Published on Wednesday, January 8, 2003 by
Defensive Donahue Needs to Go On the Offensive or Get Off the Air
by Dennis Hans

Phil Donahue desperately needs a dose of Stuart Smalley’s “daily affirmation”: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” He needs to quit seeking the approval of right-wing lunatics and quit allowing these goofballs to set his agenda.

Consider the themes of three consecutive shows, December 16, 17 and 18:

  • “War Protesters: Patriotic or un-American?”
  • “Do You Have to Be a Christian to Go to Heaven?”
  • “Are Today’s Women Getting a Free Ride?”

Inject Donahue with truth serum and he’ll tell you that those stage-setting questions are preposterous. He’ll tell you that it’s absurd to even enter into a discussion about them. So why is this genuine progressive shifting the debate terrain far to the right, in the process forcing himself and those who share his beliefs to squander precious time arguing over matters that, in their minds, have long been settled?

You don’t hear CNN’s Wolf Blitzer tackling the issue “War Supporters: Patriotic or un-American?” Or Fox’s Bill O’Reilly asking, “Are Irish-American Catholics Welcome in Heaven?” Or Oprah wondering “When Will the Coddling of Black Women End?”

Maybe Donahue made a New Year’s resolution to do better, for on the January 6 edition he had a more appropriate topic: the conservative bias of the mainstream media. But proving that old habits die hard, Donahue gave the first few minutes to conservative Bernard Goldberg, the laziest, most incompetent advocate of the “media have a liberal bias” school. (Click here for the transcript:

Donahue could have helped his cause by having a guest who actually has documented the conservative/corporate-establishment bias of the media, such as Jeff Cohen (one of Donahue’s producers and a former panelist on “Fox News Watch”), Noam Chomsky, Eric Alterman or Mark Hertsgaard. He could have invited someone from the progessive watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Media, or Bob Somerby of, who has documented at his incomparable website just how lazy and incompetent Goldberg is.

Instead, Donahue balanced two conservative guests with moderate liberals Mario Cuomo and Al Franken. Both are worthy adversaries of the right, but neither is an authority on that night’s topic (though Franken, a Gore backer and Saturday Night Live alum, did write a funny book about blowhard Rush Limbaugh).

Fortunately, Franken came prepared, hitting Goldberg with a haymaker in the first round. He said the problem with people like Goldberg, Limbaugh and Fox’s Sean Hannity is that “they cheat.” They rip stuff out of context to make it appear that their target said something that would make decent Americans recoil in horror, knowing full well that their target said no such thing.

Franken said that Goldberg, in his book “Bias,” branded as “liberal hate speech” a ho-hum 1991 story by John Chancellor on the NBC evening news about shortages and economic hard times in Russia, as it transitioned from communism to capitalism. Goldberg blasted that report — which apparently set off no alarm bells at the time and was, after all, the work of a centrist, establishment-oriented journalist at solidly capitalist NBC — as pro-commie propaganda!

Franken filled in Goldberg on the context of Chancellor’s story, including Tom Brokaw’s opening remarks that evening: “This is a day for bold print in history to be remembered and savored as the day when the power of the people in the Soviet Union proved to be greater than the power of the gray and cold-blooded men who thought they could return that country to the darkness of state oppression.”

Franken had Goldberg on the ropes. And what did our progressive host do? He changed the subject. Franken was incensed. “Phil, why are you letting Bernie off?” he asked. Throughout the evening Franken tried to hold Goldberg’s feet to the fire, to force him to explain how he could tar a good man as an apologist for communism and not even bother to check on the context of the out-of-context quote. Everytime, Donahue intervened.

I guarantee, Donahue didn’t do it on purpose. His intent wasn’t to rescue the bloodied and beaten conservative. No, this was another case of Phil being Phil: the most incompetent progressive to ever walk the earth. He means well, but he is incapable of recognizing a devastating talking point no matter how frequently it slaps him upside the head.

I documented an earlier example of this Donahue tendency in a lengthy article for that is archived here: (You may need to copy and paste that URL into your browser to make the link work.)

Back on the September 13 “Donahue,” Harper’s publisher John MacArthur tried repeatedly to drive home the point that it is “subverting democracy” to deceive the public into supporting war. He talked about “informed consent” of the governed, which is absent when the government cynically misinforms and disinforms the governed. Like Franken, MacArthur used the C-word: “cheat.” Like Franken, he understands that Americans across the political spectrum understand well the concept of cheating, and they don’t approve. Americans understand that war is life and death, and they don’t want their leaders engaging in dishonest cheating to gain popular support for war. They want open, honest and somber debate, not carney-style con games. Lots of people across the political spectrum admire LBJ for many worthy presidential achievements, but they’ll never forgive him and his defense secretary for using lies to acquire public and congressional support for escalating the war in Vietnam.

MacArthur wrote a book, “Second Front,” about the use of disinformation to sell the 1991 Gulf War. (The U.S. Senate was united, and rightly so, on the principle that Iraq had no right to occupy Kuwait. But it was divided on whether to use immediate military force to drive Iraq out, or to try coercive diplomacy and sanctions while retaining the forceful option if needed. The propaganda campaign helped to tip the balance in the Senate toward immediate use of force.)

MacArthur was on Donahue to review that record and show how the current Bush administration was up to its own deceptive tricks — aimed not at Saddam, but a trusting U.S. public. MacArthur’s debate foe, National Review editor Rich Lowry, sought to change the “subverting democracy” subject by falsely painting MacArthur as an apologist for Saddam, but MacArthur wouldn’t let go. Too bad he was on a show hosted by the world’s most incompetent progressive. Here’s an excerpt. The opening line is Donahue restating Lowry’s point that most all governments lie to sell a looming or ongoing war:

DONAHUE: Everybody does it. All right.
LOWRY: That always happens!
DONAHUE: We hear you. Everybody does it.
MACARTHUR: Well, if everybody does it, OK. So...
DONAHUE: Go ahead.
MACARTHUR: ... the Bushes subverting American democracy, subverting the Senate, subverting...
LOWRY: Subverting!
MACARTHUR: ... the whole notion of informed consent-I think-you think that’s really funny. [Lowry had chuckled at the words “subverting American democracy”]
LOWRY: Well, look-look...
MACARTHUR: I think-I don’t think it’s funny.
LOWRY: If you have secret evidence...
MACARTHUR: I don’t think it’s funny!
LOWRY: ... that Saddam Hussein is in compliance...
MACARTHUR: No, no, no, no, no!
LOWRY: ... with the U.N. resolutions...
MACARTHUR: I’m talking about the democratic...
LOWRY: ... put it on the table!
MACARTHUR: ... process. I’m talking about...
LOWRY: Is he really not a murderer?
MACARTHUR: ... the democratic process.
LOWRY: Let’s hear the evidence!
DONAHUE: We ought to be able to do this...
MACARTHUR: If you think it’s OK to subvert the democratic process with lies...
LOWRY: Subverting...
MACARTHUR: ... and this is what the Bushes are doing...
LOWRY: ... is a very strong word!
MACARTHUR: ... and this is what the Bushes did...
LOWRY: That’s a very strong word.
LOWRY: Do you have secret evidence that Saddam Hussein...
MACARTHUR: Why are you changing the subject?
LOWRY: ... is not, indeed, a thug?
HITCHENS: Oh, come on!
MACARTHUR: Why are you changing the subject?
DONAHUE: Mr. Hitchens...
LOWRY: I want you to address the question!
DONAHUE: Bring some civility to this, for goodness sake! That’s why we have you.
HITCHENS: Look, I can make it very easy for-I hope, anyway, for all of them. At the same time as Bush and Reagan were acting in this way, they were teaching-we know this for sure-they coached the Nicaraguan contra leadership in how to lie to Congress. That’s been...
MACARTHUR: They were also coaching...
HITCHENS: That’s been documented.
MACARTHUR: ... Iraqi helicopter...
HITCHENS: They coached them...
MACARTHUR: ... pilots how to kill Kurds!
HITCHENS: ... to lie. They coached them to lie. They told us that the-that a tribal-actually, now it’s been proved, a cannibal leader in Angola was the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers, and they were backing the bin Laden forces...
DONAHUE: What is your point? Chris, administrations lie! All right, so we knew that.

There he is, the only progessive talk-show host on TV, bored silly by guests who want to drive home a powerful point about governmental lying to trick Congress and the public to support war.

Revival tips for Donahue

Since landing a primetime MSNBC chat show last summer, Donahue has flopped in the ratings and flopped as a promoter of his positions. He’s fast becoming toast, and the show’s recent makeover — including heaping doses of questions and comments from an in-studio audience and callers and emailers — has exacerbated the show’s second biggest flaw: too many guests and not enough time. (The biggest flaw is Donahue himself.)

Donahue’s nightly “hour” is closer to 40 minutes, once you cut out the newsbreaks, commercials, theme music, and introduction and re-introduction of a flood of guests. Factor in eight minutes of blather from the audience and callers and 12 minutes from Donahue, and that leaves 20 minutes for six or eight guests. “Go ahead, Reverend Falwell. You have the floor, sir, having traveled all the way from Lynchburg, Virginia to be with us in New York City. Please make your point in the remaining 30 seconds before the break, which is down to ten because I won’t stop yapping.”

That’s not an actual quote, but it’s not far off. And why are we hearing from Jerry Falwell on a discussion of U.S. policy toward Iraq? Is there anyone less qualified to address that issue?

Donahue opposes the rush to war, and perhaps he wants to discredit the case for war by presenting it’s most incompetent and extreme advocates. If that’s his thinking, he needs to re-think. The end result is that he lends credibility to those who don’t deserve it, and discredits competent moderate, liberal and progressive critics in a “loony-by-association” process.

That’s because Donahue legitimizes and treats respectfully the Iraq-policy views of Falwell; of former weapons inspector Bill Tierney, who said that Iraq already has nuclear weapons (!); of Laurie Mylroie, who sees a tight Iraq-al Qaeda terror connection and the handiwork of Saddam in most every evil act in the world.

On the December 9 show (, Mylroie was introduced by Donahue as “Dr. Mylroie,” a “former adviser on Iraq for Bill Clinton advisor on Iraq and author of ‘The War Against America.’” This tells the 99 percent of the MSNBC audience who aren’t experts on Iraqi policy that Mylroie is a qualified expert, probably centrist or left-leaning, someone who deserves to be taken seriously when she asserts that Iraq was responsible for the 9-11 attacks. In fact, Mylroie is a right-wing whacko. The PBS science show “Nova” doesn’t give airtime or credence to those who argue that the Moon is made of green cheese. For the exact same reason, Donahue should not give air time to Mylroie.

Rather than a guest, Mylroie should be the TOPIC of a “Donahue” show, examining how certifiable fruitcakes come to be respected and ubiquitous talking heads.

Tierney made this claim on the Dec. 9 show: “Iraq has nuclear weapons, folks. He’s got them. You’d better sober up to the reality.” Donahue replied, “Where’s the proof, Bill? I appreciate you and respect you, but you’re making these announcements like you know.”

Here’s the question for Donahue: What is it about Tierney that you “appreciate” and “respect”? That he’s a good father? A devoted little-league coach? No doubt there are many reasons to think highly of Tierney, but he was on Donahue to talk about Iraq, and everything he said on that topic points to one conclusion: He’s clueless. He no more belongs on the air than some kook who thinks 9-11 was an Israeli plot.

Donahue should be trying to enhance the stature and credibility of competent critics of the war that he has put on the air, whether its career diplomat Edward Peck, Representative Dennis Kucinich or scholars such as Phyllis Bennis and William Hartung. He should give them and other qualified, articulate critics ample time to make their case, which rarely gets an uninterrupted hearing in talking-head land. After they make their case, let them engage in debate and discussion with honest, informed, highly regarded centrists and conservatives who have varied views on what our Iraq policy should be — people like General Anthony Zinni, Ken Pollack, Daniel Benjamin, Ivo Daalder, Wesley Clark, Zbigniew Brzezinski andVincent Cannistraro.

Donahue should never provide airtime to anyone who thinks it’s okay for the Bush administration to exaggerate and lie to the public and Congress to win their support for an attack on Iraq. A discussion among sane, competent guests will, of necessity, be a discussion among people who all agree — and will state publicly — that the Bush administration has consciously misled the public and that it is shameful for the administration to have done so.

So, Phil, if you’re serious about stopping the war, here are the rules for the critical upcoming few weeks of shows: Don’t deviate from the topic of Iraq; no more than three guests per show; keep your own yapping to a minimum; forget about “balance,” as talking-head TV is overwhelmingly pro-war; legitimize and make household names those talking heads who prove most effective at reaching middle America; don’t delegitimize them by forcing them to share the stage with lunatics. Do as I say and you’ll not only stop the war, you’ll gain an audience.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at, Slate and The Black World Today (, among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at