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Gordon Kahl, an anti-tax protester, Posse Comitatus member (see 1967 - 1973 and 1975 - 1981), and federal fugitive who killed two US Marshals in a February shootout in North Dakota (see February 13, 1983 and After), quickly gains national prominence as the media begins reporting on the fatal confrontation. Most media reports only identify him as a “tax protester,” failing to mention his Posse Comitatus membership and often leaving out the involvement of his son, Yorie Kahl, and two other Posse members who helped kill the marshals and wound three others. CBS news anchor Dan Rather goes farther than most of his colleagues, describing Kahl as “a radical survivalist, a fanatic, [and] an ultraright-wing tax protester” whom authorities describe as “a killer.” It does not take long for Posse Comitatus leader James Wickstrom (see 1984) to begin contacting the media himself, proudly announcing Kahl’s Posse connections and announcing: “The Posse in Wisconsin is on standby alert. All communications are locked in.” The government has, in pursuing Kahl, “declared war on the people of this country,” Wickstrom tells reporters. He adds that his organization has some three million members, though the FBI estimates its membership at closer to a few thousand; the number is hard to pin down, as many anti-tax protesters (see 1951-1967, December 9, 1968 and After, 1970-1972, 1974, 1976-1978, 1980, and Early 1980s) have at least some affiliation with the loosely organized group. As the FBI and local law enforcement officials mount a nationwide manhunt, Wickstrom, with some success, tries to turn the story away from Kahl’s murder of the two marshals and towards the story of the Posse’s anti-tax beliefs. “What we have here is a gentleman who is now being pursued in North Dakota on a setup to shut his mouth because the American people are waking up by the tens of thousands across this country, realizing that we have been duped by a private central bank,” he declares to a Milwaukee reporter. He makes an appearance on the nationally televised Phil Donahue Show, where he claims that his “heart really goes out to the US Marshals and the children of those marshals and their families.” Asked by Donahue if he would join Kahl’s wife in asking Kahl to turn himself in, Wickstrom changes the subject, arguing that Kahl’s civil rights have been violated and the real issues are farm foreclosures, corrupt courts, the income tax, the Federal Reserve, unemployment, foreign workers, and Jews. In 2002, author Daniel Levitas will write, “Phil Donahue’s dialogue with Wickstrom was oftentimes inane, and though he clearly didn’t agree with his guest, he gave Wickstrom a tremendous platform to spread his ideas.” Wickstrom will use his media appearances to mount a longshot candidacy for governor of Wisconsin. (Levitas 2002, pp. 201-204) Four months later, Kahl will die in a bloody standoff with police officers in Arkansas (see March 13 - June 3, 1983).
Several former members of the Branch Davidian community outside Waco, Texas (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and March 1, 1993), appear on the Phil Donahue morning talk show. The show opens with a wrenching interview with Kiri Jewell, a young woman who left the Waco group with her father. Donahue says to her: “[Y]ou lived in this compound from age six till about a year and a half ago. You’re no longer in the cult because your father [David Jewell] successfully sued your mother for custody and you made your way to freedom, we might say, a year and a half ago.” Donahue calls the Branch Davidians a “destructive cult,” noting leader David Koresh’s marathon Bible study sessions (see February 27 - March 3, 1993), and says: “So the pressure was enormous, wasn’t it? He was a very controlling person.” (Two years later, Kiri Jewell will tell of her repeated rapes at the hands of Koresh—see July 21, 1995.) Former Davidian Marc Breault, who left the community after losing a power struggle with Koresh (see Around 4:00 p.m. February 28, 1993), focuses on how “easy” it was for him to be “sucked in” by Koresh and his group. Cult expert Rick Ross draws a sharp line between the Davidians and Koresh, saying: “Many of the people in this compound are highly-educated, very intelligent people, many very idealistic, very loving, very kind. And the fact is that it’s sad to say, but we’re all vulnerable to the kind of mental manipulation that this man pulled on these people and he has exploited them, dominated them, and taken control of their lives.… The group’s got an absolute leader. Everything the leader says is right, is right. Whatever he says is wrong, is wrong. And if you think for yourself, you’re rebellious, you’re evil, and your family is, too.” (Tabor and Gallagher 1995, pp. 120-121) Two days later, Koresh’s aide Steve Schneider will demand a transcript from the Donahue show; the FBI will deny the request. (US Department of Justice 10/8/1993)
Jeff Cohen, the founder of the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and a former producer for MSNBC talk show host Phil Donahue, loses almost all of his airtime on the network as the Iraq invasion approaches. Cohen, once a frequent guest on MSNBC’s various opinion and commentary shows, will reflect in his 2006 book Cable News Confidential that he argued passionately against invading Iraq, using “every possible argument that might sway mainstream viewers—no real threat, cost, instability.” However, as the run-up to war progresses, he is no longer allowed on the air. He will write: “There was no room for me after MSNBC launched ‘Countdown: Iraq’—a daily one-hour show that seemed more keen on glamorizing a potential war than scrutinizing or debating it. ‘Countdown: Iraq’ featured retired colonels and generals, sometimes resembling boys with war toys as they used props, maps and glitzy graphics to spin invasion scenarios. They reminded me of pumped-up ex-football players doing pre-game analysis and diagramming plays. It was excruciating to be sidelined at MSNBC, watching so many non-debates in which myth and misinformation were served up unchallenged.” In 2008, Cohen will write: “It was bad enough to be silenced. Much worse to see that these ex-generals—many working for military corporations—were never in debates, nor asked a tough question by an anchor.” Cohen’s recollections will be bolstered by a 2008 New York Times investigation that documents a systematic, well-organized media manipulation program by the Pentagon that successfully sells the war to the media and the American public by using so-called “independent military analysts” (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond). While the Times article focuses primarily on the analysts and their Pentagon handlers, Cohen says that an equal portion of blame belongs to the media outlets themselves. “The biggest villain here is not Rumsfeld nor the Pentagon,” Cohen writes. “It’s the TV networks. In the land of the First Amendment, it was their choice to shut down debate and journalism. No government agency forced MSNBC to repeatedly feature the hawkish generals unopposed. Or fire Phil Donahue. Or smear weapons expert Scott Ritter. Or blacklist former attorney general Ramsey Clark. It was top NBC/MSNBC execs, not the Feds, who imposed a quota system on the Donahue staff requiring two pro-war guests if we booked one anti-war advocate—affirmative action for hawks.… [T]he major TV networks… were not hoodwinked by a Pentagon propaganda scheme. They were willingly complicit, and have been for decades.” (Cohen 4/28/2008)
MSNBC, the cable news channel owned by NBC, cancels Phil Donahue’s nightly talk show. MSNBC cites “disappointing ratings” for “Donahue.” The show, originally conceived as a more liberal alternative for Fox News’s overtly conservative “O’Reilly Factor,” started very slow and never came close to challenging either O’Reilly’s ratings or CNN’s Connie Chung, whose show is also in the same time slot. But in recent weeks, Donahue’s ratings have steadily increased to the point where it is the top-rated show on the network, even beating MSNBC’s flagship political show, “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”
'Tired Left-Wing Liberal' - An internal report commissioned by the network’s executives, later obtained by media analyst Rick Ellis, calls Phil Donahue “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.” The report says that Donahue’s show presents 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.” If the show continues on the air, the report warns that it could become “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” As Donahue exits the lineup, MSNBC brings aboard former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough as commentators, and radical right-wing talk show host Michael Savage and libertarian Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, as hosts. Donahue’s time slot will be taken temporarily by the expansion of another show, “Countdown: Iraq,” to two hours. Nation columnist John Nichols writes: “Talk about adding insult to injury. Getting canceled is bad enough; getting canceled to make way for a program devoted to anticipating an unnecessary war is just plain awful.” (Carter 2/26/2003; Ellis 2/26/2003; Nichols 2/27/2003) In 2007, Donahue says he knew nothing of the internal memo at the time (see April 25, 2007). “I didn’t know about that till I read about it in the New York Times.” When asked: “What did you think? What does that say to you? That dissent is unpatriotic?” Donahue will reply, “Well, not only unpatriotic, but it’s not good for business.” (Moyers 4/25/2007)
MSNBC 'Tak[ing] the Coward's Road' - A source close to Donahue says that Donahue’s cancellation is “no coincidence.” The MSNBC executives are “scared,” the source says, “and they decided to take the coward’s road and slant towards the conservative crowd that watch Fox News.” Ellis, a veteran media analyst with strong connections in the TV news industry, writes that MSNBC, “[r]ather than building a unique voice, the news channel has opted to become a lesser alternative to the Fox News Channel.” Interestingly, the NBC report recommended against such a course: “The temptation is to chase the audience that is already out there and play to what seems to be working at Fox. But there is another road, and if we build our unique voices from within, we have a chance to develop a loyal and valuable audience.” Nichols writes, “[I]t is a pretty good bet that, now that ‘Donahue’ is going off the air, we will not soon see another show like the one where he featured [consumer advocate] Ralph Nader and [progressive columnist] Molly Ivins in front of a crowd of laid-off Enron employees.” Nichols adds that while Donahue’s show may have been conceived as a liberal alternative to O’Reilly, it was never allowed to be such: “For every program that featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, there were ten where Donahue was forced to ask polite questions of second-string conservative pundits. Where his conservative competitors never worry about fairness or balance, Donahue was under constant pressure to clog his show’s arteries with deadly dull apologists for all things Bush. And when that got too boring, he was pressured to steer the show away from politics and toward the glitzy and the maudlin.” Only in its last few weeks did MSNBC allow Donahue to do what he does best—interview interesting guests in front of a live audience. The show’s ratings began climbing rapidly. Whether the show could have challenged O’Reilly or other conservative shows’ ratings can never be known.
Never Trusted the American Viewing Audience - Nichols concludes: “Now that ‘Donahue’ has been ditched, conservative commentators and network executives will tell themselves that there is no audience for progressive voices on television. They will, of course, be wrong on the broad premise—some of O’Reilly’s best shows feature feisty progressives like US [Representatives] Jan Schakowsky and Bernie Sanders. And they will be wrong more specifically about Donahue. We will never know for sure whether Phil Donahue could have seriously competed with conservative hosts like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. What we do now, for sure, is that MSNBC executives were never willing to trust Phil Donahue—or the American television viewing audience.” (Carter 2/26/2003; Ellis 2/26/2003; Nichols 2/27/2003)
The liberal news publication CounterPunch profiles the “Rumsfeld Group,” a government public relations group put together after the 9/11 attacks to manipulate the media’s reporting of the Bush administration’s war on terror (see Late May 2001). One noteworthy aspect of the profile is the success the “Rumsfeld Group” has had in working with the press to spread its message.
Benador Associates - One of the most effective “perception managers” for the Bush administration is Elena Benador, the media placement expert who runs Benador Associates. She oversees the Middle East Forum, an organization CounterPunch reporter Jeffrey St. Clair calls “a fanatically pro-Zionist paper mill,” and has close connections with some of Washington’s most influential hardliners and neoconservatives, including Michael Ledeen, Charles Krauthammer, Alexander Haig, Max Boot, Daniel Pipes, Richard Perle, and Judith Miller. Benador is given the task of getting these pro-war hawks on the air and in the press as often as possible. She does an excellent job in both getting the placements and crafting the message to ensure that they all make the same points. “There are some things, you just have to state them in a different way, in a slightly different way,” Benador explains. “If not, people get scared.”
Washington Post Particularly Compliant - Many press and television news outlets help promulgate the Pentagon’s story, but, St. Clair will note, few are as reliable or as enthusiastic as the Washington Post. He mentions the example of Private Jessica Lynch, whose story was fed for weeks by an over-the-top report from the Post that was fueled entirely by PR flacks from the Pentagon’s Combat Camera operation (see April 1, 2003 and April 3, 2003). In the months leading up to the Iraq invasion, the Post’s op-eds ran 3 to 1 in favor of attacking Iraq. St. Clair notes that in 1988, the Post shrugged off reports of Saddam Hussein gassing Iranians and his own Iraqis as “a quirk of war”; at that point, the US wanted close relations with the Hussein regime, and wanted to play down Hussein’s depredations. The Post echoed the government’s lack of interest.
Firing of Donahue - St. Clair points to MSNBC’s firing of liberal talk show host Phil Donahue on the eve of the Iraq invasion (see February 25, 2003) as another example of the Pentagon’s reach into the mainstream US media. At the behest of the Pentagon’s PR officials, MSNBC fired Donahue and replaced him with a pro-war broadcast called Countdown: Iraq. While MSNBC blamed “poor ratings” on the firing, in reality Donahue’s ratings were MSNBC’s highest. Instead, the network did not like what it called Donahue’s propensity to have “anti-war, anti-Bush” voices on his show. (Clair 8/13/2003)
Former MSNBC talk show host Phil Donahue, whose show was cancelled less than a month before the Iraq invasion because network executives feared he was “too liberal” for its viewers (see February 25, 2003), reflects on his show’s cancellation in an interview with PBS’s Bill Moyers. “[I] just felt, you know, what would be wrong with having one show a night, you know, say, ‘Hold it. Wait a minute. Can we afford this? Do we have enough troops? And what about General Shinseki (see February 25, 2003)? And where are all—you know, what is Guantanamo?’ I mean, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ I thought people who didn’t like my message would watch me. Because no one else was doing it. That’s why, I couldn’t get over the unanimity of opinion on cable. The drum was beating. Everybody wanted to bomb somebody. And I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute.’ So here I go, I mean fool that I am, I rushed in.” Donahue recalls the strict ground rules that he worked under: “You could have the supporters of the president alone. And they would say why this war is important. You couldn’t have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.” Moyers says, “You’re kidding.” Donahue replies: “No, this is absolutely true… I was counted as two liberals.… I had to have two… there’s just a terrible fear. And I think that’s the right word.” Moyers recalls the words of Erik Sorenson, then the president of MSNBC, who said, “Any misstep and you can get into trouble with these guys and have the patriotism police hunt you down.” Donahue agrees: “He’s the management guy. So his phone would ring. Nobody’s going to call Donahue and tell him to shut up and support the war. Nobody’s that foolish. It’s a lot more subtle than that.” (Moyers 4/25/2007)