National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Bill Moyers is stepping down

With serious journalism in decline, 32-year veteran is not going quietly


It’s mid-June. This week the headlines, reporting the findings of the 9/11 commission, have decisively debunked the Bush administration’s argument for the Iraq war, the alleged alliance between the perpetrators of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. On the television screen Friday night an army vehicle is destroyed, a survivor pulls himself from the wreck, his face a mass of red. He will lose his eye.

But, the narrator explains, the Pentagon will keep no public record of his wound. He is not one of the 900-plus killed or of the 5,457 wounded in battle. He is one of the at least 11,000 noncombatants injured, disabled, sick, addicted, or neurologically or mentally damaged young men and women who are as much victims of the war as those who have been shot.

The Pentagon tells United Press International reporter Mark Benjamin it doesn’t know how many troops are in this condition.

Bill Moyers started his weekly PBS documentary, “Now,” in January 2002, specifically “to tell stories nobody else is telling and put on people who have no forum elsewhere.”

The program has been the capstone of his career.

When the great CBS News World War II correspondent and radio and TV news analyst Eric Sevareid retired at 65 in 1977, the media world waited to see who might attempt to fill his shoes.

For some months CBS experimented -- rotating wise men into the final two minutes of Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News,” including the young protégé of Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers. But CBS decided the sun had set on the age of commentary and ceded those two precious minutes to light features, health tips and ads.

This marked a turning point for both Moyers and CBS, freeing Moyers for other opportunities yet weakening CBS’ commitment to serious journalism.

Now, after 32 years in TV journalism, including long stints at both CBS and Public Broadcasting, plus some years as publisher of Long Island’s Newsday, Moyers, who turned 70 in June, is leaving journalism to finish a book of reflections on Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom he worked as a teenage intern, as a Senate office assistant at age 20 and finally as press secretary during Johnson’s presidency.

* * *

But Moyers is not going quietly.

On June 4, 2003, he delivered a spellbinding speech to the Take Back America conference in Washington in which he re-ignited the fires of the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, as personified in the muckraking journalists Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffans. Progressive reforms became an “embedded tradition of Democrats,” the heart of the New Deal and Fair Deal, he said. But by the 1970s “Democrats grew so proprietary in this town that a fat, complacent political establishment couldn’t recognize its own intellectual bankruptcy.”

As a result, he said, the conservative “crusade” has moved to “strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors.”

On May 17 of this year, Moyers received the Peabody Award, one of electronic journalism’s highest honors. The same month he published a collection of his talks and commentaries, Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times.

In the course of his career, three themes, it seems to me, have run through his work: a concern for religion, influenced by his early education in a Baptist seminary and exemplified in his PBS series on Genesis; issues of fairness, specifically the unjust distribution of the world’s economic resources; and the condition of journalism itself, where power has become concentrated in too few hands.

On May 19, in an address to the Newspaper Guild/ Communication Workers of America, he warned that before long America would be reduced to half a dozen major print organizations. TV news devotes less and less time to public affairs. An authoritarian administration obsessed with secrecy, he said, is allied with economic interests who use their media outlets, from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch’s empire to the “nattering nabobs of know-nothing radio,” to keep the public as uninformed as possible.

One of Moyers’ own favorite “Now” programs is “A Question of Fairness” (Nov. 21, 2003), which looks at three case studies where either radical changes in the economic structure or a long-established unjust situation has victimized innocent citizens.

In Tamaqua, Pa., a former coal town, a knitting mill that sustained the economy for generations is bought by multinational conglomerate Sara Lee. Hundreds of jobs are transferred to Honduras and China -- the result of NAFTA (1993), and the granting of trade privileges to China in 2000. Another “Now” investigation shows how the 1990s Litigation Reform Act weakened regulation of the accounting industry and thus enabled the WorldCom collapse. A third shows how conservative large landholders in Alabama defeated a Republican governor’s attempt to raise property taxes on the very rich by misrepresenting the governor’s plan in their ad campaign aimed at the working poor.

Other programs from April to June featured military families so underpaid that they live on donated food; former BBC director Greg Dyke defending BBC’s role in the David Kelly suicide case, where the British government allegedly “sexed up” the case for going to war; how the Medicare prescription bill was shoved through Congress at 3 a.m.; Samantha Power’s analysis of how our post-9/11 mentality allows us to torture; and philosopher Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil, a study of Bush’s ethics, including our bombing tactics, which allow us to wipe out a family or a village in an attempt to get one man.

In my judgment the weakest episode was a shallow puff piece on religious participation in a Washington pro-abortion rally. In the same program Moyers and NPR announcer Bob Edwards, who has just published a book on Edward R. Murrow, agree that journalism has declined because journalists don’t ask the “tough questions” anymore. But “Now” has no tough questions for the pro-abortion demonstrators -- one a former nun -- who say Jesus is on their side.

On D-Day weekend Moyers replayed and updated his 1989 45th anniversary documentary in which four veterans of the landing revisit the battle scenes, pour out some emotions, reflect on their lives and fight back tears. One old man who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, Jose Lopez, now 94, never told his family he was a hero. In one incandescent scene he kneels on the beach looking out across the channel, blesses himself and weeps.

* * *

PBS viewers may weep, too, because Moyers will leave just when the Bush administration, through appointees to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is pushing PBS to the right, according to Ken Auletta in the June 6 New Yorker and other sources. The corporation, originally established to protect public broadcasting from political interference and to fund local stations, now wants to offset the liberal Moyers by “balancing” him with new shows starring Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot (who appeared recently on “Now”) and CNN conservative Tucker Carlson.

While PBS is committed to one more year of “Now,” with David Brancaccio replacing Moyers gradually this summer and finally after the election, it will be cut to 30 minutes and operate without funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In the last chapter, written in 2000, of his recent book, Moyers says he has tried over the past year -- during which he produced a series on the “culture of dying” -- to imagine his own death. He wants it to be gentle, dignified, free of pain and in the company of loved ones. The experience of working on broadcasts about death did not depress him, he said.

He recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “When you have lived as long and fruitfully as I have, you’re not afraid of what will come.” But he added, “I will miss reading the papers every day.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

Moyers: Journalists, democracy deeply linked

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, NCR media columnist, interviewed Bill Moyers by e-mail in mid-June.

NCR: You often mention your years in the seminary but not in much detail. How formative were they in developing your political and social philosophy? To what extent has your own theology influenced your decisions in journalism?

MOYERS: My years in the seminary were decisive for several reasons. I spent my first year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I sat at the feet of some of the great divines of the time -- masters of homiletics, New Testament and ecclesiastical history. It wasn’t what they taught that influenced me so much as what they encouraged me to read -- books in particular on the history of relations between the church and state in some of the cataclysmic periods of European history. The sort of things many people had come to America to escape.

For a boy who had grown up in the small world of a Protestant culture in East Texas, where there were more Baptists than people, it was eye-opening stuff. Soon after arriving there, I heard one of the great lectures of my life, by John Burleigh, on “What Does Athens Have to Do with Jerusalem?” Then returning home to a Baptist seminary, I fell under the influence of one of the great-souled ethicists in Baptist life, T.B. Maston, who believed and taught that the Christian story was not only about faith but about its impact on our social and political lives.

That small town where I grew up was half white and half black -- one of those places where it was possible to be well-taught, well-churched and well-loved and still remain ignorant of what life was like for people across town.

Your May 19 address to the Newspaper Guild is a particularly blistering attack on the growing corporate dominance of the media. And pessimistic. Is this an inevitable process or are there concrete steps both legislators and journalists can take to stop it?

Corporate media today is deeply compromised -- worse, corrupted. I’m not sure it can be redeemed, which is why we have to make sure the Internet does not fall under the same mega media companies that now control broadcasting and publishing and, if they could, would seize the gates to the Web.

We have to fight for a strong and independent public broadcasting -- and that means a trust fund to remove it from political and corporate influence. We journalists have to engage the mainstream, not retreat from it -- get our fellow citizens to understand that what they see, hear and read is not only the taste of programmers and producers but also a set of policy decisions made by the people we vote for.

We have to fight for local and community-based content to be heard rather than drowned out by nationwide commercial programming. We must restore sensible limits on multiple and cross ownership of TV and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and other information sources.

And journalists have to become outraged at the profaning of our craft; one journalist alone can’t extract from an employer a commitment to let editors and not accountants choose the appropriate subject matter for coverage. We need news councils to blow the whistle on dishonest, ideological, shoddy and cowardly management. We need local journalism reviews to make a stink when local papers and broadcast stations abuse the public trust.

Above all, we have to realize that journalism and democracy are deeply linked in whatever chance we Americans have to redeem our grievances, renew our politics and reclaim our revolutionary ideals of a society based on social and economic justice.

Ken Auletta’s June 6 New Yorker analysis of the increasing pressure from the Bush administration on public broadcasting is also frightening. To what degree is the survival of “Now” -- with its current guiding spirit -- protected?

“Now” isn’t really protected beyond 2005 -- if that far. Right now PBS is going through a severe budget crisis that could leave programs like “Now” subjected to cancellation or in such a weakened position they are no match for the onslaught of right-wing programming that it appears is headed our way.

I teach journalism at both St. Peter’s College and New York University. Please give us two or three books that every young journalist should read in order to become a great old journalist.

Oh, so many, many books go into the making of a journalist. But start with Tom Paine’s Common Sense and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass -- the first was the journalistic voice of the American Revolution, the second the poetic journalist of the democratic promise. Read all of Page Smith’s A People’s History of the United States for a grasp of the grand sweep of this country (with a bottom’s up view) and as the work of a wonderful writer who was grounded in the past but served the present because he felt obliged to the future.

Then top it all off with George Seldes’ Tell the Truth and Run by one of the great journalists of my time. It never hurts to keep going back to E.B. White’s Elements of Style, although the very recent Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is more fun and quite helpful.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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