Phil Donahue: Whistle-Blowers, Dissenters and Progressives Are the Patriots


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our discussion with Phil Donahue, who joins us in the studio.

Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So I’ve introduced Phil on all the other segments. His bio is going to be beneath the video player. And, frankly, Phil doesn’t really need an introduction anyway, so we’re going to just get into it.

The atomic bombs that America dropped on Japan kind of set the tone for the second half of the 20th century. Just about anything was justifiable to defend Americanism. And there’s pretty good evidence that the bombs were dropped mostly as a threat or shot across the bow of the Soviet Union anyway. They weren’t, probably, needed to end the war. Arises out of the Cold War this infrastructure of policing Americans, of trying to scare Americans—McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities, Hoover and the FBI having files on just about everybody, trying to get people to inform on each other, I mean, many of the characteristics of a police state.

In the 1960s and ’70s, you have a program called COINTELPRO, which was coordinated by the FBI, the NSA, and local police forces to infiltrate the Black Panthers, but also many antiwar groups. Almost all the groups targeted were actually doing legal things, and many of the infiltrators tried to get them to do illegal things, especially the Panthers, that many of the infiltrators actually pushed them towards much more violent activity than they were likely to have gone on their own.

We interviewed recently a man named Eddie Conway, who was a Panther in Baltimore, and he served 44 years in jail and just get out six months ago. He wrote in his book that COINTELPRO never stopped. Essentially, this—even though the Church Committee, the Senate investigating committee which exposed much of COINTELPRO’s misdeeds, much of which was illegal, that in fact it carries on, except now it’s called the Patriot Act, and that this kind of police apparatus, which certainly could be used for the same kind of things COINTELPRO did in the ’60s, and this kind of phone—the spying and the cracking down on whistleblowing. And I know this is an issue that has really concerned you, and you’re on a speaking tour about it, and, in fact, you’re going to do something as we speak, something here at The Real News. How dangerous is all of this?

DONAHUE: Well, I came to the realization that America has become, we are a nation of law unless we’re scared. And we’re scared. Nobody likes us. I think we’ve got our presidents—I don’t know how long it’s going to take before our president is going to have to visit a church picnic in a Bradley armored vehicle. You know, America, the ones who boast most about America are the ones turning their back on the jewel of America, which is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The framers were right: don’t let one man have the power to declare war. And, as you know, we haven’t done that since—. And if I’m scared, you can listen in on my phone; I’ve got nothing to hide. How many times have you heard that? Which is probably what they said in Nazi Germany, too, in advance of the rise of the Third Reich.

There is a failure to appreciate the whole purpose of the First Amendment. You know, if you can’t speak, if you can’t dissent, then stop sending our young men and women to war to protect these fabulous virtues of the American experience, which is to get a neo-Mussolini, and he’ll tell us what’s good for us, and people will make—old men will tell us what’s good for us behind closed doors. It’s amazing what you can do if you scare the people.

And in many ways the biggest defense against this kind of harvesting of power that the political elite take unto themselves is the whistleblower. But it does no good to blow the whistle if the people can’t hear it. And the only way that people are going to be able to hear it is if we have journalists brave enough to take notes, listen to these brave people, who risk, often, their careers, journalists who are respected for the work that they do and not besieged by a frightened administration who perceive this as somehow undermining their own power to protect us. Give—the Scripps Howard motto when I was a kid—the Cleveland Press Building in downtown Cleveland, big marble building, across the top was etched in stone, “Give light and the people will find their own way.” You remember? The lighthouse that would sweep around was there logo. That’s largely been lost, or the importance of it has been lost.

And I think that’s why America enters the 21st century with a lot on its mind. We are kidding ourselves. You know, the brave troops, all the wonderful troops, all those troops are just so—we can’t say enough about the—the troops come home and the VA doesn’t call them back. Pretense is palpable. We think if we say it, it’s true: we’re exceptional, we’re exceptional, exceptionalism. Well, I’m saying, easy, big fella. If we are exceptional—and I think certainly our Constitution is exceptional. It’s fabulous. But it’d be better if someone from another country said that about us. We’re beginning to look a little bit insecure.

JAY: Is what’s happening is—I’m asking if that this kind of—the way we own stuff, the way we have power, the way we organize the society, it’s kind of run out of answers, unless you’re very rich, in which case you don’t need answers to those things, ’cause you’ve got a big wall and you’ve got security cards and my kids will be okay ’cause I’ll leave them money.

DONAHUE: That is true.

JAY: And, like, you could say earlier, as disastrous as the 20th century was, you know, in terms of two big wars and endless small wars and such, still you could say most people kind of did better, certainly in the industrialized countries. You know, you had some innovation, you know, some. It’s kind of running out of steam completely now. Like, the economy is smoke and mirrors, and the wages have gone down. There’s no real demand in the economy. And so they’re trying to create some kind of growth. Based on what? Because people can’t buy stuff. Geopolitically, the rivalries are heating up. They’re trying to get something going with Russia. But the Damocles sword is climate change, and it’s not even a conversation in Washington. And maybe a few states and a little bit at city level, but the national conversation about climate change has kind of dissipated, almost completely. But this issue of individual rights, that resonates with people.

But what seems to me is people have to draw a conclusion with that, which is you can’t be the hegemon abroad, you can’t defend this kind of system that we have, and still have individual rights, because you’ve reached a point now where if you assert those individual rights and ask for anything rational, reasonable, you’re a threat to this. And these guys are getting ready for 25, 30 percent unemployment, and they’re getting ready for another round of war somewhere, and they’re going to deal with—they’re getting ready to deal with it—deal with it meaning they will do what they’ve done in the past, which is suppress dissent.

DONAHUE: Right. Well, there are so many things conspiring to set us up for—we have to elect, we have to—you know, it’s up to us. We can have any kind of country we want. We have to elect leaders who will reach out rather than lash out. We have become a warrior nation. We have no respect for diplomacy.

JAY: And a very militarized economy, which pushes us in that direction.

DONAHUE: Absolutely, and a Tea Party that wants to go to Washington, shut everything down except the Pentagon, and the rest of us will start up small businesses. I think that’s their plan. You can see it in the gun control issue. This is dogma. “From my cold, dead hands”—Charlton Heston. It’s dogma. Telling the hardcore NRA that gun legislation can be—guns can be regulated is like telling a Christian that Jesus wasn’t divine. I don’t know what you do about this. It’s—you know, you can just find yourself talking to a wall.

JAY: So, in terms of what to do, there’s lots of things that could be said to do, that need to be done—.

DONAHUE: Don’t become cynical like to me.

JAY: Yeah, don’t become cynical. But talk a little bit about what you would like to see independent media do in this situation.

DONAHUE: Well, first of all, as you already are, the biggest thing you’ve already done: you’re not beholden to corporate interests. Nobody’s going to get angry with you if you suggest that cigarettes cause cancer. Of course, that was solved a long time ago, but I went through that. That wasn’t something you could say on—. You have to be free not to be beholden to sponsors. That’s why corporate media is ruining our democracy. You have to be filled with journalists who don’t care if the White House doesn’t call them back.

JAY: Tyranny of access.

DONAHUE: David Halberstam taught me you can’t have dinner with Henry and cover Henry. Henry Kissinger schmoozed the press better than anybody else on earth. And once you have dinner, it takes the edge off your reporting. Doesn’t mean you have to be mean or nasty. The reason fraternization will get you the brig in the army, in the military: the last thing a general wants to see is one of his soldiers sharing cigarettes with an enemy soldier. The reason that’s so seriously considered is because it’s hard to shoot a guy after he’s shown you a picture of his kids.

And today, as we might have learned in This Town, Mark Leibovich’s book about Washington—and it’s a fabulous look at how the whole Washington machine works and who’s going for—and the search for power and money, and the chumminess between the political elite and the elite media—the biggest get is the president. And then the closer you get up to the president, they become important, but then less important, less—. But the whole energy of the press is to make your program and yourself worthy of trust and credibility and grandeur by having powerful guests on your program. And what you get with powerful guests is the greatest amount of spin. That’s why whistleblowers are so important, because they are more likely to get information from the people who are least likely to give you spin, because they see the results of these decisions by powerful people, who are often more interested in retaining their own power than they are in the widespread common good of the people that they serve.

So the new media needs to be divorced from the corporate boardroom, divorced from the nipple of for-profit companies, such as sponsors. This is a dilemma.

And, by the way, everything doesn’t suck. There are some wonderful things happening out there. You can’t just come in, and nobody respects a roundhouse barroom generality. Arwa Damon, just to name one, on CNN, she’s over there in Iraq with the helmet and the flak jacket, and she’s been saying for several months now that Iraq is in chaos. You know, those people have a lot more courage than I had to have to put a gay guy on in 1967. So we have an obligation, I think: a respectful bow and a tip of the hat to those reporters over there, who are often understaffed. Remember, we’re closing foreign bureaus because there’s no money in it.

The American people have—our interest seems to stop at our shores. I learned that when I went to Russia to do shows in Russia. They were much more interested in us than we were in them. Americans are self-involved, and we are self-involved at our peril. If all good things must come to an end, then all good things will. We cannot assume the thriving of this fabulous experiment in republican democracy and we can’t continue to worship Jefferson and Madison if we don’t stand up for the principles that they gave to us in writing.

That’s why I think dissenters, progressives, are the patriots. We believe the framers were right. We don’t think you should listen in on a phone call without judicial authorization. We think there is such a thing as cruel and unusual. And certainly we believe that free speech is—most likely bring you peace. If you shut people up violently, you promote more violence. And the reason if we live by the sword, we’ll die by the sword, the reason that’s a cliche is because it’s true. I mean, imagine if somebody sent a drone into Ottumwa, Iowa. How many of us would grab a stick and—”Where are these bastards?” we would say.

JAY: Yeah, if you live by the sword, don’t expect to have many rights at home.

DONAHUE: Absolutely. That’s right. And we are doing this—we are—this is what we’re doing—we are endangering our children. Our children are going to wonder if they just got on the wrong bus. Did they just enter the wrong marathon? Get on the wrong airplane? I mean, what kind of world are we setting up for them? And yet we will—you cannot get elected unless you spend more money on the Pentagon, trillion-dollar wars. And our kids can’t pay their student loans. What’s wrong with this picture?

JAY: Alright. To be continued. Thanks for joining us.

DONAHUE: Pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. And as I said, Phil has agreed to come back, and we’re going to pick up this conversation in a little while. Thanks. Bye-bye.