Moyers: ‘The best is yet to come . . . I am an optimist’

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Text of Bill Moyers’ speech May 18, 2006, at the PBS Showcase Conference, Orlando, Fla. He spoke after PBS gave him its third annual Be More Award.

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See also Current‘s coverage and full text of the speech.

Thank you for this moment. I consider your award the singular honor of my long life in public broadcasting. But it is also humbling.

I know humility is a rare posture for broadcast journalists, but in accepting your award I have to acknowledge a fundamental truth of our work: There are no Lone Rangers. Those of us on camera get the credit, but others do the heavy lifting. Pull back for a wide shot and you would find me standing on the shoulders of a large tribe of kindred souls.

I have never fooled myself about how this works. The good ideas were only occasionally my own. In the theology of television, it is a given that God made producers before She made little green apples; no on-air journalist in America would survive a single broadcast without producers who bring order from inertia in the chaos of production. Researchers dig up the dots and connect them. Editors work miracles on the Avid. And no production would ever happen without camera and sound crews as cool as surgeons, as tough as marines, and as brave as astronauts.

And what would people like me do without sympathetic executives, comptrollers, unit managers, administrative and support personnel who also believe that public broadcasting is a calling and not just a career. This goes for colleagues on the PBS staff, too. Their jobs are unreasonably difficult but often rewarding. They can hardly make a decision without being second-guessed or causing offense. A more selfless and devoted group I’ve not known since I helped organize the Peace Corps in 1961. Without these friends and allies I would have been just another voice in the wilderness.

Without you — friends and colleagues from across the country — there would be nothing but wilderness. The bible of public broadcasting opens with this verse: “In the beginning was the station.” The local station, usually with a small and overworked staff, is first among equals — the central pillar of our system. Paula Kerger’s selection as our new president nails it to the door. She is up from the ranks. Although she was still in junior high when I did my first broadcast, time and circumstance would bring us together at WNET in New York. Never did I pass her in the hall that I didn’t think: The game has a future.

Every president of PBS has been a good friend and colleague, from Hartford Gunn and Larry Grossman to Bruce Christensen, Ervin Duggan, Pat Mitchell and now Paula. I could not have had a more nurturing professional home than WNET, led for years by John Jay Iselin and then by Bill Baker. Early on I was embraced by some of the pioneers of our community: Bill Kobin, Jack Sameth, Jerry Toobin, Bob Kotlowitz, Fred Friendly, Ward Chamberlin. Those names will not be familiar to many of you, but all of us have inherited a legacy forged from their passion and vision.

Joan Konner was my executive producer at the founding of our independent production company. She went on to become Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and she is here today, with her husband and my friend, the producer Al Perlmutter — himself a legendary broadcaster, responsible with Jack Willis for one of the greatest of all public television series, The Great American Dream Machine. Joan and Al were my partners in producing Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, and they have just completed production of a special you will be seeing within the next year on the mystery of love. Check your local listings. I’ve had a sneak preview — and I loved it, no pun intended.

Judy Doctoroff is here, too. She was just out of Yale, “wet behind the ears” as we say in Texas, when we founded Public Affairs Television. Who would have imagined that she would go on so soon to play such a role in creating a major body of PBS programming? Well, I won’t be modest: I imagined it. Joseph Campbell must have too. He told me that when you take on a large work, it’s often the case that invisible hands appear to carry you forward. Obviously, he had Judy Doctoroff in mind. I’ve been in her hands a long time now. For several years she has served as executive vice president of our production company, and this week my partner Judith and I asked her to become president. You see, Paula, I am optimistic: there is a future. You and Judy symbolize it for me. One generation passes, another comes. We’re lucky in the one coming.

Judith Davidson Moyers is here. We married 52 years ago, in our junior year at the University of Texas. As Charlotte Bronte said of her Alfred, “We intended to be married this way almost from the first; we never meant to be spliced in the humdrum way of other people.” She has been president of our production company — and will remain as our chief executive officer. She has also been the source of many of our best ideas, executive producer of many of our most successful series and specials and my co-executive editor on everything — from On Our Own Terms and Close to Home to Genesis, Healing and the Mind, Becoming American, America’s FirstRiver and Now with Bill Moyers. In a just world, your award would bear her name. Judith and Judy and Diana Warner, our comptroller who has been with us since day one, have hired more talented people, inspired more creativity, and brought more award-winning projects to completion, on budget, than I can recount here.

I have had so many exhilarating experiences with so many colleagues across these decades that I am as rich in memories as Midas was in gold. This moment and this award add immeasurably to the storehouse. And I thank you.

But I am the past and you are the future. And the best is yet to come.

How can that be, you ask? There’s not enough money. Competition is fierce. America is polarized. Our adversaries are powerful. The market is god. Privatization is the gospel. The public is fickle. And the age of the Internet is upon us. Public broadcasting is lucky even to be here — and you say the best is yet to come?

Yes, I do. I am an optimist.

The Italian philosopher Antontio Gramsci once explained that he practiced “the pessimism of the intellect” and the “optimism of the will.” Me, too. My day job as a journalist is to see the world as it is, without whitewash or illusions. But I am also a father, grandfather, husband, neighbor, and citizen. Like everyone else I have some responsibility, as I pass through, to help fix what’s broken. “Pessimism of the intellect” requires of the journalist candor in reporting, facing the facts in what can be an impossible world. But “optimism of the will” means expecting a confident future and getting out of bed every morning to do something to help bring it about.

So I’m a qualified optimist. I believe the best is yet to come — IF!

I’ll come back to the IF.

While Paula was right this morning to say that we can’t walk backward into the future, the rear view mirror can be very revealing. So I want to take you on a short trip — a trip back in time, to l964. Paula Kerger was just five years old. I was 30, and a White House assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. My portfolio included domestic policy, which is why the President dispatched me to a meeting at the Office of Education to learn something about “educational television.” I hadn’t even heard the term before. But this was the first of several meetings that would lead one year later to the Carnegie Commission.

Those of you with grey in your hair may remember that the Carnegie Commission coined the phrase “public television” in calling for a broadcasting system that would be publicly funded but not government run, an important distinction to keep in mind.

The Carnegie Commission report has been my other bible for 40-plus years now. It’s our equivalent of the Declaration of Independence. From it came the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, creating CPB and the system that has survived, creakily but quite often creatively, against the odds, to this very moment.

Some of you were not even born in 1964. But the language of the Carnegie Commission is embedded in your DNA. We owe our mission to it, and when we grow unmindful of it, those traces have a way of paying us a visitation — like the ghost that haunts Marley in A Christmas Carol — calling us back to first things. Just consider that letter written to the Carnegie Commission by E.B.White — the letter Patricia Harrison quoted this morning.

White said public television:

“should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle.” [full text]

LBJ was bemused by the reference to the “political pickle” — he’d been in many of one in his life and was responsible for many others. But for all his Hill Country roughness, he did not think these words to “high-falutin’.” He had become wealthy through a virtual family monopoly on media in Austin, Texas, and he knew that something was missing from American television. There was more to what the medium could be if it were not measured by ratings and the bottom line.

So here we are, in the White House, in 1964. Radio — the first genie out of the electronic bottle — is 30 years old. Radio had been greeted as a potential force in the public interest, a stage for the best of the creative arts, a venue for courageous journalism, and a forum for robust debate. In the Radio Act of 1927, Congress plainly said that “in exchange for the use of public airways radio stations had to serve ‘the public interest, convenience, or necessity.’”

Television had been around hardly a decade. Great expectations also greeted its arrival. And like radio it had enjoyed a brief “golden era” of innovation and creativity. But also like radio, television came with the potential to arouse the salesman’s wildest dreams. With television came mass audiences of people who would open their purses and pocketbooks and their hearts and minds to anyone who could afford the commercials that paid for the programs. In just a matter of years, the promise of the new medium as a public forum had been hijacked by commerce with its raw ambition to deliver to advertisers the largest number of buyers for their products and dreams. Advertising became the gatekeeper of the airwaves.

What this meant to our national life was troubling. We didn’t begrudge commerce its due. We were not fools — we recognized that societies structure their ways of communication to reflect their dominant values. And economic values — getting and spending in the pursuit of happiness — are among America’s dominant values. Nor were there any Marxists among us; no one wanted broadcasting to be the hand-puppet of the state. But it was impossible to ignore the consequences of a purely market-driven media. Since advertising provided media companies their revenues and profits, the marketplace of ideas was usurped by the need of broadcasters to court and please large advertisers.

We thought democracy deserved better. It was one thing for information to be commercialized, privatized, and devoted exclusively to profit. But democracy doesn’t live by bread alone; it lives on ideas, too, and occasionally it needs a full-course banquet of truth. Once television became the tool of commerce, only the price tag mattered. Contrary ideas, critical journalism, public debates, and programs that served the tastes, interests, and needs of significant but less than mass audiences were rare items in the inventory of the marketplace. In only a few years television had become, in the words of the FCC chairman “a vast wasteland,” a phrase that quickly entered the lexicon of lost opportunities.

So we sat around in those meetings — and I emphasize the sitting. Unlike the White House geniuses of West Wing and Commander in Chief, we couldn’t think fast and brilliantly on our feet; in fact, one of our best thinkers had hammertoes and could hardly move at all; all of us on the staff had to run just to keep up with the President as he walked, so there were no inspired, wittily composed, totally spontaneous and perfectly parsed conversations on the run from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden or from the Situation Room to the bathroom.

We sat around in meetings and talked about what television could do for democracy.

We talked about how television could be much more of an open marketplace of ideas, available to everyone.

We talked about how instead of merely offering predigested views of current events or defining “debate” as the off-setting opinions of two politicians with vested interest in the issue, television could be more of a real battle of ideas, where one person might actually change another’s mind.

We talked about how television could be more of a storyteller, providing people with some coherent sense of the broader social forces that affect their everyday world — portraits of the world and not just snapshots.

We talked about how television could be more diverse, exposing us to the experiences and thoughts of people living on the other side of the country or the other side of the globe, including thoughts that might rattle the cage of our own settled opinions.

We talked about how television could be more independent and how it could encourage journalism that would help check the corruption and abuse of power — something that was very much on the minds of our founding fathers when they provided for the constitutional freedom of the press.

We talked about how television could be more of a mirror held up to America, revealing that we are not all white, or male, or tall, or blonde, or blue-eyed, or brave, or Protestant, or rich, or powerful.

We talked about how television could be more than the boss’ stenographer — how it would convey the interests and opinions of more people than the economic and political elites; how it could in fact help those elites understand the questions regular people asked every day — how to get a job, how to pay the doctor, how to put food on the table, how to get the kids through school, how to afford old age — the very questions corporate media scarcely valued.

All this talk led to something. It led us to believe that what democracy needed was a truly free and independent broadcasting service — free of both state and commerce. The President sat in on some of these meetings. He liked what he heard, and when he sent to Congress what became the Public Broadcasting Act of l967, it was with a ringing request that “the public interest be fully served through the public airwaves.”

This was no immaculate conception. We had a fight on our hands. A zealous ban of opponents tried to kill the idea altogether. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said public television would be taken over by communists.

When Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania allowed that public television should “bring to this country the gift of satire … revive the days of Swift and Addison…” and “make fun” of senators, representatives and the President, the Senate fell silent. No one seconded the motion.

But a turning point came when Sen. Winston Prouty of Vermont, a Republican of the old school, read into the record that letter from E.B. White calling on public television to put the idea of excellence over the idea of acceptability. When Pat Harrison quoted that this morning, I could imagine Winston Prouty smiling there in heaven — or wherever Republicans go when they leave Congress.

The bill passed. When he signed it, the President said that the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 “announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than ‘a chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too … At its best, public television would help make our nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all its citizens.”

He got it. Even a man hardened and compromised by the dog-eat-dog, knock-down-drag-out backroom brawls of hardball politics knew that a vigorous artistic, cultural, and intellectual forum is important to the health of democracy. So he said at the signing, “Today we rededicate a part of the airwaves — which belong to all the people — and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

To pay for this enlightenment, the Carnegie Commission had recommended an excise tax on the sale of television sets that would then be placed in a trust fund specifically for public broadcasting. President Johnson thought this was a good idea — probably the best, he said, to remove public broadcasting from efforts by either party to intimidate and manipulate it. You can’t imagine what a radical idea this was — to create a federally funded public broadcasting system that would simultaneously be financially independent of the government.

And that was the catch. It was a bold idea, and it went nowhere. I want to tell you why because there’s a lesson in it for us right now.

The President asked his old friend Wilbur Mills to come down to the White House and talk it over. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee where all tax legislation must originate. We wouldn’t get the excise tax without him. So he and the President met in a small room next to the oval office. They gossiped for an hour or so, shared rumors about friends and enemies, relived old battles in Congress, schemed about bills then pending — and then LBJ began to press the flesh: what Washington called “The Treatment.”

Standing, sitting, leaning in, cajoling, whining for pity, teasing, bribing, threatening, the President was all over Mills. And when he got to the payoff — when he was ready to drive home the pitch and close the deal — he told a story. He told a story of the two little boys in Texas [one of them was the writer and broadcaster John Henry Faulk from whom LBJ himself first heard the story] who were playing in the hen house when they spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. Their courage drained right out of their heels — actually, LBJ said, it ran down their legs and on their overalls. And in a matter of seconds they had made a new door through the henhouse wall. One of their mothers came out and asked what the fuss was all about, and when they told her, she said: “Don’t you boys know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.” One of the boys, rubbing his forehead and his behind at the same time — and the President was now standing, towering above Wilbur Mills, illustrating precisely what he was describing said: “Yes, ma’am. But they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”

And that, said the president to the chairman, is why we need to give these people (public broadcasters) some room to “protect them from the likes of you and me. If we don’t, they’ll be so scared they’ll hurt themselves.”

Lyndon Johnson knew well the wisdom of the old saying: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an eraser is mightier still.” He knew, because he kept a drawer full of erasers.

Wilbur Mills listened. The President was sitting down again, leaning forward almost in the other man’s face and these two old crafty cardsharks, drinking buddies, shrewd and tough as nails, were looking right in each other’s eyes. Then the Chairman said to the President (I am paraphrasing): “Well, that’s all well and good, Lyndon. But you were up there long enough [in Congress] to know we ain’t gonna give money to folks without some strings attached. We don’t work that way.”

That was that. It meant a life on the dole for this new enterprise. And it left us vulnerable.

Just look at what happened as early as 1970. Public television broadcast a documentary called Banks and the Poor, holding up to critical scrutiny financial practices that exploited poor people. With the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as its score, the film closed with a crawl listing the names of 133 Members of Congress who were directors of banks or had bank holdings.

All hell broke loose. President Nixon and his director of communications, Patrick Buchanan, were so outraged that the President vetoed CPB’s reauthorization bill and wouldn’t sign another until the chairman, president, and director of television for CPB resigned. When public television hired two NBC reporters — Robert MacNeil and Sander Vanocur — to co-anchor some new broadcasts, Nixon commanded Buchanan to “get the left-wing commentators who are cutting us up off public television at once — yesterday, if possible!” They failed at that, but they did succeed in cutting CPB funding for almost all public affairs programming, and they knocked out multiyear funding for one of the most promising of all innovations — the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), which had been created to provide independent journalism for the sake of democracy. They also took away from PBS its ultimate responsibility for the production of programming.

Actually, they would have strangled the infant in the crib — or like Queen Hera at least toss a couple of snakes into it — except for the courage of a man named Ralph Rogers. Ralph Rogers was a powerful and wealthy industrialist from Texas, a Republican — also of the old school—who was chairman of our station in Dallas. Principled and wise, crafty and independent, he believed in the first amendment and he saw the White House intimidation as an assault on freedom of the press. He once told me, with a wink and sparkle in his eye, that he figured a Democratic White House could one day do what the Republican White House was trying even then to do, and that wouldn’t be good, either. So Ralph Rogers stood up to his own President and led a nationwide effort that saved public television. Ralph Rogers is one of my heroes. Without him, it’s unlikely we would be here today.

(Paradoxically — and perhaps poetically — the very National Public Affairs Center for Television that President Nixon and Patrick Buchanan had tried to kill, put PBS on the map by re-broadcasting in prime time every night that day’s Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night after night and establishing PBS as a force in the country.

But the shock of those assaults had a lasting impact, and the pressure never wholly let up. NPACT couldn’t sustain its funding and disappeared. A Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry Kissinger was cancelled, and far too many other unconventional programs never had a chance. Even when the strings are not tightly pulled, you knew they are there, and the worst thing that came out of that ugly episode was that we have never been able to completely shake out of our collective mind the fear that the chicken snake might prove to be a boa constrictor.

That’s why my heart raced a little faster this morning seeing Paula Kerger, Pat Harrison, and John Lawson on the same platform. There’s not a naïve hair on any of those three heads, I said to myself, and there’s plenty of moxie inside each of them. It’s just possible, I thought, that the stars are aligned and that the three of them can get fixed the most broken part of our system — our finances. We only get 15 percent of our budget from the federal government, but the truth is we’re unconsciously held hostage to it. That’s also the public perception. Michael Booth of the Denver Post says public television needs a radical makeover to free itself of the bland programming designed not too offend. A liberal public interest group has called for cutting the strings to Congress — ‘Time to unplug CPB’, said the headline, arguing that the money requires us to focus on a very narrow slice of the political debate lest we antagonize the powers-that-be.

The dilemma is that federal support is large enough to be a permanent crutch but too small to ease our need for corporate underwriting. That leaves us between a rock and a hard place. It leaves us with our credibility vulnerable. I looked up one night to see an underwriting spot for the National Mining Association. A beautiful spot it was … lovely pastoral colors … pleasing landscape … nice tones. You would have thought the National Mining Association is underwriting the restoration of the Garden of Eden here in the 21st century. But I know something about the National Mining Association. It’s the industry’s trade association — propaganda, lobbying. Over the years, as a journalist, I have returned again and again to the conflicts of interest at the Department of Interior where the revolving door keeps mining lawyers and lobbyists shifting back and forth between government and industry. I’ve covered time and again the story of mountain top removal — the ugly scalping of the hills, the polluted runoff, the black streams and unsafe drinking water. It ain’t pretty. Furthermore, I happened to see this underwriting spot not long after the death of the miners in West Virginia earlier this year. And I felt sad watching it. I thought we were betraying those miners’ families. Their taxes support public broadcasting, and here we were, taking their taxes, then turning around and selling their airwaves — the public airways — for the purpose of propaganda. It doesn’t strike me as right — using a publicly funded venue for private propaganda — and it will bring us down in the long run if we don’t fix it. I believe it can be fixed, and that Paula, Pat and John will deserve their own marble busts in the lobby of PBS and CPB — right there beside E.B. White — if they take it on.

It won’t be easy. We’re getting hit from all sides. Conservatives don’t want to increase our funding at all, for philosophical reasons. And liberals are going to balk if we wind up letting corporate money diminish the difference between us and commercial television.

We tried to fix this once before. Ten years after Carnegie One, I was privileged to serve on the Second Carnegie Commission. Funding was a mess, and our assignment was to take a hard look at the situation. We were unsparing in our diagnosis, and we came up with some promising prescriptions.

But before anyone could act on our recommendations a tidal wave of free market ideology swept across the country. Suddenly powerful voices were calling for public broadcasting to be privatized. Some of the first heavy rounds came from the libertarian economist Milton Friedman on a series — get this — on PBS. I’m not making this up. On a series carried by PBS Friedman argued that the quality of ideas should be measured by the demand they generate among media consumers — in other words, let advertising decide who gets heard and who doesn’t. I don’t mind telling you this was a bizarre experience. Here was one of the country’s best known conservative economists arguing from a publicly funded platform on behalf of allowing free speech to be determined by market forces that wouldn’t provide his own ideas a hearing on commercial television.

Then there was George Will. George got his television start as a pundit on public television — on a series called Assignment America that was first anchored by yours truly. Now, in the ’80s, George was writing that without any kind of market accountability public television had become a taxpayer luxury for a tiny elite. The noted flamethrower David Horowitz was on the warpath, too, calling for nothing less than public broadcasting’s scalp and enlisting Newt Gingrich to wield the hatchet. We were suddenly besieged by people whose reverence for the market was equaled only by their disregard for institutions not subjected to commercial chastening.

What they conveniently overlook is the contradiction between the logic of the economic market and the logic of the marketplace of ideas. My conservative friends — yes, I have conservative friends (we meet at night, on a park bench in the shadows, to protect their reputation) — tell me the market is the divine hand at work on earth. At the same time they deplore the crudity, vulgarity, and violence of popular culture, and they try to keep their kids away from television as long as possible so they will not be polluted by the flood of mass-produced and mass-consumed images that every day erode the psychological and moral boundary between life and make-believe. Yet the very thing they deplore is market driven.

You hear the argument all the time that much of the PBS national schedule has been effectively replicated — at no expense to the taxpayer — by market-driven cable channels. Even Garrison Keillor was quoted in The Nation (on the left) and The Wall Street Journal (on the right) saying “I don’t think there’s any reason for public television to exist anymore. I honestly don’t … They are so far from being an important force in broadcasting, and their accomplishments are so far in the past. There isn’t anything that they do that can’t be done and done better by any one of a dozen cable channels. They’ve been completely rendered obsolete by cable television.” Well, someone recently put the lie to this canard by simply posting a list of typical prime-time offerings from one week in May on the eight cable networks often cited by our detractors as the private sector’s answer to public television.

On A&E: “Knievel’s Wild Ride.” “Cold Case Files.” “Bounty Hunters.” “American Justice.”

On Bravo: “West Wing” (multiple episodes nightly). “Million Dollar Recipe: The Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off.” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” “Celebrity Poker Showdown.”

On CourtTV: “Cops.” “Forensic Files.” “Psychic Detective.” “Extreme Evidence.”

On Discovery: “American Chopper.” “American Hot Rod.” “Monster Garage.” “Power Tool Drag Racing.”

On Hallmark USA: “Walker Texas Ranger.” “Touched by an Angel.” “Judging Amy.”

On History: “Hitler’s War.” “Deep Sea Detective.” “Modern Marvels.”

On The Learning Channel: “In a Fix.” “Untold Stories of the ER.” “Extreme Plastic Surgery.” “Sports Disasters.” “Overhaulin’.” “What Not to Wear.”

There you have it: The vast wasteland’s barren garden, the fruit of the loom of technology that promised a thousand flowers would bloom, only to produce a row of potted plastic plants grafted from the same wilted bud of imagination and creativity.

Come on, world. There is no pure free market except in the fantasy of ideologues contending for the Oscar of hypocrisy. As our own Wick Rowland — the president and general manager of KBDI TV/12 in Denver, Colo. — has reminded us: “In this bastion of capitalist democracy that is the United States of America, commercial media have benefited from the same sort of government largesse that offers tax breaks and other incentives to major industrial and retail corporations. Legally required government notices and preferential postal rates have provided substantial support for newspapers. Commercial broadcast stations have profited enormously from their monopoly rights to highly valuable public airwaves, and the wealth of the cable and telecommunications industries has derived in large part from government grants of exclusive rights-of-way and frequencies. The cumulative value of these government subsidies of the private media has far exceeded the amount of federal support for public broadcasting.”

Congress even gave the media mogul Rupert Murdoch a tax break equal to about one fourth of public broadcasting’s annual appropriation from Congress, money he might well have turned around and invested in his own ministry of information, Fox News, which regularly beats up on public television for being publicly funded.

Gimme a break!

Because market-driven television has failed to provide a true marketplace of ideas it has betrayed the founders’ belief that constitutional freedom of the press would produce an uncensored competition of ideas, opinion, and information, giving Americans the means to think as citizens. What we have instead is a very narrow range of political debate usually between partisans of two parties both deeply corrupted by their complicity with the media and their dependence on big money. Given these realities you can make an intellectually honest case that for democracy to flourish, some journalism needs to be isolated from the market altogether. The novelist Salman Rushdie — whom you will soon be seeing in the premiere broadcast of our upcoming series entitled Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason — put it this way in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors: “Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked, and it is the skepticism of journalists, their show-me, prove it unwillingness to be impressed…(their) disrespect for power, for orthodoxies, for party lines, for theologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity, maybe even for editors…that is perhaps their most important contribution to the free world.”

One reason we get such pale and unquestioning journalism in America is that skepticism and irreverence toward the prerogatives of power and privilege are exactly what corporate media moguls don’t want from the journalists who work for them. If they did, there wouldn’t have been such gullible groupthink from the press when America went to war in Iraq on the basis of false information, faulty intelligence, fallacious propaganda, and flagrant secrecy. It’s what happens when the news media becomes a complacent conduit for the government and multimedia corporations, failing to challenge authority, and passing information spun carefully by special interests both in and out of government.

What an opportunity this is for us.

What a future is ours — if we don’t confuse the chicken snake for a boa constrictor and commit preventive capitulation and if we refuse to allow government officials and corporate spokesmen to set our agenda with no scrutiny of their words and deeds and no sifting of the truth from spin. I took to heart those scholarly peer-reviewed studies some years ago that looked at PBS’s national news and pubic affairs programming and found it hard to distinguish our guest lists from those of commercial broadcasting. According to these studies, our programming had taken on a pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt that sets narrow political limits for the discussion of public affairs. Whether government officials and Beltway journalists talking about political strategy or corporate sources talking about stock prices or the economy almost exclusively from the investor’s viewpoint, public television, these studies reported, all too often were offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar brand of inside-the-Beltway discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television.

I was reminded of George Orwell’s chilling novel 1984 in which the government develops a language called Newspeak that will keep people docile and happy. One of the writers of the new official dictionary says to the protagonist Winston: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.”

There’s a way to keep that from happening. It’s right in our own PBS guidelines. Go to Paragraph F, under headline “Courage and Controversy.”

You will read there: “The ultimate task of weighing and judging information and viewpoints is, in a free and open society, the task of the audience.”

You will read there the pledge we have made as public broadcasters to seek “content that provides courageous and responsible treatment of issues, and that reports and comments, with honesty and candor, on social, political and economic tensions, disagreements and divisions.”

You will read there the promise that our “overall content will offer a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society’s existing consensus” — those from outside society’s existing consensus.

We couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of our mission.

We couldn’t find a more affirmative reason for being.

We couldn’t want a more resounding call to action.

I read those guidelines from time to time when I grow faint of heart, or my knees turn weak, or my resolve falters after I’ve been attacked by people who don’t like us — people representing power, privilege, or ideology who despise any journalist who shatters the silence. Reading them, I realize again how corporate media pollutes the meaning of “fair and balanced” with the pretense that two well-rehearsed sound bites by representatives of self-serving interests constitutes “analysis” of the news.

I believe in “fair and balanced.”

I say let’s be more fair than anyone else. Let’s be as fair to Main Street as we are to Wall Street — to the working men and women of America as we are to the big corporations, big government, and big investors.

Let’s be as fair to poor families as we are to the First Family and the Royal Family (Yes, I looked up one evening, as more deaths were occurring in Iraq, more suffering was being endured on the Gulf Coast, and more Americans were losing their healthcare, and there on my public television screen was a special on “The Royals and their Pets.”)

Let’s be as fair to the skeptic of official policy as we are to its spokesman, as fair to the commoner as to the celebrity, and as fair to the lived experience of ordinary people as we are to the calculated opinion of think tank experts.

I’m for balance.

Let’s balance the spin with the evidence, the rhetoric with the record, and opinion with reporting.

Let’s balance what we’re told with what we know. Where did this idea come from that politicians and ideologues define objectivity? No one knows what objectivity means. You’ve heard of Irving Kristol. He’s the Tony Soprano of the neocons — their godfather, one of the most influential conservatives of our time. Surprisingly, I sometimes agree with Irving Kristol. And I especially agreed with him when he said: “The commitment to so-called ‘objective’ and impersonal reporting is, in practice, a rationalization for ‘safe’ and mindless reporting. To keep a reporter’s prejudices out of a story is commendable, to keep his judgment out of a story is a guarantee that truth will be emasculated.”

Let’s balance the view from Washington with the view from the country. I saw this letter to the editor in the paper this morning and brought it with me. The writer was joining in the debate over whether Stephen Colbert had violated decorum at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington recently when he satirized the President and the journalists. Other letters had pointed out that hardly anyone in the room laughed and accused Colbert of being offensive. This writer had a different take. He wrote: “Mr. Colbert wasn’t really interested in making any one in the room laugh. He was playing to the home audience on C-SPAN. Mr. Colbert views the D.C. insider ‘culture’ the same way most Americans do, as a cesspool of narcissism, corruption, and detachment from reality. Mr. Colbert, like most Americans, thinks that the press corps is generally spineless, complacent, and frequently complicit in government deception. The audience didn’t get the jokes because they were the jokes. He hit too close to home.”

We ought to hit close to home, too — no matter who’s in power.


Let’s balance the complaint of ideologues and their patrons in Congress and the press with the unarticulated pain and silent lament of the maid in the hotel room, the waitress in the coffee shop, and the clerk in the shopping mall — all struggling to make ends meet in an economy rigged against them. On second thought, let’s give the maid, the waitress, and the clerk a voice. Let’s give them a say. They deserve it. Their taxes pay for this system.

And let’s balance programs written by the National Mining Association and Boeing with programs underwritten by the United Mine Workers, Consumer’s Union, and Citizens for a Fair Economy. If they can’t afford the underwriting, let’s at least give them a hearing.

My friends, I close with a proposal for us. How we can get back on the map again, as we did with those Watergate hearings thirty years ago when for the first time we served notice with those hearings that we were going to be a force for democracy. Here’s what I mean:

Paula Kerger talked this morning about the telecommunications revolution that is rolling over us. My friend, the public advocate Jeff Chester writes cogently about it in his forthcoming book Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. It’s on everybody’s mind — this flood of compelling video images propelled by the interactivity of the internet, delivered through digital TVs, PCs, cell phones, and countless mobile devices. If we can afford it, we’ll have access to an ever-expanding array of news, entertainment, and information from around the world. Every day brings some technological innovation, some new industry merger, and some dazzling new promise. It’s hard for anyone to keep up, almost impossible for ordinary people out there to know what it means to their lives or our society. That’s the way the big guys want to keep it — the giant media companies, the lobbyists, the politicians. They know where they want to take us; they just don’t want us to know until we get there and it’s too late for us to do anything about it. If they are successful, we will be living in a communications system that offers us endless entertainment and satisfies our every consumer desire. But whether it will honor the life of the mind, nurture the heart, encourage free expression, education, social justice, and economic security is up for grabs.

Right now, as we meet, the big story is how the media giants are working to transform the internet into a digital tollbooth where, says Jeff Chester, “we will travel over a corporate-run piece of discriminatory electronic real estate where we will be numbered and evaluated … based on income, race, and class…so we can be better sold, round the clock, all the time.” Even as we meet here, the lobbyists are using their money and their access to have Congress, the White House, the Courts and the FCC to help transform the internet from what one Federal Court called “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed” into a system of corporate-controlled pipes. Yet it’s happening largely behind the scenes, with little public debate — one important measure was recently slipped through a House committee in the dark of night. That’s what happened with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 while we weren’t looking, and democracy was betrayed – it changed our media and our country. It’s happened every time: some new technology arrives and we’re assured paradise is just around the corner. We’re told America is about to become more democratic, more open, with greater freedom of choice. Then it’s hijacked, and the public is frozen out. First radio, then television, then cable — all promised democracy would be served — but when we woke up they had taken our birthright and turned the first amendment into a private franchise.

It’s happening again. The telecommunications revolution is upon us and special interests are counting on controlling it from inside the Beltway while no one is looking.

Let’s not let it happen this time. Let’s make the telecommunications revolution our story. Let’s tell the public how the decisions are getting made, who’s making them and why, who will win and who will lose. Let’s own this story with reporting, hearings, commentary, talking heads. Let’s get the country involved in the debate about where the internet is going, where our digital revolution is headed, how our media can foster civic participation, make government more accountable, give low-income people a place at the table. We have it in our power to bring the country into the story. We are public broadcasting, right? We’re not congressional broadcasting — that’s C-SPAN. We’re not the White House network — that’s Fox News. We’re the only broadcasting operation in the country with the words “public” and “service” in our name. That’s our constituency — not the politicians and Washington officials — but the public. The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once said the most important question a society can ask is: “What’s going on?” Well, that’s what we can do now — tell the American people what’s going on with this digital revolution. Inform them and awaken them. They’ll do the rest.

I’ve been around a long time now. What great company all of you have been. But I really think the best is yet to come. We’ve never been more needed. Democracy is troubled. Our two parties are wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Money and subservient to Big Media. The majority of the American people don’t know where to turn, who to trust. Here we are — with a mandate to put the public first. A new leader who is the right person in the right place at the right time, and with roots in communities around the country that constitutes the building blocks of hope. We have it in our reach truly to be the Public Broadcasting Service — a force of democracy.

Bill Moyers circa 2006
Photo: Peter Krogh

PBS: Moyers inspires
viewers to ‘be more’

Originally published in Current, May 30, 2006

PBS President Paula Kerger presented the third annual PBS “Be More” Award to Bill Moyers, the award-winning journalist whose programs have inspired and provoked PBS viewers since 1970.

The PBS ‘Be More’ Award honors “extraordinary people who inspire viewers in every community across the country to ‘be more,’” Kerger said. The phrase riffs off a branding campaign that “expresses the PBS mission to not only inform but also to inspire the citizens we serve.” Earlier recipients were Fred Rogers and Jim Lehrer.

Moyers’ programs for PBS since 1970s “have explored almost every theme under the sun and even those above it,” Kerger said. The titles include Bill Moyers’ Journal, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, Free Speech for Sale, Trade Secrets, Healing and the Mind, Close to Home: Moyers on Addiction and Now with Bill Moyers. His latest series, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, debuts on PBS June 23, and his production company will deliver three investigative documentaries to PBS this fall.

Moyers said it was humbling to receive the award. “I know humility is a rare posture for a broadcast journalist, but in accepting your award I have to acknowledge a fundamental truth of our work: There are no Lone Rangers. Those of us on the screen get the credit, but others do the heavy lifting. Pull back the camera and you will see me standing on the shoulders of a large tribe of kindred spirits,” he said.

Current‘s article about this speech.

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