Phil Donahue: Chris Matthews Was Threatened By Me At MSNBC

Ten years ago, the perilously liberal talk show host Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC.

In an interview with HuffPostLive Thursday, Donahue spoke candidly about what led to his termination including his frosty relationship with Chris Matthews who he felt was threatened by him.

For those that have forgotten, Donahue was a strong anti-war voice in the lead-up to America's invasion of Iraq.

Leaked memos and email messages from early 2003 showed NBC officials concerned that Donahue's views and those of his guests would go counter to what other networks were presenting and could harm the peacock network's brand.

Readers should recall that this was way before the rise of Keith Olbermann and MSNBC's drastic shift to the left. To be sure, MSNBC was already left of center, but apparently not yet willing to go as far as it eventually would.

As such, Donahue was seen as a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war."

Gabriel Sherman wrote at New York Magazine in October 2010:


[Donahue's] show debuted with the highest ratings ever for an MSNBC program, attracting more than a million viewers in its first night. But within a month, the audience was cut in half. At the same time, executives expressed increasing unease about his vocal opposition to the looming war in Iraq. At a time when red-meat patriotism prevailed, Donahue booked antiwar guests like Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Soon the Donahue problem threatened Phil Griffin’s job. [...]

As a compromise, Griffin’s job was spared but he was stripped of responsibility for the show. The new producer insisted on a precise numerical balance between liberals and conservatives. Donahue’s problems only increased when Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. Matthews was a rising force at the network, with a reported salary of $5 million. He cultivated former G.E. CEO Jack Welch and had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright (the two summered together on Nantucket). Matthews saw himself as MSNBC’s biggest star, and he was upset that the network was pumping significant resources into Donahue’s show. In the fall of 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran a gossip item that had Matthews saying over lunch in Washington that if Donahue stays on the air, he could bring down the network.

After the item was published, Matthews showed up at Donahue’s office and apologized. “He didn’t deny it,” Donahue remembers. With the war looming, Sorenson and Griffin decided to take him off the air to make way for 24/7 war coverage.


Now, years later, Donahue said, “I do think that [Matthews] wanted to be the face of the network, and he is quoted in a magazine as saying, ‘Donahue’s going to bring the whole network down.’ In other words, Donahue is a liberal, and people hate liberals so much that he’s going to bring the whole network down."

Actually, I doubt this was a liberal/conservative issue for MSNBC. As the previously cited memos and email messages indicate, NBC officials just weren't willing to go as staunchly anti-war as Donahue.

As for Matthews, "I think he saw me as a threat to his supremacy," Donahue continued. "He wanted to be the face of MSNBC and here comes this talk show host, and I had the benefit of recognition. I was on the air 29 years. So that I think I was a threat to his goal of being the man of MSNBC, and he was quite emotional. He was emotionally upset."

It would be interesting to find out just how much Matthews had to do with Donahue's firing, and what he thinks about this now given his current position on the Iraq war.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.