Phil Donahue Strikes Back

The experiment was short lived. In February of 2003, NBC Universal executives replaced Mr. Donahue’s show for an extra hour of Countdown: Iraq. They attributed the move to lackluster ratings. Afterward, somebody leaked an internal NBC study to AllYourTV.com, which noted that Mr. Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives,” and, as such, presents a “difficult public face” for the network in a time of war.

In May of 2005, still getting over what he describes as his “short miserable life at MSNBC,” Mr. Donahue traveled to the media-reform conference.

On the eve of the gathering, the conference’s organizer, Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), spent a day walking around downtown St. Louis with Mr. Donahue. They were besieged by fans. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. McChesney recalled recently. “It was like walking around with Elvis.”

Within the conference halls, Mr. Donahue received a similarly warm reception. “Suddenly he’s around 2,500 people who all really share his concern about what’s happening with the media and the coverage of the war in Iraq,” said Mr. McChesney. “You’re not alone. It’s not hopeless.”

Afterward, a rejuvenated Mr. Donahue decided to scrap the book. “I thought, ‘What the hell am I talking book here?’” said Mr. Donahue. “I’ve spent my life in television. Let’s do a movie.”

On the plane ride home, Mr. Donahue happened to sit next to DeeDee Halleck, a pioneer of independent media. She gave Mr. Donahue the digits for Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein, a team of documentary filmmakers who ran an outfit called Mobilus Media in Austin, Tex.

“And here we are two years later,” said Mr. Donahue.

Reached by phone last week, Ms. Spiro said that she had enjoyed working with Mr. Donahue despite their vastly different media pedigrees. She said that when Mr. Donahue first called her out of the blue, she thought it was a prank. “It was sort of like getting a call from Pippi Longstocking,” said Ms. Spiro.

Over the course of making Body of War, Ms. Spiro came to appreciate many of Mr. Donahue’s quirks, including his fascination with C-SPAN.

“It’s his favorite channel,” said Ms. Spiro. “It’s a revealing channel because there is no mediator. It’s the opposite of what’s on cable television. Phil watched hundreds of hours of material having to do with the war. He was obsessed with the C-SPAN footage. If you watch enough, it becomes an exposé.”

Ms. Spiro believed that the process of making the film had been a catharsis for Mr. Donahue. “I think that Phil was a victim of the Bush administration’s manipulation of the media in the build up to the war,” said Ms. Spiro. “Most people would have gotten angry and fought. But he went inside himself and decided to do something positive. Creativity can be a great healing process.”

Back in his hotel room, Mr. Donahue agreed. Making the film had been a good way to channel his discontent. “For me, it’s very interesting to see how fast we got into this war and how agonizingly slow is our effort to get out,” said Mr. Donahue.

He seemed content to be on the outside of the mainstream media looking in. “You still can’t say that we’re losing,” said Mr. Donahue. “Just ask Harry Reid. You can’t say that our soldiers have died in vain. You can’t criticize the war because if you do, you’re demoralizing the troops. You can’t show flag-draped coffins.”

For the time being, Mr. Donahue is free to say whatever he wants. All he has to do is find a distributor and an audience. “It’s been quite an adventure,” said Mr. Donahue, before getting off the phone. “This is not for sissies, this game.”

Phil Donahue Strikes Back