The best of jobs: to have and serve the public’s trust

Print More
Bill Moyers’ keynote at the PBS Annual Meeting, June 23, 1996, grabbed many of the pubcasters where they live, and invited others to come home. Producer Stephen Ives, a second-generation professional in public TV, said later that Moyers’ Sunday-morning talk reminded him “why I was so proud of what my father did for a living.”

I must tell you that being here feels very good. Two years ago you invited me to be with you in Florida to celebrate my 60th birthday but I wound up having heart surgery instead and couldn’t come to blow out the candles. But it was a moment I’ll never forget when all of you sang “Happy Birthday” to me over an open telephone line. I was deeply touched by your generous spirit.

MoyersI also realized at that moment that I was not about to die. I mean, with Ervin Duggan and Bill Baker and Ward Chamberlin and Bill Kobin singing just inches from the microphone, there was no way I could mistake what I heard for a choir of angels.

Your sentiments that day were as healing as they were generous. When the celebration ended, and you had returned to the business of the convention and I to the agenda of recovery, I kept thinking that I must be the luckiest man in television, for having been a part of the public broadcasting community in so many ways for over half my life.

I was present at the creation. As a 30-year-old White House policy assistant in 1964 I attended the first meeting at the Office of Education to discuss the potential of “educational television.” Two years later, when the Carnegie Commission report arrived at the White House, it was my role to place the charge in the hands of the very wise Douglass Cater and his very young but gifted assistant, Ervin Duggan. With LBJ they turned it into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. When I left the White House that year to become publisher of New York’s Newsday, I did fundraising chores for Channel Thirteen and appeared on its local newscasts. Then, in 1971, through a series of serendipitous events, I came to public television as the correspondent and anchor for a new weekly series called This Week.

For all our frailties, despite the strange ways we make decisions and the bizarre means by which we have to raise money, despite our byzantine paths to creativity, we are free — you and I — to regard human beings as more than mere appetites and America as more than an economic machine.

Now, a quarter-of-a-century and hundreds of broadcasts later — from “Essay on Watergate” to “Amazing Grace,” from Creativity and A Walk Through the Twentieth Century to Six Great Ideas with Mortimer Adler and The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell, from All Our Children to A Gathering of Men, from The Secret Government to The Wisdom of Faith and Genesis — I am here to thank you for the support you have given me all these years, for the friendship I share with so many of you personally, and for the collegiality that has sustained me through the best and worst of times. William Temple said that a man whose life is given to a purpose big enough “to claim the allegiance of all his faculties and rich enough to exercise them is the nearest approach in human experience to the realization of eternity.” Public television has provided me a sense of purpose I cannot imagine anywhere else, or in the company of anyone else.

I want to talk with you this morning in the spirit of Robert Benchley. Before he became a noted writer and humorist, Benchley was a student at Harvard. He arrived for his final exam in international law to discover the test consisted of only one question: “Discuss the abstraction of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries, dragnet, and protocol as it affects (a) the point of view of Great Britain, and (b) the point of view of the United States.”

Benchley was desperate but he was also honest. He wrote: “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”

I’m just one fish among many in the ocean of public television. And no one individual can speak for all of us. We’re a big, sprawling, polymorphic community. In our best days, an extended family; in our worst days, a dysfunctional one.

Right now we’re facing some hard choices.

  • Competitive forces are razing the landscape around us and turf wars are breaking out the way they once did between sheep-herders and cattlemen.
  • Funds for programming are hard to come by.
  • Fevered agents of a hostile ideology wage war on all things public — public art, public schools, public libraries, public lands, public health, public parks and public broadcasting … and no doubt at this very moment are plotting the privatization of public toilets.

Some people worry that all this tumult swirls around a house that if not divided, is certainly not wholly united in sympathy and aspiration. That’s nothing new. We were fractious from the start. In the first speech I made to the Friends of Channel Thirteen back in 1969, I found myself recalling how George Washington had described the new United States of America created by the Constitutional Convention: He wrote: “It was for a long time doubtful whether we were to survive as an independent republic, or decline … into insignificant and withered fragments of empire.” The same could be said of public television. From the womb were we delivered, Hatfields and McCoys.

And the feuding continues. As we’ll hear later this morning, there is no unanimity over how public television should respond to the rapid changes occurring in telecommunications; there are differences among us over governance; we don’t see eye to eye on the mission and role of PBS, station representation in the decision-making process, the responsibilities of membership, the balance between local and national, or the question of back-end rights; we can’t even agree on what constitutes core programming.

I wish I knew how to resolve these dilemmas. But I’ve lost count of all the conferences, seminars, convocations and commissions I’ve attended or served on whose purpose was to put our house in order — including the Second Carnegie Commission. Every time we do this brainstorming I find myself thinking of the medieval knight who returns to the castle in a state of total disarray. His armor is twisted. His helmet is in shambles. His lance is broken and his poor, lame horse can barely stumble through the gate. The king looks down from the parapet and shouts, “What in the world hath happened, Sir Knight? What hath befallen you?” And the knight replies: “I have been pillaging and plundering your enemies to the west, Sire.” The king is puzzled, and shouts down again: “But I have no enemies to the west.” And the answer comes back: “You do now, Sire, you do now.”

Anyone who proposes solutions for public television winds up with enemies on all points of the compass. Perhaps it’s the nature of things; a creative community is no respecter of conformity. But I know this: the ultimate measure of any system, any society, or any institution is not how it acts in moments of comfort and convenience but how it responds to challenge and controversy.

And this: the best thing we have going for us is that the American people are behind us. They want public television to succeed … because they get it. In their gut they know what we’re about. Somerset Maugham once said, “It is a funny thing about life: if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” Millions of Americans look to us for the best that television can deliver, and even when we let them down they seem to keep the faith and grant us a second chance.

Do we often miss the mark? You bet. Do we sometimes discombobulate and disappoint people who believe in us? Of course we do. But I have found that deep down the public harbors an intuitive and irrepressible understanding that for all the flaws of public television, our fundamental assumptions come down on their side, and on the side of democracy.

What are those assumptions?

  • That life is a continuing course in adult education and television an open classroom;
  • that the medium can dignify life instead of debase it;
  • that it can help us to see more clearly, understand more deeply, and laugh more joyously;
  • that between them, human creativity and this incredible technology can provide us with a fuller awareness of the wonder and the variety of the arts and sciences, of scholarship and craftsmanship and innovation, of politics and government and economics and religion and all those mutual endeavors that shape our consciousness;
  • that commercial broadcasting, having made its peace with the little lies and fantasies that are the by-products of the merchandising process, is too firmly fixed within the rules of the economic game to rise more than occasionally above the lowest common denominator;
  • that Americans are citizens and not just consumers; and (in the words of the educator Herbert Kohl), “if we do not provide time for the consideration of people and events in depth, we may end up training another generation of TV adults who know what kind of toilet paper to buy, who know how to argue and humiliate others, but who are thoroughly incapable of discussing, much less dealing with, the major social and economic problems that are tearing America apart.”

Public television was intended for this work. None of us who were there at the beginning said commercial television wasn’t legitimate. We turned to it ourselves for news, diversion and amusement. We knew that it helped to keep our economy dynamic through the satisfaction or creation of appetites. We are a capitalist society, after all. The market is a cornucopia of goods and services, and television programs are part of that market. There is always something to sell, and television can sell.

But public television was meant to do what the market will not do. We believed there should be one channel that was not only free of commercials but free from commercial values; a channel that does not represent an economic exploitation of life; whose purpose is not to please as many consumers as possible, in order to get as much advertising as possible, in order to sell as many products as possible; one channel — at least one — whose success is measured not by the numbers who watch but by the imprint left on those who do.

Every indication then was that millions of Americans shared those assumptions, and supported public broadcasting from the beginning.

They still do. When I’m down, or pessimistic, or a doubt arrives uninvited, I haul out of my desk the summary of a report delivered to the PBS Board of Directors a few years ago by Gale Metzger of Statistical Research.

He found that when people look for a program on science or the arts, or a program their children can watch, they look first to public television.

He found that we rated higher with people who want to understand issues that are important to society.

He found that two-thirds of the people see our news and public affairs as a mixture of political persuasions — they think we are fair.

As for the charge of elitism, he found that public television rated with people who have a high school education or less, about the same as we rated with people who have college degrees and higher.

And this: His survey found that 80 percent of the people even think that on-air pledge drives are a fair price to pay for the programming they get from public television.

Most important, he found that two out of three people said it would make a difference to their lives if public television did not exist.

Now that’s the statistical reassurance. But if it’s not enough, I take to the streets. There I learn all over again what we’re really about.

A letter came last week, from a man named Bart Shutzbank. He is an inmate at a prison near Philadelphia and he told me how much his life has been touched by the people he has met through public television, and that even now he was watching — for the second time — the series with Huston Smith on The Wisdom of Faith. “It is playing every night this week on Channel 12/WHYY here in the Philadelphia area,” he said, “and I am enjoying watching it even more than I did the first time.” (Repeats are our secret weapon.) He wrote about how hard it is to keep the divine spark alive inside those walls, and how important to his struggle is — and this is a direct quote — “the excellent quality of PBS programs.”

I also had a letter last week from a retired truck driver named Richard Bennett, who lives in San Lorenzo, Calif. He had seen the recent documentary I reported for Frontline on middle-class Americans living on the edge in a downsized economy, and he said: “This factual account brought sadness to me and my wife because we see the hardships around us and in the lives of our children.” He said that on a trip of 4,700 miles in 14 states, he and his wife found that “the city streets and back roads tell stories of poverty that are glossed over on the newscasts.” He wrote letters to several major newspapers to call attention to what he had seen but none were printed, and he wanted to thank public television for reporting the reality. Time and again, people remind me that our acceptance depends not on originality but on authenticity: on being true to experience.

You remember the Campbell series. Let me remind you that it premiered in the summer, with little production value except a human face, with not a cent of paid promotion, to a rating of one. The lesson is that not everything can be a predetermined success. We must always leave room in our schedule for a leap of faith. Something else: I would never have come upon Campbell if I had not been conducting a series of weekly interviews. When I interviewed him we had thousands of requests for the transcript — a response that tipped me off to his enormous appeal and prompted me to want to continue our conversation. So we met again several years later in what became our series on Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.

At one point in our interview I said to him: “You’re talking about the meaning of life.” And he answered, “Oh, no. People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive — so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being in reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Well, millions have shared that moment, thanks to all of your repeats. Among those millions was a young woman in her mid-30s who stopped me on 8th Avenue between 55th and 56th streets in New York City. She wanted to tell me her story. She had come to New York eight years earlier to make her way as an actress. The breaks were fugitive: someone else always got the part. Her boyfriend of many years left her for another woman. Her father died. She was broke and working as a waitress to make ends meet. She decided life was no longer worth living. So, disenchanted and defeated, she went home one evening — she pointed to her apartment across the street from where we were standing — and she pulled down the window, poured a glass full of bourbon, turned on the gas burners of her studio oven, lay down on the couch, and prepared for the curtain to fall. But she made a mistake. She left the television set on, and a voice snapped her to attention. She heard two fellows talking about the experience of being alive and her ears perked up. She listened intently, and when the program ended and the announcer said, “Be sure to join us next week as we continue our conversation with Joseph Campbell,” she realized she wanted to be around for it. She got up from the couch, turned off the gas, poured her drink into the sink, and opened the window. “I realized at that moment” she said, “I realized that I don’t have to be an actress but I do want to be alive. I want to experience my life — every minute of it.”

An exceptional story? No doubt.

But I could fill a book with examples. One of my favorites happened some years ago after you had broadcast a special I did with Mortimer Adler, the educator and philosopher whose lifelong passion has been to awaken students of any age — 16 or 60 — to the power of critical thinking. In the two weeks after our program on Aristotle for Everybody (or, Philosophy in Everyday Life), over 12,000 people wrote for the transcript. The sale of Adler’s book shot up dramatically.

But the real payoff came in Penn Station a few weeks later. I was traveling with CBS friends who were skeptical when I told them what the response to the series had been. We were waiting for the train and a fellow, rather shabbily-dressed approached us. I thought he was a panhandler looking for a handout. He held his hand out, all right — only to take mine in it, and shake it vigorously. He said, “Mr. Moyers, I want to thank public television for introducing me to Mortimer Adler and Aristotle. With them as friends I’m a very rich man.”

Then there are the cab drivers. Judith and I often take a cab from our apartment to Channel Thirteen on West 58th Street, and more often than not the driver turns out to be an immigrant, a foreigner who speaks halting English. As we turn left off Columbus Avenue we point to the marquee with the big “Thirteen” as our destination, and invariably the driver will ask us excitedly, “You work at Channel Thirteen?” We answer yes, and he says, “I must tell you how much I love the programs there. They are teaching me your language. They are showing me your country.”

There was a cabbie named Youssef Jada. He came here from Morocco six years ago. He was studying hotel management when we talked a year ago and he told me he would be getting his degree this spring. Youssef kept his car radio tuned to National Public Radio all day and his television set at home on Channel Thirteen. He said — and this is a direct quote — “I am blessed by these stations.”

He pointed me to a picture on the dashboard of his 13-month-old son, and he said: “My son was born in this country. I will let him watch Channel Thirteen so he can learn how to be an American.”

Think about that. Think about it very hard as we try to negotiate our future together. Why shouldn’t public television be the core curriculum of the American experience?

Do you remember the best-selling book some years ago by E.D. Hirsch on the subject of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know? His lament was that our schools are no longer teaching young people the essential ingredients of a general education. He told of the high school teacher who mentioned to his students that Latin is a dead language, no longer spoken. One girl raised her hand to challenge his claim. If Latin is a dead language, she wanted to know, “What do they speak in Latin America?”

Hirsch went on to make the case that literacy is far more than a skill; it requires certain essential knowledge if we are to function effectively in the world and collaborate in society. “To grasp the words on a page,” he said, “we have to know a lot of information that isn’t on the page.” He called this knowledge “cultural literacy,” and described it as that network of information all competent readers possess. It’s what enables us to read a book or an article with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, reaching conclusions. Our common information. Some people criticized Hirsch on grounds that teaching the traditional literature culture means teaching elitist information. That is an illusion, he says; literature culture is the most democratic culture in our land; it excludes nobody; it cuts across generations and social groups and classes; it’s what every American needs to know, not only because knowing it is a good thing, but also because other people know it, too.

This was the Founders’ idea of an informed citizenry: that people in a democracy can be entrusted to decide all important matters for themselves because they can communicate and deliberate with one another. “Economic issues can be discussed in public. The moral dilemmas of new medical knowledge can be weighed. The broad implications of technological change can become subjects of informed public disclosure.” We might even begin to understand how politics really works, and why it doesn’t. Now there’s a Democracy Project: telling people the truth about our political process. For example, early last year we produced for you a fairly simple little hour special on the subject of money and politics. We showed how private money continues to drive public policy, and how it is that our campaigns have become auctions instead of elections. As the broadcast came to a close, we put on the screen the 800 number of a non-partisan group called Project Vote Smart. When you call the number they send you a printout showing who has contributed what to your representative in Congress. Will you believe it’s documented — that in response to that one broadcast, almost 30,000 Americans got up from their chairs and couches, went over to their phone, and dialed the 800 number. Almost 30,000! Democracy is not what people watch; it’s what they do.

As the cab drivers keep telling me, there is certain information that empowers us as moral agents to occupy the highest office of the land, the office of citizen. The commercial networks have abandoned this work. They are interested in what you buy, not in what you need to know. And you matter to them only if you are a consumer between the ages of 18 and 49. When one network reported its Nielsen results for the most recent season, it didn’t even include figures for viewers who were not in that category. That’s the only standard that counts, the network argued, because that’s all that interests advertisers.

In crisis, or panic, or in desperation, it must be tempting sometimes for us to think of following suit. The subversive thought worms its way from under the rock and whispers seductively: why hang on to a distinctive noncommercial nature? Times are changing! Just invite aggressive advertising, allow outside parties to purchase time on your stations, turn over whole blocks of the schedule for ratings-driven commercial programs; here’s the big apple: bite and be like the big guys!

But that, surely, is the slippery slope to serfdom, where we wind up the stepchild of industry: ruled by the iron imperative of commercialism, in hock to the lowest common denominator, our decisions of what to produce and program determined not by educational or cultural needs but by the size of our back-end deals.

It would be the end of the alternative. Divided by bargains the strong could make with the strongest, we would be conquered by the very market forces that both dictate to popular culture and devour it. We would have forfeited the franchise granted us as public educators; a franchise where manners need not be coarse, standards diminished, or intelligence insulted in order to justify our existence. And we would lose favor with the very people who believe in us, who so passionately rallied to our cause last year, those many and diverse constituencies who are too small at any given time to be a mass audience but who over time compose the American public — the people we serve.

Let me tell you what I think is at stake here.

We are assaulted on every front today by what the scholar Cleanth Brooks of Yale University called “the bastard muses.”

The “bastard muses” are propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause at the expense of the total truth; sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by and in excess of the occasion; and pornography, which focuses on one powerful drive at the expense of the total human personality.

The mass media pipe these forces directly into our hearts and minds, through images that shape our collective imagination. We are everywhere bombarded by the pernicious and debilitating effects of nonsense, trivia and violence; by a stream of mass-produced and mass-consumed carnage masquerading as amusement and threatening to erode the psychological and moral boundary between real life and make-believe.

I am a journalist, not a social scientist, and I have to leave it to the researchers to study what this phenomenon does to a person’s sensibility. What does it mean to see 81 corpses in a single movie? Or to laugh while watching Arnold Schwartzenegger blow his wife away after telling her, “Consider this a divorce?” Or what it means that by the age of 18, the average American reportedly will have seen 200,000 acts of violence on the television screen, including 40,000 murders? Psychologists at the University of Illinois who studied a set of children for 20 years found that kids who watch significant amounts of television violence at the age of eight were consistently more likely to commit violent crimes or engage in child or spouse abuse at 30. No wonder half a million people are ready to buy a record with the lyrics: “She begged me not to kill her. I gave her a rose, then slit her throat, watched her shake until her eyes closed, had sex with the corpse before I left her, and drew my name on the wall like Helter Skelter.” [ — The Geto Boys]

I don’t know what to make of all of this. But I know it doesn’t make the future a friendlier place for my small grandsons, Henry and Thomas. And I know it must be countered. That’s why you and I have the best jobs in broadcasting. For all our frailties, despite the strange ways we make decisions and the bizarre means by which we have to raise money, despite our byzantine paths to creativity, we are free — you and I — to regard human beings as more than mere appetites and America as more than an economic machine.

Leo Strauss once wrote that “liberal education is liberation from vulgarity.” He reminded us that the Greek word for vulgarity is apeirokalia, the lack of experience in things beautiful. Vulgarity: the lack of experience in things beautiful. In contrast, a liberal education supplies us with that experience and nurtures the moral imagination. A liberal education is what we’re about; in our best moments public television is a strategy of affirmation. Performing arts, good conversation, history, travel, nature, critical documentaries, public affairs, children’s programs — at their best they open us to other lives and other realms of knowing.

You know what we’re about? The ancient Israelites had a word for it. They called it hochma, the science of the heart. Intelligence, feeling and perception combine to inform your own story, to draw others into a shared narrative, and to make of our experience here together a victory of the deepest moral feeling of sympathy, understanding and affection. When you and I succeed at this kind of programming, the public square is a little less polluted, a little less vulgar, and our common habitat a little more hospitable. When we fail, well, we get up and try again. Out there, the public waits — for something real. They will give you an hour of their life — they never get it back — and you give them something of value in return. A moral transaction. That expectation, that hope; the unarticulated but patient trust that as producers and programmers we will try our best — that is what’s at stake. Henry Thoreau got it right: “To affect the quality of the day, is the highest of the arts.” That is our mission.

Thank you for listening this morning, for this occasion. But thank you most of all for the work we have done together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *