The Iraq War Began 20 Years Ago Today. Phil Donahue's MSNBC Show Was One Of The First Casualties

Post by: Rick Ellis 19 March, 2023

When MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue's primetime show on Tuesday, February 25th, 2003, it wasn't exactly a shocker to industry watchers. Executives at the cable network had been privately grumbling about the show to reporters for weeks, complaining that the show was struggling in the ratings, Donahue was difficult to deal with and the network felt the very competitive timeslot needed some new blood in order to compete against Fox News Channel powerhouse Bill O'Reilly.

And when I reported on the move the following day, I did include those observations. But I also focused on a primary reason why Donahue had exited the cable news network: executives felt that Donahue's anti-Iraq War stance would be a problem for advertisers and would cripple the network's hopes of building a successful alternative to Fox News and CNN as the country moved towards war.

And in fact, if you look at the raw ratings numbers, the struggling news channel may have a point. Originally conceived as a liberal alternative to the popular O'Reilly Factor, the show started slow and never recovered. During this month, a "sweeps" period in which ratings are watched closely to set advertising rates, Donahue averaged 446,000 viewers. O'Reilly drew 2.7 million viewers, up 28 percent from February 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But as it turns out, the picture isn't as clear as it initially seems. While Donahue does badly trail both O'Reilly and CNN's Connie Chung in the ratings, those numbers have improved in recent weeks. So much so that the program is the top-rated show on MSNBC, beating even the highly promoted Hardball With Chris Matthews.

Although Donahue didn't know it at the time, his fate was sealed a number of weeks ago after NBC News executives received the results of a study commissioned to provide guidance on the future of the news channel.

That report--shared with me by an NBC news insider--gives an excruciatingly painful assessment of the channel and its programming. Some of the recommendations, such as dropping the "America's News Channel," have already been implemented. But the harshest criticism was leveled at Donahue, whom the authors of the study described as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace."

The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war......He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

A source close to Donahue claims that while he wasn't aware of the specific study, the tone and outcome aren't surprising.

"It's not a coincidence that this decision comes the same week that MSNBC announces it has hired Dick Armey as a commentator and has both Jesse Ventura and Michael Savage joining the network as hosts. They're scared, and they decided to take the coward's road and slant towards the conservative crowd that watches Fox News."

While it wasn't public knowledge at the time, Donahue had been battling network executives for months over the direction of his show, particularly as it became increasingly clear that the Bush Administration was moving closer to an invasion of Iraq.

When MSNBC launched Donahue in 2002, network executives were clearly hoping for some modern-day incarnation of his long-running syndicated daytime talker. Albeit with a focus on the news of the day as opposed to cheating housewives and sports figures battling depression. And while that was certainly part of the mix in the early months of the show, as talk of a possible war increased Donahue leaned increasingly into his liberal inclinations. He had guests on to talk about the Patriot Act, the costs of a possible invasion and warned of what might be the dangers from other countries in the Middle East. Donahue had guests on to pushback against administration claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and other than the show Buchanan and Press (hosted by conservative Pat Buchanan and liberal Bill Press), Donahue was often the only MSNBC host to show any real skepticism about a possible war with Iraq.

It's important to take a minute and reflect upon the mood of the country in 2002 and early 2003. The events of 9/11 were still razor sharp in the minds of Americans and that translated into a general sense of patriotism and a desire among many to support the Bush Administration. Bush began his presidency with approval ratings near 50%. But following the September 11th attacks, Bush held approval ratings of greater than 85%, among the highest for any President in history.  And while that number had dipped some by early 2003, it hovered around 60-65%, which is still historically quite high. Most Americans were not in the mood to hear about moderation towards any country that might be involved with terrorism against the United States.

But it wasn't just average Americans who were leery of criticizing the war buildup. After Donahue was pushed out of MSNBC, I spoke to a number of people at the network and heard the same story from several of them. According to scuttlebutt inside the network, former GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch called a top executive at the network more than once to complain about the skepticism over Iraq. While Welch had retired at this point, he still held enormous sway at GE. This was a problem given that they owned NBC, which owned MSNBC.

The story I heard was that Welch had called to complain after he had been playing golf with some buddies and they began asking why MSNBC had some "anti-war kooks" on the air. I was never able to officially confirm the story, but the fact MSNBC employees believed it is an indication of the pressure they felt to conform to the national narrative.

And even before the pressure of coverage of the Iraq War, there were a lot of animosities between NBC News employees and executives at the cable news network. NBC News executives felt the cable news side of the business was there primarily to give the NBC News coverage another outlet. Personality-driven programming could be tolerated in small doses, but it wasn't appropriate for a channel associated with the "serious" reporters of NBC News. The other part of this angst was more unspoken. But there was a fear in most media organizations at the time that appearing as if you weren't supporting a possible war effort 100 percent, it could be bad for the company's bottom line.

Add to all of this the problems brought on by Donahue himself. By late 2002, he certainly wasn't doing the show he had promised the network and that might not have been a problem if he could have delivered a program that was lively and groundbreaking. But given that few journalists were inclined to publicly speculate about the need for an invasion of Iraq, there were few journalists Donahue's producers could convince to appear on the show. In fact, the pool of possible war-skeptical guests relied heavily on old 1960s anti-war faces and a collection of other very left-wing critics of any war effort. The result were shows that were often not just ponderous, but also predictable.

That predictability seemed to worry MSNBC executives less than the prospect of having the network seen as being not sufficiently supportive of the war effort. A worry I wrote about in a piece posted a couple of weeks after Donahue exited the network:

But many of the show's biggest boosters felt that the guidelines hamstrung a format that was being challenged by critics from the right. Rather than "letting Phil be Phil," imposing a "quota system on guests" resulted in shows that often degenerated into shouting matches between liberals and conservatives. A person hired by the network approved the booking decisions and often insisted that there be two conservative guests for every one that was perceived to be liberal. "Sometimes the show ended up being some warped version of 'Crossfire,' which wasn't what we (the network) wanted," explained one high-placed NBC News official. "And it wasn't doing Donahue any favors, either."

One of the high-ranking production people on the show recounted the number of times potential show ideas were shot down, or watered down to the point where the original pitch didn't make any sense. "We wanted to do more stories about Iraq and other foreign policy issues and at one point I was told that we needed to limit those segments to no more than one every few days," he described. "I was never told not to book someone, but at some point you find yourself falling back to the position of picking your battles. Unfortunately, that means a lot of good people didn't get heard on our show."

Ironically, while liberals may have found the show's editorial mix unsatisfying, those inside the network often felt the show still leaned too far left for advertiser's comfort. One email from that period discussed the "challenges" faced by MSNBC as it attempted to promote the show. "...and after watching last night's show, I'm not sure what type of show we're doing....forget the constant braying back and forth between guests," complained one network insider. "Tell me, are we reaching our core audience? Sometimes, I feel as if I'm watching MSNPR, rather than a network associated with NBC News."

All of this was going on at the same time as a frustrating stall in the ratings of the show. By late August, network executives had begun to discuss ways to boost the numbers, and for many, that meant moving the show towards a more "centrist, women-friendly environment." In fact, NBC executives have consistently claimed that they had hoped for a show that was attractive to an "underserved demographic...women, libertarians, the Middle American Silent Majority that should be the core of our audience."

All of this angst and second-guessing led the network to commission several focus groups in hopes of fine-tuning changes to Donahue. And according to results I saw from the sessions, it's clear there were perception problems with the show - whether or not they were accurate:

The battle for the heart and soul of the show escalated after the results of an October focus group further convinced network news executives that Phil needed "some help" turning the show around. That focus group led to a series of additional "fine-tuning" moves, with special attention being given to Phil himself. "I personally like Donahue, but our numbers were telling us that viewers thought he has too combative, and often said things that some respondents considered almost unpatriotic," says one network insider. "In retrospect, I think we may have overreacted, but I honestly thought we were doing what was best for the show."

By the time January began, the pressure from executives at NBC and GE had reportedly become so persistent that the normally private Donahue began making veiled references to the situation during his show.

"I believe that the drumbeat has been so powerful, so everywhere, that it has literally intimidated people who might want to dissent from the war," he said during a January 6th show called "Is There A Conservative Bias In The Media?" "They’re going to be called unpatriotic. I was called unpatriotic by a person in this very NBC-MSNBC family. This is very difficult out there. At a time when we need dissent the most, everybody is sitting back and afraid."

Whether it was fear or business that drove the move toward Donahue's cancellation, the process was moving along behind the scenes. One email from this period discusses the look of a postwar, post-Donahue, MSNBC. The executive noted that the war with Iraq would be a chance for the network to "reinvent itself" and take advantage of the "anticipated larger audience who will tune in during a time of war."

The email went on to note that the war coverage would give the network an opportunity to "cross-pollinate our programming," by fitting network personalities into the wall-to-wall war coverage. "It's unlikely that we can use Phil in this way, particularly given his public stance on the advisability of the war effort." The author went on to explain that the network needed additional voices who were comfortable and knowledgeable in "both an environment of war and of peace."

While it's unclear just when the decision was made to cancel Donahue, nearly everyone interviewed for this piece believes that the reasons are more complex than just liberal vs. conservative. "This is a ratings-driven business, and it's important not to lose track of that in this discussion," one CNN executive told me on Monday. "But I won't lie and tell you that your public beliefs and persona don't matter to viewers....There are a lot of people out there who believe that the press is inherently liberal. And I would be an idiot if I did anything to encourage that conversation."

So Donahue lost his show and was ironically replaced a month later by Keith Olbermann, who was rehired by the network to host a new incarnation of Countdown: Iraq called Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Within months, Olbermann's mix of news and pointed commentary was much more critical of the Bush Administration and the war effort than Donahue had ever attempted. The difference was that by the fall of 2003, public sentiment about the war effort was quickly turning skeptical, which gave Olbermann breathing room Donahue never had from network executives.

As for me, after writing a series of pieces about the dispute that were refenced everywhere from Vanity Fair and The Nation to NPR and the NY Times, I found myself unable to continue reporting. At the time that I was reporting out the story, I was an unemployed journalist reporting the story for my own personal site. 

Which was a problem, because this was before the time of Google Adsense and back in the days when web owners had to pay a metered cost for bandwidth. After my first bill for $1,200, it was clear the effort wasn't financially sustainable.

And when I found a new job, I put the media reporting on a back burner for more than decade. But when I write about current media stories such as CNN's supposed "move to the middle," I think about this story, which taught me a great deal about audience perceptions and the intellectual clarity of cable news executives.

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Last modified on Monday, 20 March 2023 00:02