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November 21, 2014 / 28 Heshvan, 5775
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Phil Donahue: American Pestilence


The good news is that the ratings for Phil Donahue’s MSNBC talkfest were so weak they forced the program’s unceremonious termination; the bad news is that MSNBC gave this raving anti-American, pro-Palestinian leftist a platform in the first place, reconfiguring its entire nighttime lineup around him and terminating the program hosted by the pro-Israel Alan Keyes in the process.

The contrast with Keyes was never more clear than the night when Donahue hosted the Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Adam Shapiro and his Palestinian wife, Huiwaida Arraf, and conducted the interview as if on bended knee — at one point cooing to the couple, “You take our breath away,” and at another gushing, “…Man and wife; holy cow….I’ll tell you, this is unbelievable…”

Donahue’s most recent audience may have been minuscule, but make no mistake: when they look back at the social and cultural meltdown that preceded and ultimately abetted the demise of American civilization, future generations will take special note of the singularly mendacious influence of this pioneer of daytime television talk.

Indeed, it is not too strong a statement to suggest that it was Donahue, more than any other media figure of the 1970′s and 80′s, who softened up the moral underbelly of Middle America, leaving it all too vulnerable to assault by the forces bent on a complete eradication of traditional norms and values.

While it’s true that Donahue was hardly the first and certainly not the last media star to push a particular agenda on a more or less captive audience, he nevertheless was uniquely situated to capture the hearts and minds of the legions of (mostly) women tired of the usual mind-numbing slop routinely served up on daytime television.

And, truth be told, his program, certainly in its earlier years, did stand a few intellectual notches above the spinning wheels and video pulp that littered the landscape of television’s morning and afternoon wasteland.

But in short time the Donahue show became the most slanted and misleading program aired on a regular basis; indeed, a steady diet could leave a viewer wondering whether there was still a solitary well-adjusted Caucasian of moderate taste and modest demeanor to be found anywhere in the country.

Yes, the gang of grotesqueries was all there: A collection of perverts, narcissists and out-and-out psychotics, with Donahue himself in the role of glorified ringmaster presiding over a circus in which specimens of the most exotically deviant lifestyles regularly took center ring, invariably in the company of some trendy sociologist or pop psychologist armed with misleading statistics and glib justifications.

All of the above, it should be noted, occurred years before the onslaught of the talk show vulgarians — Oprah and Sally and Geraldo and Montel and Jerry and Jenny and Ricki, not to mention the dozens of others whose efforts were, mercifully, much more short lived — who focused the attention of critics on the phenomenon that came to be known as “trash TV.”

The phrase may have been coined for the sleazemeisters who followed in Donahue’s wake, but trash TV of the daytime variety had its genesis on the Donahue show — though Phil, in contrast to his television progeny who shamelessly blamed their excesses on an increasingly dumbed-down pool of viewers, shrewdly couched his penchant for the lowest of the lowbrow in the highbrow rhetoric of political correctness, employing the sensitive cadences beloved by liberals:

We’re expanding horizons! Exploring neglected areas of the human condition! Raising society’s level of tolerance! Moral equivalence! Egalitarianism! Multiculturalism uber alles!

Making of a Space Age Liberal

According to his 1980 autobiography, Phil Donahue grew up a rather repressed young man, terribly inhibited and plagued by all manner of monstrous neuroses caused by the strict Catholic ambience of his childhood.

Poor Phil apparently felt shackled by the moral absolutes that informed church doctrine — so much so that his struggle to cast off all traces of his religious upbringing would last well into adulthood.

Then along came the Sixties, wondrous decade of self-indulgent baby boomers

proclaiming that they — not their mothers and certainly not their fathers — knew best about how the world works, or ought to work, and never mind five thousand years of recorded human history and the customs and conventions that developed over millennia.

This flouting of traditional standards, coupled as it was with a sniveling disregard for all forms of authority, found a home in the hearts of college students across the country (not all, or even most, but enough to attract the kind of heavy — and largely celebratory — media coverage that served to permanently identify an entire generation with the burgeoning counterculture).

But callow, college-age youth were not the only Americans to fall under the spell of the anti-establishment, revolution-for-the-hell-of-it pied pipers of the countercultural left; there existed no shortage of adults who, lacking the perspective and wisdom usually associated with age, loudly let it be known that, hey, maybe the kids were on to something.

Phil Donahue was just such an adult: Outwardly a mature, married man with several children, but inwardly a shallow bucket longing after the empty cliches and sham pieties mouthed by scruffy, sandaled “flower children” and ignorant dormitory “revolutionaries” living off generous allowances and trust funds.

An eager imbiber of the waters of New Consciousness, an avid believer in any hip nostrum expounded by the lead singer of that week’s hot rock ‘n’ roll band, Donahue was emblematic of a phenomenon that swept the country in the late Sixties and early Seventies: the utter intimidation of the white establishment ruling class by its young.

This surrender of the culture to a small but extremely vocal segment of the population would change America in a manner so profound that the American MIAs who returned home from Vietnam in 1973 could barely recognize the nation they’d left behind just a few years before; as one of the repatriated soldiers lamented, “Everything is different — the way people dress, the way they act, even the way they think; this is not the country I once knew and loved.”

Phil Gets a Talk Show

It was during this time of great social ferment that Donahue began his career as a television talk show host in Dayton (over the years he would move the program from that relatively small Ohio city to more impressive zip codes, first in Chicago and later in New York); thanks to syndication, the program would eventually be carried to stations across the country and Phil even found himself appearing on covers of national magazines, toasted as a man of uncommon talent and rare intelligence.

Perceptive viewers noticed a change in the show’s tone sometime in the mid-Seventies: Yes, Donahue could still be counted on to provide a forum for serious discussion of substantive matters, but such exercises in integrity became more and more infrequent as the host’s fascination with all things abnormal grew at an astonishing pace.

Not that this was this by any means an objective fascination — something like, say, an anthropologist’s dispassionate study of social and cultural curiosities — that drove Donahue; no, this was an all-out fixation (shared by the legions of liberals of that era who raised the white flag at first sight of the onrushing counterculture) on the notion that objective truth is nonexistent and that therefore all philosophies, religions and lifestyles are equally valid or invalid.

Even more insidious was the manner in which Phil would approach, and reproach, any member of his studio audience who dared question the ethos that permeated the show.

Far from trying to browbeat dissenters, Donahue employed an essentially theatrical approach made all the more effective by its subtlety; he was, in fact, nothing less than masterful in the sly use of the raised eyebrow, the rolling eyes, the imploring voice.

In short order his audience was trained to instinctively recognize those responses that pleased Donahue and those that triggered his facial contortions, and soon it was commonplace for sweet little old ladies in the studio to raise their hands and deliver themselves of the sort of New Age psychobabble guaranteed to warn Donahue’s liberal heart.

And thus was born on the Donahue show that peculiar sport of liberal one-upmanship that is now such a staple of television talk programs as audience members battle it out to see who can come off looking the most tolerant; of course, any discerning viewer watching at home knows — absolutely, positively knows — that those sentiments in no way reflect what the speakers are really thinking as they behold the representatives of whatever “alternative lifestyle” is being championed on that particular day.

However disingenuous the responses from the studio audience, they served Donahue’s purpose by strengthening the message of non-judgmental open-mindedness (to the point of empty-headedness) pushed so relentlessly on his show; even the most independent-minded viewer could not help but be influenced by the day-in, day-out exposure to the sight of nice, polite, salt-of-the-earth Americans genuflecting before people who in a saner, less politically correct time would have been scorned, without guilt, as freaks and misfits.

Politically Correct Before The Term Existed

Donahue’s enthusiasm for behavior once considered out of the mainstream was of a piece with his politics, and one need only consider the haste with which liberals like Donahue embraced a values-free rhetoric and an anti-American worldview to understand how and why mainstream liberalism lost its way.

Racism, specifically white racism, was one of Donahue’s consuming passions — a worthy concern to be sure, but Donahue assuaged his own feelings of racial guilt by routinely conjuring up a vision of a racist America so hellish and detached from reality that it no doubt prompted even such accomplished practitioners of the race hustle as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to snicker with contempt.

In the fevered recesses of Donahue’s mind, every problem afflicting African Americans was to be blamed, in one fashion or another, on white folk; as he saw it, the more a white person sincerely believed himself to be free of racist attitudes, the more of a racist he really was — as evidenced by his very failure to recognize the fact.

Absurd? Not to Donahue, whose sensitivity had been raised to such Alpine heights that he reveled in black hostility and actually seemed to glow in the presence of self-styled “racial awareness counselors” who would use their countless appearances on his show to heap calumny on white America — in terms that if used by whites against blacks would have immediately unleashed the canned outrage of the NAACP, the ACLU, the ADL, and all the rest of the nation’s “progressive” press release factories.

On matters of foreign policy and America’s place in the world, Donahue’s views can best be described as unreconstructed leftist; his scorn for the Pentagon was for years equaled only by his indulgence of the former Soviet Union.

Donahue’s trademark retort throughout the Seventies and Eighties to any mention of Soviet misbehavior or the need to maintain a strong American military was to shoot the camera a bemused look and mutter, in a tone oozing sarcasm, “Yeah, we know — the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!”

The fact that in those days before Gorbachev the Russians were indeed coming or had already arrived — with crushing force all over Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and by proxy everywhere from Angola to Nicaragua — mattered not the slightest to Donahue; as a humanitarian of the left he was concerned first and foremost with the alleged sins of the United States and with what he believed to be this country’s inordinate fear of Communism.

But Donahue’s interest in race relations and foreign policy paled in comparison to his frightening obsession with feminism, and it often seemed that scarcely ten minutes could go by in the discussion of any topic wholly unrelated to the subject without Donahue’s attempting to make a (usually specious) connection.

The feminism of which Donahue was such a slavish sloganeer fit in nicely with the other liberal orthodoxies that took hold in the early Seventies in terms of its arrogance, humorlessness and intolerance; the high priestesses of the women’s movement were a particularly unhappy lot, forever searching out injustices real and imagined to confirm their status as victims: victims of men…of society…of religion…of history…of the laws of nature itself if their line of reasoning (loosely defined) were followed to its logical conclusion.

For Donahue and others like him, the appeal of feminism, much like the appeal of every other left-wing “ism,” stemmed primarily from the notion that distinctions of any kind are artificial at best and malicious at worst; that if someone is wealthier or smarter or more accomplished than the next person (or if men are generally more physical and aggressive and dominating than women), the credit or blame must lie with social conditioning, lack of opportunity, racism, sexism, capitalism, an unfair judicial system…anything but the inherent differences found among human beings from time immemorial.

Done In By the Monster He Created

By the time his long reign as king of daytime talk came to an end in the mid-Nineties, it was no longer politics that defined Donahue, but rather rank sensationalism — and so it was fittingly ironic that his end came about in great measure at the hands of his industry offspring; having spawned the ever-degenerating genre of trashy talk TV, he could only watch helplessly as the new kids on the block stole more and more of his viewers by out-sleazing the old master himself.

Oh, he tried to stanch the bleeding — as his audience continued to shrink he increased the number of shows devoted to weird relationships and dysfunctional families, but it was to no avail; America was by then a considerably more jaded country than it had been 20 or even 10 years before, and viewers of daytime TV were addicted to intimate confessions and public displays that at one time would have been unthinkable even to Donahue, who, try though he did, was unable to keep up with all the brash new competition.

Nevertheless, give the man his dubious due: He was the first, and for years the only, talk show host to publicize — and popularize — subjects that once were considered beyond the pale of decency; and given the veneer of his aw-shucks Midwestern innocence, he was the perfect pitchman for the new morality.

At its peak, Donahue’s influence was far greater than that of any other television talker of his era, those remnants of TV’s old guard — Merv and Mike and Dinah and Dick and even Johnny — whose programs featured innocuous chit-chat with Hollywood celebrities and who never used their high visibility to propagandize their viewers.

The sheer pervasiveness of the influence Donahue once wielded (in a society where television ranks as the ultimate arbiter of popular taste and opinion, we all feel its effects, whether we watch it constantly or refuse to allow a set into our homes) behooves us to subject the Donahues of the future to vigilant scrutiny and, if need be, full-throated condemnation — even as we delight in the flaccid ratings that — twice — caused the termination of this long-time American pestilence.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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