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
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
Its mid-June. This week the headlines, reporting the findings of the 9/11 commission, have decisively debunked the Bush administrations 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 doesnt 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 Cronkites 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 Islands 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 Johnsons 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 couldnt 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 journalisms 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 worlds 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 Murdochs 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 governors attempt to raise property taxes on the very rich by misrepresenting the governors 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 BBCs 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 Powers analysis of how our post-9/11 mentality allows us to torture; and philosopher Peter Singers The President of Good and Evil, a study of Bushs 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 dont 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, youre 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. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004
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