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Now loses Bill Moyers, keeps taste for friction

Originally published in Current, July 25, 2005
By Mike Janssen

Much has changed this year on public TV’s Now, but not its starring role in the debate over balance in public broadcasting.

The show relaunched in January with a slimmer half-hour format, a higher proportion of field reporting and, most notably, David Brancaccio hosting without Bill Moyers at his side. But this month CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson again called Now “liberal advocacy journalism” before a Senate subcommittee.

To Brancaccio, who joined the show as co-host in September 2003, the attention is refreshing. “I’m glad somebody took notice of this little broadcast,” he jokes.

Despite the scrutiny, Now continues to cover hot-button issues, though in a manner more suited to its post-Moyers stage. It follows Americans caught up in the workings of government policies and economic forces, with fewer of the intellectual in-studio talks at which Moyers excelled.

On-site reporting gives Now a price tag double that of a studio show, but Brancaccio and Executive Producer John Siceloff see the value in getting out of the studio. “We are uncompromising in pursuing stories that affect the lives of working Americans across the nation,” Siceloff says.

The show’s tone has also evolved to fit the affable and unassuming Brancaccio. He doesn’t do commentaries of any kind, much less the potent ones that elicited conservatives’ rage against Moyers.

Brancaccio still wants to keep up the pulse, however, and says the show will always be equally hard on whoever holds power, Republican or Democrat.

"It’s going to be hard-hitting,” he says. “We’re not going to get invited to any Washington galas of the rich and the powerful who are currently in control.”

Now isn’t biased, producers say

The host says he was amused to learn that Now was the subject of a CPB-commissioned study. In May the New York Times revealed that Tomlinson paid Fred Mann, a former official at a right-leaning journalistic organization, to track the political leanings of Now’s interviewees over nine months. The study reportedly cost $14,000.

Mann labeled guests “L” for liberal and “C” for conservative, as well as “anti-Bush” and “anti-corporations.” Yet several conservatives merited “L”s, seemingly for criticizing President Bush.

As it happens, Brancaccio analyzed the content of local TV news broadcasts for his master’s thesis at Stanford University. Mann “would have gotten a D-minus” for his lack of clear methodology, the host says, but “not an F—a few points for entertainment value.”

Mann’s study proves Now’s leftward tilt, says Tomlinson, who repeated his criticisms before a Senate subcommittee July 11. (He did not return calls from Current seeking comment.) The Journal Editorial Report, a weekly discussion of news among the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, balances Now’s bias, he said.

"If we have liberal advocacy journalism on for a half hour we should present conservative advocacy journalism for a half-hour,” Tomlinson told the subcommittee. “That was my conclusion.”

Brancaccio says he’s “extremely uncomfortable” with that assertion. Now practices journalism that aims to present multiple points of view, he says, while the Journal show is “outright commentary.”

"The idea that they balance us just doesn’t compute,” he says.

Like Brancaccio, Siceloff says he doesn’t mind the controversy. “The worst thing that happens is silence ... and no one pays attention,” he says.

He denies that the show in any way advocates a point of view. Its topics are “neither left nor right issues — they’re issues that affect everyone,” he says.

Now continues to cover subjects it has followed since its 2002 debut: the environment, health care, the economy, homeland security, the media, the war in Iraq. But the new Now focuses on how political decisions and economic shifts affect average Americans. Why? it asks. And how?

"I’m trying to bring our journalism a little closer to the people,” Brancaccio says.

Stories often find their subjects in people dealing with change in their communities and their lives. An episode about growing financial instabilities faced by Americans introduced viewers to Elvira Rojas, a Salvadoran immigrant in Los Angeles.

"I think I really started to have the American dream from the moment I set foot in this country,” Rojas says. But her path has zigzagged. She has held and lost several jobs and, after suffering a miscarriage, was forced to charge half the $4,000 bill to her credit card. The story drove home that, for many Americans, debt has replaced the government-backed safety nets of earlier generations.

More recently Now explored the plight of Iraq War veterans suffering from mental trauma. Caught in an ambush during the war, Jeremy Lewis still grapples with post-traumatic stress disorder. For him, a drive on the highway is an ordeal.

"[I]f I saw a dead deer on the side of the road or something like that, I’d always try to move over, thinking there was a bomb under the deer,” he said. “And if traffic got heavy, it wasn’t comfortable because one of the ways they ambush you is to block you into traffic.”

But the Veterans Administration, hamstrung by budget cuts, has been slow to treat Lewis and other vets. Lewis may have to wait until next year to collect disability payments, Now reported.

Brancaccio guides viewers through these stories with friendly curiosity. His brief, open-ended questions put the spotlight on his subjects, and the clarity of his voiceovers reflects his 10 years of explaining complex economic matters as host of public radio’s Marketplace.

Brancaccio says he tries to avoid the imperious manner of other TV news anchors. In interviews, he says, “I’m trying to be much more of a surrogate for the viewer.”

A different voice

These facets of Brancaccio’s personality also characterize his in-studio interviews. The show’s focus on field reporting and its downsizing from 60 minutes to 30 left little room for interview segments. But an occasional episode stays in the studio to keep costs down. PBS provides the bulk of Now’s budget, with added support from foundations.

Moyers, 71, and Brancaccio, 45, share gray hair and a fondness for sweaters on some casual Fridays.

But they diverge in their interviewing styles. Moyers delved into his talks with passion and at times seemed as much a participant as his subjects. Often a half-smile and a gleam in his eye revealed how much he savored the give-and-take.

Brancaccio seems no less engaged but more often takes a back seat to the interviewee, posing questions, then getting out of the way. Like Moyers, he challenges statements, but he might soften the blow with a comment such as “I’m just trying to understand this” or “Maybe I’m being thick.”

His “natural talent” as a communicator made him stand out to Jim Russell, g.m. of Marketplace, who picked the young Brancaccio as host over candidates with meatier resumes.

"It’s more than sincerity,” he says. “He speaks directly to you. He sort of pushes out of the way all the intervening technology and is able to remember and relate to the fact that he’s talking to people sitting in their living rooms.”

Russell also liked Brancaccio’s sense of humor. He recalls when the Marketplace host visited a nude beach in France to learn where naked people kept their money. (Answer: fanny packs.)

Brancaccio has said he wants to bring some of Marketplace’s irreverence to Now. He also wants to increase the show’s appeal to younger viewers, though he admits that on Friday nights many will be out having fun. One strategy would be to feature more people in their 20s and 30s on the show: “You don’t have to have just written your sixth book,” he says.

As it evolves, Now has earned a 1.1 rating, just shy of its rating during the last six months of Moyers’ tenure. (The average PBS primetime rating is 1.8; Now ties with NewsHour.) PBS has renewed it for next season, and Siceloff says the show is considering adding a second host to ease the travel schedule. To preserve Brancaccio’s stamina, Siceloff says, “we need to get another body out there.”

Brancaccio remains eager to produce a substantive news show with teeth. “Some people are worried we got scared by the pressure” of the recent controversy, he says. “My answer would be, ‘Turn on the TV and tell me if it’s any different.’”

Web page posted July 29, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Brancaccio in interview

Now doesn't cover "left" or "right" issues but those that affect everyone, Brancaccio says.


Before joining Now as co-host Brancaccio moonlighted from Marketplace as host of a statewide pubTV show, California Connected.


PBS's ombudsman joins Now fans and producers asking PBS to return the program to a one-hour format, June 2006.


Moyers' program "continues in a liberal vein without him," comments syndicated columnist Robert Novak in the Houston Chronicle.

Now's website.