Man on the Mic 

A Q&A With Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue is thankful for Rush Limbaugh.

"We need him. There is no democracy without Rush Limbaugh," he says. "But there's no democracy without Bill Moyers either." Donahue fears that media consolidation that values the bottom line over the last word jeopardizes true political debate in America. And though few would argue that Donahue's 2003 foray into the fast, rude world of cable punditry may have been something of a fool's errand from the start, it's equally difficult to deny that his sudden dismissal from the fledgling news station, MSNBC, in 2004 had as much to do with his politics as with his ratings. -- Chris Davis

Flyer: There seems to be an incredible sense of urgency within the media-reform movement. What's the rush?

Phil Donahue: It's because this is urgent. Because freedom of the press is the most magnificent expression of democracy in the history of the universe, and that is being threatened by a Big Media that is totally motivated by profits. Look, these companies are run by proud Americans, and nobody is suggesting that they have more virtue than anybody else, but there's a growing number of people who see corporate media as seriously undermining American democracy.

Studies show that as media consolidates, it devotes more time to fewer stories. But is that really undermining democracy?

Well, look at the war in Iraq. With some notable exceptions, everyone in corporate media supported the invasion of Iraq. Exceptions were made if you were funny. If you were funny, like Imus or Al Franken or Jon Stewart, you could be against the war. But most dissent was muted. Once the first soldier was killed, if you criticized the war, you were spitting on that soldier's grave. Dissenters were immediately branded as something less than American, while the cable networks literally beat the drums of war. "Countdown: Iraq!" [Donahue imitates the sound of a percussive, ominous news theme.]

The progressive, antiwar voice has been marginalized by conservative flag-wavers. They don't seem to understand that so many people have died to protect the American way of life, and at the center of that way of life is free speech. If you don't want to use freedom of speech, you have to acknowledge that you don't believe in the Constitution and you have wasted the blood of the patriots who have died to defend it.

When you were let go by MSNBC, it was initially blamed on poor ratings. You were losing to Connie Chung at CNN and Bill O'Reilly at Fox, but you were still pulling in more viewers than anybody else at MSNBC. Why would the network get rid of its top-rated host?

You know, I've talked about this before. There was an [MSNBC] memo published in The New York Times. It said -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that Donahue's antiwar position was not going to be good for business. ... Antiwar people are scolds who are always complaining. People want patriotic support of the war.

But prior to the actual invasion, more than half the country was skeptical about Iraq. That figure didn't change until boots were on the ground. And besides, if you're up against the competition's heavy hitters and still pulling in more viewers than anybody else on your network, don't the numbers trump ideology?

The antiwar message chilled management. Executives are fearful of being called anti-American, which happens. And they're afraid of how that's going to affect stock prices. ... If you were against the war, the name-callers were ready for you, and they were tremendously effective.

So you would say that the "liberal media" is actually under the thumb of conservative influences?

Look at Fox News. They've got a show called The Beltway Boys with [noted conservatives] Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, and Brit Hume. This is fair and balanced? Where's the liberal? Can you even imagine a panel show made up of only liberals? With Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd? It's not even thinkable. But no one even blinks when they see a bunch of conservatives echoing the Bush administration's press releases for a half-hour.

But how much influence does a conservative corporate ownership actually exert on the newsroom?

Local reporters ultimately internalize corporate values. Say a reporter uncovers a scandal at the power company, but the publisher is dining with the chairman. ... The pressure isn't always visible, but it happens. And if he doesn't internalize the corporate values, he's a trouble-maker or an outsider or he doesn't understand how hard the power company works for the city.

Based on your experience, is direct pressure applied to control content?

You may notice that some people just don't get on the Sunday talk shows. And those shows are important, because they set the table for the Monday-morning papers. Those slots are generally the provenance of cabinet members or the vice president. If you don't have Condi, you don't have gravitas. And Karl Rove can deny you access. This results in a need to be liked that infects a lot of people. Let me put it this way: If you're having dinner with somebody, you can't report on them. There's a reason why soldiers go to the brig for fraternizing with the enemy. It's because it's hard to shoot somebody after you've seen a picture of their kids. Friendship undermines the media's edge. ... It doesn't happen all at once, but corporate media smooths the scratchiness out of a reporter's professional ambition. It's subtle, like cancer. You don't always know you have it.

Is the problem really that bad?

You can't just jump out of a cake and say, "HEY, THE MEDIA IS BAD, CORPORATE MEDIA IS AWFUL!" This insults countless thousands of media people who work very hard every day. You have to do it with a respectful bow and tip of the hat to the people who go out there every day and do a hard job. ... But this is what Bob Woodward once famously called a "holy shit!" story.

Phil Donahue moderates a panel discussion, "Inside Corporate Media: Can It Tell the Truth?" at 1:15 p.m. Friday, January 12th, at the National Conference for Media Reform at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Speaking of Phil Donahue

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