Don’t torpedo dissent in aftermath of attacks, Donahue urges

Wednesday, September 26, 2001

NEW YORK — At a time when Americans are justifiably angry about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, talk-show pioneer Phil Donahue cautioned yesterday that we must be especially vigilant that voices of dissent are not squelched amidst patriotic fervor.

Donahue, the respected dean of the audience-participation show, voiced his concerns about free speech during these troubled times at a taping of “Speaking Freely,” the First Amendment Center’s weekly television show.

“These are the times when (our freedoms) are the most threatened,” Donahue said.

He noted that writer Susan Sontag recently drew harsh criticism for a New Yorker magazine article that some considered anti-American because it strongly reprimanded people who condemn the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but remain blasé about the United States’ ongoing bombing campaign in Iraq.

Even though Sontag’s opinions infuriated some, she should not be told to keep quiet, Donahue said.

“We should be very stern when somebody tries to shush someone else,” he added. “That says, ‘I’m frightened by free speech, and I don’t want you to talk.’ What we need is more free speech, more robust dialogue. We need a cacophony of voices. Let’s hear all sides here.”

Because the “Speaking Freely” episode featuring Donahue won’t be aired until next year, he made many of his comments about the current crisis after the taping was finished.

Donahue, who came out in support of Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential election, said that if he were to add his voice to the mix today, he would speak out in support of President Bush.

“I was very impressed by my president,” he said. “When my president’s eyes became moist, I was moved.”

“Say what you want about George W., I think he gives a damn. He’s not a robot,” Donahue added. “My hope is that he will listen to all voices.”

Americans must always allow for even the most unpopular of views to be expressed, Donahue said.

Thinking back to the military maneuvers of a previous administration, he said, “Don’t tell me I’m unpatriotic when I say that it was our planes during the Reagan administration that dropped bombs on Tripoli (Libya’s capital) in the middle of the night, in a city, killing women and children.”

Now, as then, he added, brute American force might be the wrong response.

“Don’t kill their babies because they killed our babies,” he said. “If we do, we become the thing we hate.

“Now, when we have so much respect from the world, (when) people feel for us, now is the time for us to join the world community. The last thing we want to be seen as is the most powerful nation on Earth bombing the weakest, with people who are suffering.”

Ken Paulson, the First Amendment Center’s executive director and host of “Speaking Freely,” said Donahue ‘s show “changed the face of television talk shows” by discussing topics that once went unaired.

Donahue ‘s very first guest was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an outspoken atheist who infuriated viewers. Through the years, he covered a range of topics from lighthearted shows about male strippers to hard-hitting discussion about abortion.

“Something was happening on daytime television in Dayton, Ohio, that had never been seen before,” Donahue recalled. “We discovered that issues, issues would keep us on the air.”

“We were doing what the audience wanted a long time ago and television never gave them.”

Because he was a pioneer of the audience-participation format, Donahue is often urged to speak out against the shock tactics of his on-air descendants, from Jerry Springer to Ricki Lake, but he refuses to do so.

If there’s one thing in nearly 30 years of collecting opinions has taught him, he said, it’s that this country needs more free expression, not less.

“It’s hard for me to be uncomfortable with what is happening on television today,” Donahue said. “In 29 years, I was preached to a lot. The shows not worthy of consideration will fall of their own weight. I’m saying, let’s celebrate the amendment at the center of our democracy.”

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