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2013-03-21

Phil Donahue on His 2003 Firing from MSNBC, When Liberal Network Couldn’t Tolerate Antiwar Voices

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Phil Donahue, one of the best-known talk show hosts in U.S. television history, his show was on the air for more than 29 years. In 2002, he returned to the airwaves, but he was fired in 2003 on the eve of the war by MSNBC because he was allowing antiwar voices on the air. Along with Ellen Spiro, he directed the documentary, Body of War, which tells the story of Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran paralyzed from a bullet to the spine. Now, at the age of 33, Tomas has decided to end his life.

Tomas Young, Iraq War veteran and the main subject of the documentary, Body of War. On April 4, 2004, his fifth day in Iraq, Young’s unit came under fire in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Young was left paralyzed, never to walk again. Released from medical care three months later, Young returned home to become an active member in Iraq Veterans Against the War. He recently announced that he will stop his nourishment, which comes in the form of liquid through a feeding tube — a decision which will hasten his death.

Claudia Cuellar, the wife and primary caregiver of Tomas Young.

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In 2003, the legendary television host Phil Donahue was fired from his prime-time MSNBC talk show during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The problem was not Donahue’s ratings, but rather his views: An internal MSNBC memo warned Donahue was a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," providing "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." Donahue joins us to look back on his firing 10 years later. "They were terrified of the antiwar voice," Donahue says. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Phil, I’d like to bring in another subject in terms of this whole issue, the—what happened to you, directly, as a host on MSNBC in the midst of the run-up to the war, and the responsibilities of the press in America and its—the mea culpas that have rarely been uttered by the pundits and by the journalists over what the American press did in the run-up to war.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I think what happened to me, the biggest lesson, I think, is the—how corporate media shapes our opinions and our coverage. This was a decision—my decision—the decision to release me came from far above. This was not an assistant program director who decided to separate me from MSNBC. They were terrified of the antiwar voice. And that is not an overstatement. Antiwar voices were not popular. And if you’re General Electric, you certainly don’t want an antiwar voice on a cable channel that you own; Donald Rumsfeld is your biggest customer. So, by the way, I had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I could have Richard Perle on alone, but I couldn’t have Dennis Kucinich on alone. I was considered two liberals. It really is funny almost, when you look back on how—how the management was just frozen by the antiwar voice. We were scolds. We weren’t patriotic. American people disagreed with us. And we weren’t good for business.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I had this unusual experience, Phil, in July of 2006. It was the 10th anniversary of MSNBC, and I was invited on Hardball by Chris Matthews to celebrate the 10th anniversary. I think first Brian Williams was on the show, and then the Israeli ambassador, and then I was on the show. And we were standing outside 30 Rock. It was a big deal. All the execs were on the top floor of 30 Rock, and they were all about to have a big party. And we were just coming out of a commercial.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to congratulate you, Chris, on 10 years of MSNBC, but I wish standing with you was Phil Donahue. He shouldn’t have been fired for expressing an antiwar point of view on the eve of the election. His point of view and the people brought on were also important.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I don’t know what the reasons were, but I doubt it was that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have the MS—the NBC memo, that was a secret memo—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Oh, OK, good.

AMY GOODMAN: —that came out, that said they didn’t want him to be the face of this network, an antiwar face, at a time when the other networks were waving the flag.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Could I answer the question? I’d love to answer that question.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Donahue is a great patriot.

AMY GOODMAN: I said there, Phil, you were a great patriot. We did have the NBC memo, the secret memo that said they didn’t want their flagship show to be you, when the other networks were waving the American flag.

PHIL DONAHUE: That’s what it said. And, by the way, that memo was written by a Republican focus group, a Republican counseling group that took the focus group and that revealed that most of the people in the focus group didn’t like me. But I saw that, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you were the most popular show.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, often we led the night for the—nobody burned the town down on MSNBC, including me. Fox just ran away with the ratings and continues to enjoy that success.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you watching MSNBC that night?

PHIL DONAHUE: I did. I saw it. And I called the kids. I said, "Hey!" I’m not sure I did it soon enough. But I certainly was grateful for—I mean, I needed the pat on the back at the time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phil, the irony that MSNBC now is supposedly this liberal—

PHIL DONAHUE: It’s amazing, really.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the liberal network now?

PHIL DONAHUE: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You wonder, though, if another—if another move to war came, how liberal it would remain.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, you know, the coin of the realm is the size of the audience. It’s important to see this. When a broadcasting executive gets out of bed in the morning, before his foot hits the floor, his thoughts are ratings. "What are my ratings?" Not unlike Wall Street people, who get their—and CEOs, their first thought is the price of their stock. So, you know, what—and I was replaced by Michael Savage. So there was a desperate need to get numbers.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is one of the most conservative, and that’s giving conservatives a bad name.

PHIL DONAHUE: This was the decision of—

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Savage lived up to his last name.

PHIL DONAHUE: And this was a decision by higher-ups at General Electric and NBC.

AMY GOODMAN: Tomas, you wanted to say something here. Let me go to a break, and then we’re going to come back, as we wrap up this broadcast. We’re talking to Phil Donahue and Tomas Young, Iraq War veteran, age 33—says he will end his life in the next few months, dealing with the pain of war—and his wife, Claudia Cuellar. We’ll be back in a minute.

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