Friendly to Donahue: 'You're Making a Fool of Yourself' With AM-The Funnies
Apr. 12, 1989
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Morton Downey Jr. got outshouted and didn't smoke a single cigarette. Geraldo Rivera went nose-to-nose, unbloodied this time, and Phil Donahue, who once wore a dress for a show on transvestites, didn't skirt the issue.
And Larry King, who doesn't like the ''kinky'' stuff, defended them all.
The occasion was a raucous, often-hilarious 90-minute program Wednesday pitting the four talk-show hosts and other television luminaries against leaders in the print media over what constitutes news, good taste and responsible journalism. Nobody, not even Downey, a self-admitted ''yeller,'' seemed to have the last word.
King took a stab at it. ''It's a big pie,'' said the USA Today columnist and Mutal Radio and CNN television talk-show host. ''Geraldo's producers may decide they want to do a lot of sex on their programs, or they want to do things that may be kinky. Suppose they do that? So what?''
''I don't have to watch,'' King said. ''We each set out to do our programs. Same with newspapers. There's the New York Daily News and The New York Times and the New York Post, and the Wichita paper and USA Today. And all the Americans have is choice.''
The program, produced by Columbia University at the opening session of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual convention, was videotaped and will be aired Wednesday night and on subsequent dates by public television stations. It was moderated by former CBS News chief Fred W. Friendly, now with Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.
Friendly started the fireworks by showing an excerpt from a program Rivera did on sex surrogates, and telling his former student, ''It seems to me that what you're concentrating on is that 'kinky' business.''
Rivera: ''I do lots of different programs. ... You are talking about 10 percent of what I do.''
Friendly: ''Mr. Rivera, I looked at a hundred of your programs. I could have run a hundred of them and made the same point.''
''What are you, Mr. Rivera?'' Friendly persisted.
''I'm a compassionate man ... a television talk-show host, a reporter, a journalist, a writer ...'' said Rivera.
Q: ''Who are your role models?
A: ''There's a lot of (Walter) Winchell in what I do. There's also Edward R. Murrow and Merv Griffin.''
Friendly: ''That's a combination. Winchell, Griffin and Murrow.''
Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, snapped that Rivera and the others are ''more show biz than you are journalists.''
Rivera shot back: ''This is arrogant. This is hypocrisy.''
He demanded to know how much of the criticism of so-called trash television ''is based on pure parochialism? How much of it is based on the fact that I am your competition?''
Nelson: ''I don't think you're a journalist.''
Donohue: ''Explain the difference.''
Nelson: ''Well, I go out and I try to find out what I can that I think is important for society to know, for society to act on. ...
Downey: ''You're a snob.''
Tom Shales, television critic for The Washington Post, said ''We're not talking about what's journalism and what's not journalism. We're talking about what's good taste and what's bad taste, what's good manners and what's bad manners. And I think television now is overrun with bad taste and bad manners.''
The audience was shown another excerpt, from Downey's program, in which a young member of the audience challenged the host's views on prison furloughs by noting that ''one of the central tenets of Christianity is foregiveness.''
Downey was shown retorting:
''Let me tell you something. More people have been killed in the name of Jesus ... they've all been killed by guys like you.''
Downey and the young man wound up screaming ''Murderer 3/8'' at one another 10 times over. Downey concluded the segment by raising his arm and inviting the youth to ''suck my armpit.''
Friendly: ''Did you really give that young man a chance to be heard?''
Downey: ''Absolutely. What am I supposed to do, write bland headlines on the 17th page of a newspaper?
Downey said he is ''an advocate, not a host. ... I was raised in the generation of rock 'n' roll. And we heard the lyrics over the music. The older folks here don't seem to be able to hear the lyrics.''
Nelson said ''the most reprehensible thing I see on any of these programs is Mort Downey smoking his cigarette on television. ...
Downey, who couldn't smoke during the ASNE appearance because of rules governing the hall, replied, ''That's the mentality of the super-liberal.' '
King: ''If Morton Downey wishes to commit suicide, that is his prerogative.''
Downey, to Nelson: ''You'd love for me to drop dead because it would be sensational for your newspaper.''
The capacity audience of about 500 newspaper publishers and executives also viewed the ''Donahue'' segment in which he donned a dress for a show on transvestites.
Friendly taunted him about that, noting he once admired Donahue for the way he handled shows. ''People have come to see you as a role model, and now you're making a fool of yourself,'' said Friendly.
Donahue replied that ''I do not apologize for wanting to draw a crowd. I'm as interested in ratings as the people in the room are interested in circulation.''
Besides, said Donahue, ''I think it's a pretty good epitaph for somebody: 'Occasionally he went too far.''
Toward the end, virtually all the panelists were trying to be heard over each other. ''I find it extremely distasteful,'' said Downey, ''to listen to shouting.''
Friendly, in a not-so-veiled reference to a ''Geraldo'' episode, said ''I can't break people's noses to stop them.''