“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 25, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by the man who changed the face of television talk shows with the commitment to the kind of topics that once went unaired. It’s a pleasure to welcome Phil Donahue.
Phil Donahue: Thank you, Ken.
Paulson: You truly revolutionized television talk shows and you did that from Dayton, Ohio. How do you pull that off?
Donahue: Well, it was Dayton, Ohio, that forced us to … I thank you for this flattering observation, to start the revolution. We were not in touch with movie stars. We tried to get movie stars. Everybody but us had movie stars. We would call movie stars and they’d say, “Dayton … that’s the Soapbox Derby.” I said, “No, that’s Akron, Dayton is …” We were forced by virtue of our geography and our powerlessness, really, we were on a local station. We were a one … this was a local television program at 10:30 in the morning. We discovered that issues would keep us on the air. Issues. A woman who … whose daughter, a Quaker whose daughter was fasting to protest the Vietnam War who wound up in the … Zenia (Ohio) jail for … during … having been arrested during a protest, and mothers in the audience would stand up and say, “What if she dies? You … you’re her mother! You have a responsibility.” And this woman said, “You have a responsibility to consider the 500 young men who are coming home from this war in plastic zipper bags.” And people’s hands were going up all over, and I couldn’t get to them fast enough. And something was happening on daytime television in Dayton, Ohio, that had never been seen before. And we, by virtue of standing, just standing … my name was in this platform. Sponsors canceled us. Somebody, a guy came on and he said, “All automobile dealers are crooks.” And there went the entire Miami valley …
Donahue: … Automobile Dealers Association. And I would have salesmen outside my door who had … whose wives were pregnant, the baby needs shoes, and they just lost Roger’s Pontiac, you know. And you … a First Amendment speech was not very elegant to their ears. So we went … and we got away with it because we were small, Ken. I mean, if we had been born on the network we never would have survived. ‘Freedom is another word for nothin’ left to lose.’ We had … we had no place to go but up. We were already down. And our being tucked away in Dayton, Ohio, allowed us to show to the male established decision-making people at television stations that you didn’t always have to sing a song and wave and be happy, ha-ha-ha, that out there and in … 1967, the year this happened, you had women in the daytime who were reading more sections of the newspaper than their husbands, who would ask a question and not necessarily impose a speech … we were benefiting from all … we were doing what … what the audience wanted a long time ago and television never gave them. Thanks … sorry, but … the answer’s too long, I’m already feeling guilty. Go ahead.
Paulson: Clearly you’re comfortable holding a microphone, you’ve done that for many years. And I think one of the big changes in the landscape because of the way you approach your job was inviting audience members to be a part of the show. And yet I understand that that was sort of an accident in the beginning?
Donahue: It was, really. I wish it was — I wish I could tell you that we were so brilliant. Sexism was rampant at the time. It was … the mantra in my … in the television game was that the only thing women care about is covered dishes, needlepoint, and children, and mothering. That’s all. And we came along and it was clear that behind this stereotype were thinking, live human beings who wanted to get in the act, who had something to say, who wanted to kick tires, who wanted to get mad, who were mad at doctors for patronizing them. And we exploited all this to our own advantage, and suddenly the audience is starting to ask better questions than I was during the commercials. And I got up one day and walked out and we realize now that if it hadn’t been for that, we probably would not have survived. I just don’t think you can sell two talking heads in front of a curtain for very long.
Paulson: Now you tell me.
Donahue: And incidentally, what we were doing was bringing democracy to television. The airwaves belonged to you in the first place. Why shouldn’t you use them? Use them, they’re yours.
Donahue: So this revolutionary idea came to us by accident. And I met in the process a lot of fabulous people along the way.
Paulson: You’ve done a lot of remarkable television, and you’ve been honored for your good work. And you’re often described as the father of the modern talk show. That’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?
Donahue: Well … yes. And I have been trying very hard to say that they’re all my illegitimate children and I love them equally. It’s true, I never envisioned … you know, we were naughty, Ken. We brought male strippers to daytime television. It wasn’t my idea, it was … I had an audience filled … an office that was made up mostly of women. And the women brought this. I said, “Male strippers?” You know, first thing I said, “Well, where are we gonna put the microphone?”
Donahue: And I couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t get over what happened. I was standing in the audience when these guys came out, all of them, you know, tremendously built guys. One guy set his jockstrap on fire. That was the finish of his …
Donahue: And your mother was in the audience, your baby sister, your girlfriend, your wife. And they were screaming. I never saw an audience so thoroughly entertained in my life.
Donahue: In my life. So these people had more fun than anybody … any audience ever had on the “Donahue” show. And that was just a first lesson of, you know, I didn’t … many of my ideas turned out to be terrible. So much of what we did was the creative work of very, very hardworking, bright young women who brought a point of view to this program that I often had no idea even existed. It was a wonderful education for me.
Paulson: You described the male stripper show as naughty. By the way, how many male stripper shows did you do over the years?
Donahue: I’m gonna give you a guess here. We were on the air for 29 years. We did more than 6,000 hours of television. And in those 6,000 hours, I’m gonna say we did male strippers maybe … I’m gonna say 11, 12 times.
Paulson: The … you talked about its being a naughty show, but it is a far cry from what you see today on television. Is it a logical … outgrowth of the kinds of shows you did that kind of pushed the envelope? And are you comfortable with where it’s gone?
Donahue: Well, you know, it’s hard for me to be uncomfortable with what’s happening on television today because I don’t … I’ve been preached to so much in the 29 years I was on the air. I mean, there were viewers who got messages from God to get me off the air. There were people who felt that the United States of America was going to Hell and Phil Donahue was leading it there with atheists and doing shows like the March on Skokie by Nazis. We had Nazis on our program. So when people say what do I think of this or that program, I’m a little bit hesitant. I don’t want to … I feel that if you … that the shows not worthy of consideration will fall of their own weight. We don’t want a bunch of white men, and that’s usually what it winds up being, behind closed doors deciding what you and I should see. I’m saying, Let’s celebrate our fabulous … the amendment at the center of our democracy, free speech. Let’s understand that those who go too far too often will fall of their own weight. And we will not chill people from saying unpopular things at times when others are screaming, “Shut up, shut up!” So let’s see what happens here. And incidentally, these shows tell us a lot about who we are, you know. How is it … how do we explain that these shows work, that they draw a very large crowd? And if you don’t want me … if you don’t want them to draw a very large crowd, then you have to change the rules. It’s not fair to say you can’t stay on the air unless you have a large-enough crowd, and then when they do this kind of thing to gather the crowd that you need as a sponsor you condemn them for it. Somewhere along the way I think we’re gonna find our way and I think you’ll see an improvement in daytime television.
Paulson: You know, you don’t do as many shows as you did without being a pretty good listener. And you listened to your guests, and you listened to your audience. Did anyone ever turn you around where you expected a point of view or a person, and you got something entirely different and changed your own mind?
Donahue: Probably many times … most of which I’m not sure I remember. I came out of 16 years of Catholic education, including four years at the University of Notre Dame. I’m a very proud graduate of what I think is the citadel of higher Catholic education in America. I came out of that experience feeling very cocky, feeling that I knew most of the answers. And then I realized that I wasn’t even aware of most of the questions. And the … the questions were often more exciting and exhilarating than the answers I thought I knew. I thought it was terrible that Hugh Hefner published these pictures of naked ladies. I mean, I just thought, you know, come on. You are … you know, you … you’re tempting adolescent males, you treat women as objects, your models are airbrushed and no mortal female can possibly meet the well-lit, slick way that you dress up these naked bodies. It’s degrading to women and you shouldn’t be able to publish it. Honestly, honestly, I graduated with those notions. And it took me a while, really, to begin to discover that this is a little more complicated than that, Phil. You know, that you … first of all … what are you gonna do with Venus de Milo? Let’s start there, you know. These were … and my wheels began to turn. And I began to … I was forced, really, to examine the consequences of somebody deciding you can’t print this or that. And my world really … I was … I recognized then, this would be in the late ’50s-’60s, I began to realize that I was prepared for a world that never materialized. Nobody told me they’d shoot my president. Nobody told me we’d lose a war. Nobody told me we would lose … America in the ’60s would lose the lead in automotive engineering. I had a guy on from Ohio State, a professor who was an expert on … a consumer expert on automobiles. He … I said, “What’s the best car right now? What’s the car you would buy right now?” He said, “A Honda Accord.” And I said, “A what?” I had no idea what he was talking about. So that’s when I began to realize that the … the principles that we’ve encoded, for example, in the Bill of Rights, are very difficult to live up to at certain times. And that there will always be people who know better than you, who know what’s good for you, and that all power does corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s a cliché because it’s true, and one of the main bulwarks against somebody assuming power who knows what’s good for you is a free press and unfettered speech by the citizenry, allowing … all of us to be heard.
Donahue: We’re looking for a cacophony of voices, not … not a well-trained choir.
Paulson: The very values you talk about are really reflected in the whole concept of the marketplace of ideas. And you rarely avoided any idea or any topic. I mean, I think you went almost everywhere with this show. I think the most remarkable thing you probably ever put on the air was the abortion … a filmed … a filmed abortion.
Donahue: We did. We … we filmed an abortion. It’s … it was very grim. You can hear the suction machine. You see the instruments used for dilating the … cervix. You see what is called the birth matter. It was … it was very, very rough. It was one camera and it was in Chicago. Of course, we got signatures from everybody. I don’t … I think that the patient remained anonymous, I think. Although maybe not. We talked to her, we talked to her boyfriend. And then we took the film and we edited it and we called up the Archdiocese of Chicago. And they all came down, and we put them in a room at WGN. Wasn’t the cardinal, but it was the people up there. And we punched the tape and we closed the door. And about 13, 14 minutes later, the … the tape ended and I opened the door and I walked in. And everybody in the room was crying. There was no … nobody … no rancor. Nobody yelled at me. And I don’t know if it was that afternoon or the next day. We of course showed it to the pro … to the Planned Parenthood people, pro-choice people as well. And the archdiocese … the archdiocesan people were really wounded, but they didn’t say no. There was enormous concern in that group that this made abortion look easy, and that we would be somehow encouraging young women not to be careful and go get an abortion ’cause look at this, it’s not even, you know, it’s … it’s easy. It only … I think it took seven, eight minutes for all this to happen. Maybe more, I don’t know. Maybe it was 13, I forget. But they both approved it and it aired. We put it on the air. Not all of our stations aired this program. Significant numbers of the stations declined to air the program. We were arguing that this is an issue that is splitting families. This is an issue that has moved some people to commit murder. And this is an issue that has thousands of women in the street marching, both sides. Let’s see it. Give … in the tradition of Scripps Howard, give people light and they will find their own way. That’s … that’s what we intended to do. We did it. And I will tell you, Ken, that I don’t think if anyone did that today, I don’t think it’d get on the air. I don’t think it would get on anybody’s air.
Paulson: Were there other shows that you couldn’t do, or thought the topic was just … that’s too tasteless to put on the air, or too controversial, or the backlash … fear of backlash is too great?
Donahue: Well, I wouldn’t put somebody on the air to tell you how to blow up your local post office. I … I began to, as we went along, be very challenged by … First Amendment ideals. And I had to … you know, and I … I announced myself as an absolutist. And it was … I’m a slow learner. It took me a while to realize … you know, you can’t be an absolutist. Everybody draws a line. Nobody I know is gonna stand up and support child pornography for … that’s one example. That’s a line, drawing a line. All right. Now I gotta be humble. If I draw a line, I have to let other people draw a line. So when we talk about the First Amendment, we’re talking about your line and my line. Which line saves the most babies? Which line ensures that we won’t have a whole bunch of people behind closed doors not allowing anybody to report on them, see what they’re doing, take this or any other nation to its doom because they don’t want to listen to the collective wisdom of the people? I’m not sure of that. I’m not as cocky as I once was, but I very much retain my … my support of and my, I hope, appreciation for the reason the framers put this in in the first place. There’s a reason it’s the First Amendment. There’s a reason. They saw what happened every time a theocracy begins to make its move or shape in … in a society, every time a … somebody who’ll make the trains run on time with no real respect for the people and their own rights. These are the first victims of … of a community that is not allowed to speak. So I … I believe that America’s strength derives so much from this ideal. But I came to this after … in a long, circuitous way. I did not … I wish I had been smarter faster. But I finally did come to the recognition of … of its importance, and … and the others as well, and how threatened they can be. My word! You know, these things can disappear right under our nose. Ka-boom! They’re gone. It’s … it’s an insidious dragon that would slay the First Amendment privileges and rights.
Paulson: You talk about the people behind closed doors. And of course, one of the obligations of the free press is to keep an eye on government. And you did a fair share of that even with your show, bringing in government officials, people running for office. There was one … memorable day in 1992 with Bill Clinton in which you asked some tough questions and your audience turned on you.
Donahue: Oh, yes.
Paulson: Can you talk about that day?
Donahue: Well, the American people were saying that character was important to … to their selection of a president. And the Gennifer Flowers story had hit … and we have this strange convention now. New York Times won’t use it until the National Enquirer does.
Donahue: So the National Enquirer, The Star and other tabloid magazines, and incidentally the monsignori of news, and we do have a conceit within our own community, you know … (Laughs) some … I’m … I’m a reporter and you’re not. I’m the news and you’re not. So … and even with that, even with that sort of unbecoming class system within journalism, the … The New York Times and other, The Washington Post and others have to acknowledge that it had … if it hadn’t been for The Star … The Star, this … it’s at the supermarket checkout counter, they would never have gone with the … with the Gennifer Flowers story. And I was arguing that, well, if … if it’s … if character is what you find important, then the press has a responsibility to question Bill Clinton about it. And I did, on the air. And I got the Bill Clinton finger.
Donahue: I’ll tell you, and it’s a very intimidating finger.
Donahue: And it’s … and it’s right across … right across the table from you. And my mother is watching from her apartment in Cleveland.
Donahue: “You’re the … I’m not gonna answer that question, Phil. You’re the reason for the cynicism in America.” (Claps) The whole audience. On my show. These are people who I think we can reasonably assume came … ’cause they kinda liked me.
Donahue: I mean, that’s a vain thing to say, but, you know … 50 percent of them anyway. (Claps) And I say, it’s just … do you want to know, you know … don’t … don’t smash the reporters who … who try. We … we want … you know, if … if an airplane manufacturer’s using cheap parts to increase his profits and placing your grandchildren who will fly on that airplane at risk at some future date, I want a reporter hiding in the garbage can at the airplane plant. I want a reporter getting a job at the airplane plant. You know? And when that happens? Oh, man, the establishment just collapses in indignation. How could you? You lied! ABC took a terrible hit for suggesting that a … a supermarket’s food, meats might not be inspected or might be reused or … they might be unhealthy. And nobody ever challenged the accuracy of that report, and yet the … a jury found the … we have such a hostility toward journalism now that a jury found ABC guilty. Never said a thing about … about whether or not it was true. That wasn’t even important. “Oh, they lied, they were deceitful.” I want to see more of that and I’d like to see … it wasn’t easy, really. I don’t want to be booed. I don’t want to be … I want to be loved. I’m like everybody else. But I decided back in Adrian, Michigan, when I was thrown out of a councilman’s office that being loved is not … and being a journalist are not necessarily ideas that can coexist and may be mutually exclusive. And that you have to be willing to be unpopular to go it alone, to ask questions that aren’t popular, to stick your nose under the tent to see what all the glitterati and … and the self-appointed and anointed are doing on our behalf. Do it. Encourage journalists to do that. And if they get booed, they get booed. Life goes on. That’s a big problem because today’s journalism, especially with the electronic people, people giving us news now on television, if they’re not popular they don’t succeed. And so they’re between a rock and a hard place. They’re supposed to report what we don’t want to hear, and they also have to be well-liked. That’s tough. That’s often tough. So what we want to do is encourage a press that’s not so preoccupied with popularity and interested in getting the story that perhaps no other reporter is going after.
Paulson: You speak with passion about the First Amendment and about freedom, and yet the world changed when two planes struck the World Trade Center. How secure are freedoms today?
Donahue: One of the first victims here of … one of the other results of the evil genius of this act is free speech. And what we need now more than ever and what we needed then in the immediate aftermath of the … of this tragedy, was more free speech, more robust dialogue. We needed a cacophony of voices. And we will disagree and we ought to, but don’t smear somebody you disagree with. You give yourself away. Be brave. Let’s hear all sides here. The reason free speech is important (is) because the founders believed that somehow if … if a lot of people were able to speak, we’d find some wisdom there.
Paulson: Ladies and gentlemen, please thank our guest, Phil Donahue.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Phil Donahue. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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