for his antiwar opinions,
and he's not ready to make peace just yet.
By Bruce Kluger
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
"…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. TONY caught up with Donahue by phone at his home in
Time Out New York: Two-and-a-half years ago, MSNBC cancelled your show, in
large part because it expressed an antiwar 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."
TONY: Does the fact that you were right all along frustrate you, or is it weirdly
satisfying in a way, knowing you weren't crazy?
PD: 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 antiwar voice in the middle
of all the drum-beating would be good strategically for a network that was trying to
gain some traction.
TONY: A genuine antiwar voice.
PD: 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 antiwar 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 antiwar
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
TONY: 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."
PD: 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
TONY: In your public statement, you also criticized General Electric's CEO and
chairman of the board, Jeffrey Immelt.
PD: 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
TONY: Is it possible to be antiwar in this country and have your own show?
PD: 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.
TONY: What's happening to the progressive voice in American politics?
PD: It's muted.
PD: 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.
TONY: 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?
PD: 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 [Fox News show] 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?
TONY: Fox & Friends.
PD: 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
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.
TONY: Ever think of just turning off the TV?
PD: 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. Okay, 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.
TONY: 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?
PD: 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?
TONY: Calling him "Billy" may have helped that.
PD: 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.
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
PD: 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
brought you male strippers.
TONY: That's right. What was that all about?
PD: 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
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.
TONY: What about the Dr. Phil-type shows?
PD: 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.
TONY: And nothing like the MSNBC experience.
PD: 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
TONY: That was an actual formula?
PD: 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.
TONY: Who lasted about 10 minutes, before being fired himself for making anti-gay
PD: 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."
TONY: Do you think you know now?
PD: 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
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.
TONY: George Clooney's current biographical film of Edward R. Murrow, Good
Night and Good Luck, speaks to many of these issues.
PD: 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, "Okay."
PD: 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
number-one 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.
TONY: Your wife, Marlo Thomas, is also known for having strong political opinions.
Any ideological battles on the homefront?
PD: 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.
TONY: 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.
PD: Wow, I've never heard it parsed that way.
TONY: Which do you consider your real roots?
PD: 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.
TONY: What was your neighborhood like?
PD: 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." Okay, 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.
TONY: No apology necessary.
|Illustration: Rob Kelly