From The Real News Network, a tree-part interview with a television talk show pioneer about his decades of experience talking with seminal figures in the American political and cultural scene.
Unlike most talk show hosts, Donahue didn’t demean guests who didn’t share his own causes and beliefs.
Beneath the pleasantly liberal facade, however, Donahue’s openness to experience was leading him through a progressive radicalization, a process he discusses in conversation with Paul Jay as part of TRNN’s ongoing Realty Asserts Itself series.
Part 1: The Radicalization of Phil Donahue – Reality Asserts Itself
From the transcript:
JAY: So here’s a little bit of introduction. Phil Donahue’s an Emmy Award-winning media personality. He’s best known as the creator and host of the Donahue Show, which ran for 29 years on cable TV and I think was the longest-running talk show on TV, or still is. Still is? That’s a funny way to phrase it. It is not on the air anymore, but it’s still the longest running. Nobody has caught up to you yet, I believe.
DONAHUE: To my knowledge. I’m not sure.
JAY: So Wikipedia says, anyway. He also was the host of Donahue, which ran from July 2002 to March 2003, before msnbc canceled it because of his vocal opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This was despite it being the most highly rated show at the time on msnbc network. He’s also the codirector of Body of War, a documentary film about the struggles of an Iraq War veteran and antiwar activist, Tomas Young.
So, for those of you at home that don’t know, although I think most of you that watch do know, we usually start with a personal segment, and that’s what we’re going to do with Mr. Donahue, kind of more about what helped shape his view of the world. And then we’ll talk about his views on more recent events.
So you’re born in 1935 in Cleveland.
DONAHUE: I was.
JAY: You sort of come of age, consciousness of sorts, about nine, ten years old. I think that’s about at the end of one war and the beginning of another. It’s not very long before the Cold War begins, with McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities Committee.
JAY: What was the politics of your household like?
DONAHUE: We weren’t desperately political. My parents certainly supported Roosevelt, although I recall my mother leaned Stevenson.
But I was totally American. I thought we were the best in all things. I thought I was blessed. I lived in a country that stopped Hitler’s advance in Russia. I didn’t really understand the help we had from Russian soldiers, but it was America who defeated Hitler and it was America who defeated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. I wore a bill that said “Remember Pearl Harbor”. My uncle was in the Battle of the Bulge. And I was a member of the one true church. I was Catholic. I was not only Catholic; I was Irish Catholic. So I’m born?by accident, at birth I’m born in the greatest nation on earth that wins everything, all its wars, is all good in all things?the Marshall Plan, Lend-Lease. And I’m a member of the one true church. Holy cow.
JAY: So this is deeply part of your identity.
Part II: Corporate Media is Destroying Democracy
From the transcript:
JAY: Dayton. I’m sorry. You were born in Cleveland, but the show’s in Dayton. Sorry.
When you got picked up later, in the ‘80s, by the network, they knew the kind of show you were doing.
JAY: They knew the kind of guests you had on.
DONAHUE: Well, yeah. But we had numbers.
JAY: You had numbers.
DONAHUE: Yes. And by then, certainly, everybody was scratching their head and saying, maybe the Vietnam War was not a good idea. So it took a lot less courage.
JAY: Okay. But in 2003, you got numbers. You’re doing a show on msnbc. You’re the highest-rated show on msnbc. And in spite of having numbers, you get canceled because of the kind of guests you have, and people understand from the way you’re talking and framing questions that you’re opposed to this Iraq War. Something changes.
DONAHUE: Well, first of all, it’s less than a year after the Towers. In October 2002, both houses of Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution?a fascinating bit of material that is included in my documentary, by the way, titled Body of War, available on Netflix (thank you). Everybody, it seemed, wanted to bomb somebody.
And if you recall that I worked for msnbc at that time, the cable channel, msnbc was owned by General Electric. General Electric is one of the five largest defense contractors in the nation. General Electric’s biggest customers: the president and Donald Rumsfeld. And they got this has-been, gray-haired talkshow host on their own station criticizing all of these major players. And it was an interesting study in corporate media. Corporate media does not want to rock the boat. Corporate media is the boat. That’s what makes The Real News Network important.
You know, you can’t. When I was a reporter — if I could just take a second — when I was a reporter in Adrian, Michigan, I worked for a radio station. I was the news director, ‘cause I was the only person in the news department. And I was a reporter. I didn’t take a test. I didn’t pee in a bottle. I just said, I’m a reporter. And I was. I had a Norelco tape recorder with vacuum tubes in it and a microphone that said WABJ on it. And a very small radio, the signal went across the street. But I covered my first murder there. I covered the city hall. I played on the police softball team to cultivate my sources. You know?
And I couldn’t get over how much power I had. I could stop the mayoral boom. I was, like, 21, I must’ve looked 12, and I couldn’t you know, you saw those letters. And I began to appreciate how important journalism was, how powerful it was, how important it was. This was my nirvana. . .It made me understand that this was a very noble calling.
And the reason I was able to be a reporter without all these screenings is that because if that’s the case, then you have a lot of people reporting the news. That means that if you have a whole bunch of people, somewhere in the collective middle of this large crowd will be found the truth.
The problem today is that that middle is today occupied by five international, multinational corporations much more interested in the price of their stock than they are in making Donald Rumsfeld angry. And that is the dilemma of corporate media. And it is ruining our democracy.
And there’s a group out there. They call themselves media reform. And that is their banner. And they’ve all got their cameras and their [incompr.] They’re going to where elite media cover elite power. That’s why you never see Dennis Kucinich on Meet the Press, or Amy Goodman or Paul Jay, or anybody who’s likely to wind up in this venue.
JAY: Go back and tell the story of what happened at msnbc.
DONAHUE: Well, I was criticizing the invasion. I wanted to know why we don’t know if there’s weapons of mass [destruction there (?)]. And suddenly my executive producer would go to a meeting every morning, and then suddenly the rules: they wanted me to do more celebrities; they wanted no part of?they had to concede that I had to have some of these protesters on, but they sent the rule down I had to have two conservatives on?
DONAHUE: Yeah, for every one liberal. I was considered two liberals. This is a study in how terrified they were.
Part III: Whistle Blowers, Dissenters, and Progressives are the Patriots
From the transcript:
DONAHUE: Well, I came to the realization that America has become, we are a nation of law unless we’re scared. And we’re scared. Nobody likes us. I think we’ve got our presidents–I don’t know how long it’s going to take before our president is going to have to visit a church picnic in a Bradley armored vehicle. You know, America, the ones who boast most about America are the ones turning their back on the jewel of America, which is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The framers were right: don’t let one man have the power to declare war. And, as you know, we haven’t done that since–. And if I’m scared, you can listen in on my phone; I’ve got nothing to hide. How many times have you heard that? Which is probably what they said in Nazi Germany, too, in advance of the rise of the Third Reich.
There is a failure to appreciate the whole purpose of the First Amendment. You know, if you can’t speak, if you can’t dissent, then stop sending our young men and women to war to protect these fabulous virtues of the American experience, which is to get a neo-Mussolini, and he’ll tell us what’s good for us, and people will make–old men will tell us what’s good for us behind closed doors. It’s amazing what you can do if you scare the people.
And in many ways the biggest defense against this kind of harvesting of power that the political elite take unto themselves is the whistleblower. But it does no good to blow the whistle if the people can’t hear it. And the only way that people are going to be able to hear it is if we have journalists brave enough to take notes, listen to these brave people, who risk, often, their careers, journalists who are respected for the work that they do and not besieged by a frightened administration who perceive this as somehow undermining their own power to protect us. Give–the Scripps Howard motto when I was a kid–the Cleveland Press Building in downtown Cleveland, big marble building, across the top was etched in stone, “Give light and the people will find their own way.” You remember? The lighthouse that would sweep around was there logo. That’s largely been lost, or the importance of it has been lost.
And I think that’s why America enters the 21st century with a lot on its mind. We are kidding ourselves. You know, the brave troops, all the wonderful troops, all those troops are just so–we can’t say enough about the–the troops come home and the VA doesn’t call them back. Pretense is palpable. We think if we say it, it’s true: we’re exceptional, we’re exceptional, exceptionalism. Well, I’m saying, easy, big fella. If we are exceptional–and I think certainly our Constitution is exceptional. It’s fabulous. But it’d be better if someone from another country said that about us. We’re beginning to look a little bit insecure.