Moyers a flash point in balance talks led by CPB

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CPB has revived debate within public TV about balance and fairness
in public affairs programs, citing specifically Bill Moyers’ dual roles
of host and uninhibited commentator on his Friday-night PBS show.

After a vigorous debate among station reps and producers June 9 [2003]
at the PBS Annual Meeting in Miami Beach, CPB President Bob Coonrod
proposed to broaden discussions within public TV on standards of fairness.
In a widely circulated letter exchange with PBS President Pat Mitchell,
he put topics from the session–including Moyers’ roles–on the agenda
for future talks between the two.

“Specific notions of fairness, or perceptions of fairness, may
vary by individual or by region, but the overall message was clear:
There is a deep and abiding interest among our colleagues to try to
‘get it right,'” Coonrod wrote. After participants in the session
screened a Moyers commentary from Now, “there was serious
discussion . . . of the conflict–actual and perceived–between journalism
and commentary.” Coonrod asked to discuss the issue with Mitchell.

In her June 27 response, Mitchell wrote that she supported fully Moyers’
First Amendment right “to give his own opinions on all matters,
and when those opinions are within a program on PBS, to clearly label
them as commentary.” But PBS must be “all the more vigilant
about ensuring balance and objectivity in this role as host and interviewer,”
she said.

Fairness, balance and objectivity are journalistic standards that
carry special weight for pubcasters. The Public Broadcasting Act of
1967 authorized the nascent CPB to fund high-quality programming from
diverse sources with “strict adherence to balance and objectivity
in all programs . . . of a controversial nature.” In addition,
the law called on CPB to protect pubcasters “from interference
with or control of program content or other activities.” It also
forbade CPB-funded stations from editorializing–a restriction overturned
by the Supreme Court in 1984.

In 1992, the last time Congress reauthorized the act, lawmakers required
CPB to take new steps to ensure balance and objectivity in programming.
These included:

  • offering the public “reasonable opportunities”
    to comment on programming;
  • reviewing national programming for “quality,
    diversity, creativity, excellence, innovation, objectivity, balance”
    and unmet programming needs;
  • funding programs based on findings of this review,
  • informing stations about these efforts so they could
    use CPB’s experience in addressing concerns about local programs.

The CPB Board began re-examining its efforts to meet these requirements
more than a year ago, Coonrod said in an interview. As a result, CPB
improved operation of its telephone comment line, sponsored conference
sessions similar to the one in Miami Beach, and financed a forthcoming
rewrite of public radio’s ethical guidebook.

In November, shortly after Moyers’ post-election commentary roiled
conservatives, the CPB Board unanimously reaffirmed its commitment to
ensuring program balance (earlier
). “It is especially important in these extraordinary
times for public broadcasting to provide information to the public about
issues of national import in a manner that represents multiple points
of view,” the resolution stated. At that time board members spoke
out against program bias but didn’t connect their remarks to Now
with Bill Moyers,
a series that receives no CPB backing.

CPB then took additional steps to broaden the range of opinions represented
on public TV. In a reorganization early this year, CPB appointed Michael
Pack, a filmmaker who documented the mid-1990s rise and fall of Republican
House Speaker Newt Gingrich in two PBS films, as chief program executive.

CPB and PBS agreed to jointly commission a new Friday night series
to pair with Now. The show, still in development, is intended
to balance Moyers’ views, according to two producers who spoke with
PBS execs about the concept.

In an interview, Coonrod said CPB’s stepped-up activities to ensure
balance aren’t a direct response to increased complaints on Capitol
Hill, although he acknowledged, “this is the kind of thing where
people have strong views.” Lawmakers repeatedly bring up the issue
in committee meetings and hearings, he said.

“It’s their role to remind us of our obligation and it’s our
obligation to take it seriously,” Coonrod added. “The way
for us to take it seriously is to create opportunities for people in
public radio and television to take it seriously.”

While definitions of fairness vary widely within public TV, Coonrod
was encouraged by the debate in Miami Beach. “We ought to create
more opportunities for the professionals in public broadcasting to have
these conversations,” he said.

Can a journalist express opinions?

Judging from the debate in Miami Beach, there’s some discomfort in
public TV that PBS permits Moyers’ strong critiques of the conservative

PBS closed the session to press coverage, but panelists and attendees
recounted the discussion in interviews with Current.

Dave Iverson, executive director of Best Practices in Journalism, moderated
the session titled “Balance in Broadcasting: What’s Fair?”
and presented scenarios of not-very-hypothetical programs or situations
that challenge notions of balance and fairness. Scenarios dealt with
point-of-view programs and outside pressures that threaten a station’s
editorial integrity. According to several accounts, a commentary on
patriotism and the flag from Now prompted strong reactions
from the panelists and audience members.

In the commentary, delivered on the Feb. 28 edition of Now, Moyers
described how the flag had been “hijacked and turn into a logo–the
trademark of a monopoly on patriotism.” He questioned why President
Bush and Vice President Cheney sported flag pins during the State of
the Union address. “How come? No administration’s patriotism is
ever in doubt, only its policies.”

Iverson presented a clip of the remarks and asked panelists whether
program hosts should be allowed to deliver commentaries. “I wouldn’t
say there was unanimity on that,” he recalled.

Several panelists and members of the audience said hosts must choose
between maintaining their objectivity as journalists and delivering
strongly worded opinions. Others said the audience is smart enough to
distinguish between the two roles and that commentary helps viewers
see through the obfuscations of politicians.

“I was critical of his stepping into” the role of commentator,
said panelist Joyce Davis, deputy foreign editor for Knight-Ridder Newspapers
and a former NPR editor. “Part of the problem is [Moyers] was so
good. If you liked what he said you were `Rah, rah!’ If not, it raised
the hair on the back of your neck.”

“There’s a line in news that is clearly defined,” said Rick
Johnson, program director at WJCT in Jacksonville. “At a newspaper
you’re a journalist or an opinion writer, but not both.”

Jones thinks Moyers’ commentaries undercut the solid journalism of
his program. To conservative viewers in his market, Moyers’ commentary
at the end of some Now programs “basically provides an
excuse for viewers to disregard what happened in the previous 50 minutes
of the program and say, ‘I knew all along he was one of those.'”

David Kanzeg, director of programming at WVIZ in Cleveland, said the
truths that Moyers spoke within the commentary didn’t require balancing.
Helping viewers see through the manipulation of images and mediate the
ideological extremes of political discourse is a journalistic service
that pubcasting audiences will value.

“Neither the left nor the right has any truth anymore,” Kanzeg
told Current. “They’re articulating extremes to the absence
of value. That’s not a healthy sign. As the political life in this country
deals more with nonsense, people rely on us more to cut through it and
illuminate the truth rather than a strict he said/she said,” he

Producers at Now don’t see a conflict in Moyers’ role as host
and commentator, said Judy Doctoroff, executive in charge, a panelist
at the session. “As long as the commentary is clearly labeled and
factually based, it is another important forum for conveying information
to viewers.”

Moyers: It’s not the commentaries

Moyers said the issue of his Now commentaries is a “red
herring.” He’s written and delivered only 26 commentaries since
the weekly show debuted 18 months ago. The “real story–one that’s
difficult for our colleagues in Washington to talk about–is that Now
covers stories that others won’t touch, stories about how politics really
works …” he said in an e-mail to Current. “Powerful
vested interests, of course, don’t like strong, credible, fact-based
truth telling, and they turn to their cohorts in Congress to protest.
To their credit, PBS officials have stood the heat and are still in
the kitchen.”

He said partisan critics had been offended by Now’s reporting
on a secret expansion of the Justice Department’s powers of surveillance
and investigation, conflicts of interest at the top of the Interior
Department, the court battle over Vice President Cheney’s energy plan,
and the influence of campaign contributions on legislation and policy.
“None of this has endeared us–or PBS–to the powers that be,”
he wrote. But it is Now‘s reporting on the FCC’s new ownership
rules that “has really stirred the hornet’s nest and made some
very powerful people uncomfortable,” he wrote. He cites Fox network
owner Rupert Murdoch as an example. Murdoch, who stands to benefit from
TV deregulation, also owns the Weekly Standard, which has criticized
Moyers repeatedly.

Issues of fairness and balance are “a tough thing for journalists
in general and public broadcasters in particular,” said Davis.
Those working for commercial media wonder whether advertisers’ influence
interferes with their journalism, while pubcasters have to “deal
with keeping politicians happy or making them unhappy,” she said.

“I think at this time in journalism in general, we have a burden
to err on the side of extreme caution,” Davis added. Attacks on
editorial standards of the New York Times during the Jayson
Blair imbroglio were “so profound” that public faith in journalism
sank to new lows.

“One thing that bothers me is that we’ve been statutorily required
to maintain balance for years and years, and we know how to do it,”
commented WVIZ’s Kanzeg. “But the rest of broadcasting is tilting
to the right and we appear to be tilting to the left in the eyes of
the population.” This puts more heat on CPB, making it harder to
maintain the firewall protecting public broadcasting’s editorial integrity,
he said.

It may be impossible to satisfy every viewer, however, since fairness
and objectivity are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder.

The press is allowing the principle of objectivity “to make us
passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers
of it,” wrote Brent Cunningham, managing editor of Columbia
Journalism Review
in the magazine’s July/August issue.

Cunningham told Current that journalists are increasingly
sensitive to complaints about biased reporting. “A cottage industry
of bias police has sprung up in recent years, and they really are exploiting
the complicated relationship that journalists have with objectivity,”
he said.

Moyers makes valuable contributions to broadcast journalism, he said.
“If you look at his work, he’s doing legitimate investigations.
I’ve never seen anything to prove that he’s doing it for ideological
or political reasons, Cunningham said.

“When you’re doing good journalism, ideology is not the driving
force, no matter what your personal point of view,” he added.

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