Oprah Talks to Phil Donahue
Oprah: You got to grow up with yourself.
Phil: I did. I began to ask myself, "Who am I as a father? Who am I as a citizen? Who am I as a Christian? How have I been influenced?" I used to give a speech about growing up racist—now I was learning new things from people like Ali and Malcolm X. Doing the show was like getting a PhD. It wasn't that I was smarter than the guy who'd joined the sales program at Sears, but if I'd done that, I wouldn't have met Betty Friedan, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Jane Fonda, Ayn Rand. It was an education not available in any university.
Oprah: When you aired controversial shows, were more people pleased than outraged?
Phil: If you look up outrage in the dictionary, there's a picture of me. We once even filmed an abortion—a side shot of a woman in stirrups, the physician dilating the cervix, everything. You heard the machine. You saw the birth matter in a jar. We filmed it. Then we called the Archdiocese of Chicago, the pro-life people, and the pro-choice people, sat them in a room, and played the tape before going anywhere near the air with it. When I walked into the room after they'd seen it, half the people were crying. The major grievance of the pro-life and Catholic Church folks was that the tape made abortion look easy. I said, "Well, that's the procedure—15 minutes." Their fear was that if we aired this, everybody would run out and get abortions. I said, "Look, this issue is splitting families. It's at the center of America's agenda." Somehow, we got to air that. The highest percentage of stations in the history of Donahue did not show it, yet significant numbers did. Today, you'd never get that on television.
Oprah: After 29 years, were you sad to leave the show?
Phil: I was anxious to walk. We'd lost our venue at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York [where the show had moved in 1985]. I would tell anyone doing a show today to get 30 Rock. People from all over the world get off the plane and go there. We had smart, multiracial, international studio audiences—young people, daughters, mothers. We didn't have to pull teeth to get their participation. It was the biggest natural high I could have. But then we moved to the New Yorker Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, which was the opposite. I remember having [multimillionaire financial publisher] Steve Forbes on, talking about the gold standard. I looked around the audience and saw this guy sitting there with an earring in his nose, and I knew he didn't come to see Steve Forbes. I could have been there four hours, and this guy wasn't going to get up and say a thing. So the discouragement set in.