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Legendary Talk Show Host Phil Donahue on the Silencing of Antiwar Voices in U.S. Media

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Phil Donahue is one of the best-known talk show hosts in U.S. television history. The Phil Donahue Show was on the air for almost 30 years, until 1996. In 2002, Donahue returned to the airwaves, but was fired by MSNBC on the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq because he was allowing antiwar voices on the air. We talk to Donahue about his firing and the silencing of antiwar voices by the corporate media — that continues to this day.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Phil, you, after your legendary career, what, 29 years on The Phil Donahue Show, you came back and were a—continued to broadcast on MSNBC, prime-time slot, right before the invasion of Iraq. You were the most popular show on MSNBC at the time. And then right before the war, you were unceremoniously dumped. And a secret, later, memo came out of NBC that they didn’t want to have an antiwar voice in their flagship show as the other networks were waving the American flag.

PHIL DONAHUE: Yes, that was a memo published by The New York Times, and it was written up by a Republican pollster, who took a survey, where they put 25 people in a room and showed them one of my aggressive programs, and most of the people didn’t like me, was the result. I was called in to Neal Shapiro’s office and informed.

AMY GOODMAN: He was at NBC at the time.

PHIL DONAHUE: He was then, yeah; he’s now head of PBS here in New York. So, it was definitely a political termination. And it’s interesting, because during that time, they were terrified. This is—you should know that this is October through—say, August through January—August of ’02 through January and February. The invasion was April of 2003.


PHIL DONAHUE: And I was gone by then. But this is not long after the towers. And so, you know, corporate media—

AMY GOODMAN: You were replaced by Michael Savage.

PHIL DONAHUE: I was replaced by Michael Savage. So, they couldn’t wait to outfox Fox. And I had to have two conservatives for every liberal. And they wanted me to do entertainers. You know, don’t do political. It’s a very interesting study in the thinking at that time. Liberals were terrifying to them. They were afraid of liberals. Liberals weren’t patriotic. Liberals were blaming the victim. Dissent was totally, totally unwelcome and unpatriotic.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you persisted, knowing the climate.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I guess so, I mean, you know, at my own peril. But, you know, no sad songs for me. I’m a lucky guy. You know, I got a little money. But we have to wonder whose voice wasn’t heard, you know? That didn’t have the kind of ability to do this kind of thing and at least survive a little while.


PHIL DONAHUE: And interesting—interesting, really. At that time, half the political voice in this nation was silenced, really. And I believe most people at that time opposed this war. Most people did. What are we—why—how come over there? And yet, every metropolitan—every major metropolitan newspaper in this country supported the invasion of Iraq. Think about that for a minute. Every major metropolitan—this is what you can do with the politics of fear, that Bush took this whole nation and the whole media establishment by the ear and led it right into the sword. Amazing, in the land of free speech, free press.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the same thing happening again right now?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, obviously, you can see that it has slowed us up. But it looks like that’s all it’s done. And while we have been, you know, hesitant and not “bring them on” with the war lust that we had then, mission creep is underway. What happens when somebody is taken prisoner? I mean, we have become a warrior nation, and we have no respect for diplomacy. And we’ve just stood mute while the Constitution has been just shredded. This is a nation of law, unless we’re scared.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Phil, you certainly continued to provide a voice for people to speak for themselves in the making of this remarkable film, as we remember Tomas Young, who died just shy of his 35th birthday, Iraq War veteran, active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. If you want to see his reading of his full letter, his letter from a dying soldier, a dying veteran, to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.

And you spoke of being a lucky guy, Phil. Well, another of the reasons you are so lucky is your wonderful wife, Marlo Thomas. And I want to congratulate you and her. Among the 19 recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, is the award-winning actress, producer, author, activist, Marlo Thomas, who is the wife of our guest, Phil Donahue, or he is her husband. The White House said in a statement, quote, “Whether championing equality for girls and women, giving voice to the less fortunate, breaking barriers by portraying one of television’s first single working women on That Girl, or teaching children to be “Free to Be You and Me,” Thomas inspires us all to dream bigger and reach higher.” The awards will be presented at the White House on November 24th.

PHIL DONAHUE: I’m going to the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations.

PHIL DONAHUE: I’ll say hello for you.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, we’re going to play some clips, on this Veterans Day, of veterans’ voices. We’ll be bringing you StoryCorps. Thanks so much, Phil.


AMY GOODMAN: Will you be talking to President Obama, perhaps, about any of the issues we’ve talked about today?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, it’s not likely I’ll get that opportunity. So, I’ll be a good husband and try to stay small—not easy for a talk show host.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Donahue, our guest. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Stray Bullets” by Tom Morello. Yesterday, he posted a message on Twitter reading, “Rest in peace Tomas Young. Warrior for peace, Veterans against war, herb enthusiast, wise friend. Wrote this for him.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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StoryCorps Veterans Day Special: The Unlikely Bond Between a U.S. Soldier & Two Iraqi Boys

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