As host of the popular television talk show, Donahue, Phil Donahue was among the pioneers of the daytime talk show format. During his many years on the air, he established a reputation as a committed leftist.
In a 1979 interview with economist Milton Friedman, Donahue said to Friedman:
"When you see around the globe the maldostribution of wealth, the desperate plight of millions of people in underdeveloped countries, when you see so few Haves and so many Have-Nots, when you see the greed and the concentration of power ... Aren't you ever, did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed's a good idea to run on?"
In July 2002 he became the host of his own MSNBC program, but its viewing audience was too small to sustain it, causing its cancellation just eight months later.
Donahue believes that the national media are disproportionately peopled with conservative voices, and that leftists have been largely excluded. In a 2000 interview with the Progressive, he stated, “Here we are, we brag about our free-speech rights, and yet half the political spectrum is [un]able to speak.” Contrary to indisputable evidence that the media are overwhelmingly on the political left, he claimed that only conservatives and moderates “get to speak.” In 2002 he told the Associated Press that liberal media personalities have “never really [been] given ... a chance.”
Donahue has long been an opponent of Republican policies, particularly with regard to matters of national security and defense. In 2001, when President Bush prepared to send the U.S. military to Afghanistan in retribution for the Taliban’s harboring of the al Qaeda terrorists who had carried out the 9/11 attacks, Donahue firmly stated his anti-war position:
“Chapter one of the 21st century is the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That’s chapter one of the world of the 21st century. If we kill more people, if we kill innocents, which we will if we bomb Afghanistan, that’s going to be the second chapter. And we will have more – more young people growing up to imitate the behavior of those who hit [the World Trade Center and Pentagon] – we’re going to breed more, and we’re going to be [like] Belfast where you couldn’t go to a restaurant without going through a metal detector, you can’t park a car unless there’s somebody in the car.”
A staunch opponent of the Patriot Act, Donahue was the moderator of a February 2002 panel discussion, sponsored by The Nation Institute, called "Patriot Games: Civil Liberties after September 11." The panel included only people who shared Donahue’s suspicions of, and contempt for, the Patriot Act: Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; journalist Molly Ivins; Elaine Jones, president and director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; and ACLU president Nadine Strossen. In his opening remarks, Donahue said, “Tonight we will pull back the cloak of patriotism the Bush Administration has wrapped around all these new laws and regulations it claims it needs, to exam what lies beneath. What freedoms did we give up in the name of national security, and once surrendered how do we get these liberties back?”