Is Bill Moyers the last of a breed or was he the first?

Analysis by Louis Barbash

Moyers reports what’s what as he knows it and leaves the NewsHour to fret about balance.

When Bill Moyers signs off after the Dec. 17 [2004] broadcast of Now with Bill Moyers, he will leave behind one of the longest and most productive careers in the history of public television.He came to PBS in 1971, the first of the crossover journalists — Tim Russert and George Stephanopolous are among his heirs — who parlay experience in government and politics into high-profile journalism. He’s produced and appeared in more than 400 hours of programming — the equivalent of almost 20 years of Frontline, American Experience or Nova. And the equivalent in variety as well: covering not only news and public affairs, but also addiction, death, religion, sports, music, China and the Hudson River. He’s won a raft of awards, among them 30 Emmys and 11 Peabodys, including a rare individual Peabody for career achievement.

That part of his legacy is indisputable, but what about the rest? Is he a singular talent whose unique blend of journalism and conviction will disappear when he retires as host? Or is he the wave of the future, the progenitor of a genre perfectly suited to a journalistic environment in which opinion and information are given equal status? Will Moyers’ departure signal the end of an era for public affairs on PBS? Or the beginning of one?

Like his first show, This Week with Bill Moyers, his last regular PBS series, Now with Bill Moyers, bears his name, and both are highly personal platforms for discussion of the issues Moyers thinks are most important.

Journalism with a purpose

An examination of a recent six months of Now leaves little doubt as to what those issues are and what Moyers thinks about them.

Not surprisingly, Now‘s most consistent topic during that period, encompassing 19 segments, was a critique of the war in Iraq as an ill-conceived and poorly executed disaster. A segment built around an interview with conservative Texas Rep. Ron Paul, for example, whom Moyers introduced as “a man who was right when no one listened,” recalled Paul’s early opposition to the war and his current belief that — now that his warnings have been proven correct — “we should leave … as quickly as possible.” Co-host David Brancaccio introduced a segment on Abu Ghraib with the observation that “America’s moral standing [is] left circling the drain that is Iraq.”

The war relegated to a strong second place Moyers’ contention, pressed throughout his journalistic career, that “the nexus of corporate power, market fundamentalism, and money in politics is transforming democracy, undermining capitalism and polarizing America.” Now gave CNN’s Lou Dobbs, for instance, 16 minutes of pubTV air to describe companies that outsource as “businesses whose business it is to kill American jobs and to ship those jobs overseas.” He continued: “This is insidious, it is spreading, it is absolutely dangerous in every respect.”

Another economic segment, on industrial unemployment in Rockford, Ill., began with good economic news: just-released statistics showing job creation in every sector of the economy, including manufacturing. But the segment then tacked back to Now‘s main stream, with interviews of 10 Rockfordians who faced the economic future with foreboding: “The whole manufacturing climate in this country is … in freefall.” “I don’t know what my future is going to be … I’m scared. I’m really scared.” “Where are these better jobs that we’re supposed to get?”

Strongly held and strongly expressed opinions on PBS are nothing new. Neither are programs that revolve around the convictions of a high-profile host. Conservative William F. Buckley’s Firing Line enjoyed a run on PBS almost as long as Moyers’. The McLaughlin Group is syndicated mostly to pubTV stations.

But Moyers’ Now has been different. For one thing, programs like Firing Line, McLaughlin, To the Contrary and Ben Wattenberg’s Think Tank are independently produced and offered to stations. Now is part of PBS’s public affairs portfolio, like the NewsHour and Washington Week, receiving slots in the schedule, network promotion and the bulk of its funding from PBS. Moreover, the show was pulled together and its host recruited by PBS President Pat Mitchell.

More importantly, Moyers and Now have departed from PBS’s traditional, almost obsessive, pursuit of balance and objectivity. The NewsHour, for example, tries to represent both — sometimes all — sides of every issue. It airs foreign policy experts who think Iraq has been a catastrophe as well as those who think it’ll turn out for the best, economists who think tax cuts put us on a path to prosperity and those who think they’re milestones on the road to ruin. Mark Shields v. David Brooks. Michael Beschloss v. Richard Norton Smith.

Public TV’s other pioneering public affairs series, Washington Week, models a different, but equally even-handed, approach: analysis of the week’s events by a panel of journalists, each of whom presents the opposing views on the issue they cover.

Hearing the other side

Now created its own model — not so much a forum for contending views as a platform for Moyers’ critique of policy and politics, incisively argued and buttressed with documentary sequences and interviews with mostly concurring voices.

Of Now‘s 19 segments on the war, for example, only four included anyone voicing support for it. In one of the four, a nine-minute segment on the burden the war has imposed on military families, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) got just 41 seconds to say that hard-pressed families receive help from neighbors and families as well as from the government.

Another segment was devoted entirely to mocking Rush Limbaugh’s over-the-top dismissal of the Abu Ghraib abuses as “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.” In only one of the 19 segments, an interview with Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, did anyone mount a substantial defense of the war.

Opposing views were also scarce in Now‘s economic segments. In the Lou Dobbs segment, for instance, no one appeared to counter Dobbs’ attack on outsourcing. The view held by most economists — that outsourcing is an inevitable part of international trade and that any substantial restrictions on it would push up the prices paid here for consumer goods and prompt other countries to retaliate against U.S. exports — was mentioned only in passing as part of Moyers’ questions. Similarly, in the 18-minute segment about jobs in Rockford, there were just seven seconds of voiceover narration reflecting the judgment that the economy is in excellent shape and Americans are better off than when President Bush took office — views held by roughly half the population.

In fact, of the 75 segments over six months that treated controversial issues like the Iraq War, the state of the economy and the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics, only 13 included anyone who spoke against the thrust of the segment. A 17-minute segment that accused the Pentagon of understating U.S. troops’ injuries in Iraq gave a Pentagon spokesman a total of a minute-and-a-half to reply.

Viewers could compare Moyers’ approach with public TV’s traditional treatment of a controversy in two recent reports on the book What’s Wrong With Kansas, by Thomas Frank. The book argues that otherwise sensible Kansans have been flimflammed by social conservatives into voting for conservative Republicans and against their own economic interests.

Now devoted an entire segment to a Moyers interview with Frank. In 17 minutes, Moyers never took issue with Frank’s views, although just the previous day columnist George Will had referred to Frank’s thesis as “fevered thinking” and “a staple of… ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’” and had asked why “the left disparage[s] what everyday people consider their fundamental interests.” Rather than incorporating opposing perspectives in his questions, Moyers used his queries to cue the author through his argument. “Are the conservative rank and file, who vote their conscience on issues of culture,” he asked, “being betrayed by the upper class of their party?”

“Oh, there’s no question about that …,” Frank replied. “They’re being ruined. They’re being destroyed, as a class.”

The NewsHour treated Frank’s thesis differently. He got about four minutes of the nine-minute segment to expound his ideas. Then, with the words, “Now, this is an interesting argument, but it’s also a controversial one,” NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman created a dialogue, not a disquisition, by giving former Bush speechwriter David Frum a little more than two minutes to counter Frank’s analysis. Solman then drew Frank and Frum into a wider conversation with tourists on the Mall in Washington.

When the NewsHour did its segment on What’s Wrong With Kansas, Moyers said in a Current interview last week, he sent a note to Solman congratulating him on it.

Moyers’ own corresponding piece wasn’t a story on the book and its thesis, he said, but an author interview, a staple of the program since the beginning. “If I had had [George] Will on,” he says, “we would have had an argument, not an interview. I leave that to the NewsHour.”

But Now‘s scarcity of opinions opposed to Moyers’ reflects more than a format preference for the one-on-one interview. It’s a matter of conviction and mission.

Covering the class war

Moyers has been on that beat since he was a 16-year-old cub reporter on the News Messenger in Marshall, his hometown in the piney woods of east Texas. He was assigned to cover the refusal of 15 housewives to make Social Security contributions on behalf of their domestic employees. “These were respectable people,” Moyers said, “but they couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives . . . I’ve been covering the class war ever since.”

His subsequent experience, he said, reinforced the lessons he learned in Marshall. As an employee of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Austin radio station and then in Washington as a Johnson Senate and White House staffer, he learned what politics was really like. “I came to Washington,” said Moyers, “thinking that senators wore togas and spoke in Olympian phrases.” But his perception of government and politics changed as he discovered the “dark and corrupt culture behind that marble faìade.”

He’s still looking behind facades. Television viewers and newspaper readers are flooded with hard news, Moyers says, “but there are scores of important stories that aren’t being reported, stories that could change our lives, even save our lives. Like the S&L collapse in the ’80s, the fraud of the war on drugs and violations of the Constitution.” These are the kinds of stories, he says, that “aroused the right wing, the kind of stories this crowd doesn’t want told about their plundering and pillaging.”

Besides, he said, public TV’s public affairs programs are already dominated by Moyers’ issue opponents. He cited a study by Vassar College professor William Hoynes that concluded that “public affairs programs on PBS are populated by the standard set of elite news sources” from government, corporations and journalism who offer “insider discourse.”

Is Now intended as an antidote to this restricted diet? “It’s intended as an answer,” he replied.

A full and fair fight

So what of it? What if — in spite of Brancaccio’s dictum (in a Now segment about, of all things, grilling meat) that “There is another side to this, of course, as there is to just about everything” — the other side remains mostly unexpressed and undefended? There’s no law against lack of balance, is there?

Well, actually, there is a law exhorting balance on public TV. The Public Broadcasting Act requires CPB to “facilitate the full development” of programs of sterling characteristics “with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature . . .” An amendment in 1992 further directs CPB to watch for imbalance and “take such steps in awarding programming grants . . . that it finds necessary.”

The law doesn’t claim to guide producers, however, and those — like Moyers — who receive no direct CPB money are especially free of its discipline. Even PBS, whose member stations will receive $190 million in CPB community service grants this year, routinely responds to questions about balance by saying that although an individual program may be one-sided, the schedule as a whole is balanced.

PBS regards the Public Broadcasting Act’s “objectivity and balance” language as less a legal requirement than “an ethical imperative that we apply to everything we do that falls under the rubric of journalism,” Coby Atlas, the network’s co-chief program executive, told Current last week. “Objectivity’s a little tricky,” she said. “You can’t go into any story being completely neutral.”

Probing interviews and potent debates can result when Now brings on right-wingers. Pictured: Moyers with direct-mail king Richard Viguerie in October. (Photo: Now.)

But there’s good reason to demand balance in public stations’ coverage of controversy. The idea of government-funded journalism is fraught with opportunities for misadventure. CPB was created to be a buffer between public broadcasters who try to explain controversies and the politicians who take sides on them.

The clash of opposing views also can make for good television. Whether on Capital Gang or Law & Order, TV thrives on competing ideas and interests.

Indeed, Moyers delivers some of his best moments when he disagrees with his guests. That’s when you see the master at work. His interviews with conservative columnist Cal Thomas and the Journal‘s Gigot fairly crackled with intellectual energy, each pushing the other to give his best arguments. Insight and understanding emerged from the contest.

Listen to Moyers and Thomas talk about gay marriage:

Moyers: I don’t see how my marriage is affected at all by the fact that a gay couple live down the street who love each other as intensely as I love my wife and I love my children. . . . Is your love for your wife and your children in any way intimidated, changed or frustrated by the fact that a gay couple is living three blocks away?

Thomas: It’s not about me, Bill. And it’s not about you . . .

Moyers: It’s about the people who want to be left alone in their own … pursuit of happiness.

Thomas: Well, if they wanted to be left alone, that would be one thing. But they don’t want to be left alone. They don’t want the freedom to do whatever they do. And I’m for that. I’m not for the police breaking down the door. They want cultural approval. They want the schools to approve. They want the law to approve. They want to be able to adopt children when children need … a mother and father.

Moyers: As citizens of the secular democracy, they want the equal protection of the law. …

Thomas: My question is, if we allow this and promote it as legitimate marriage, what is next? And that is a legitimate question. And if you say, “Well, we can’t go any further than this,” according to what and according to whom?

Moyers: But I honestly, of course, don’t believe that’s a Christian view…

Thomas: So, you would tolerate everything. Polygamy, bigamy?

Moyers: No.

Thomas: Well, why not?

Moyers: I believe that you have to have civil codes that protect you from me and me from you.

Thomas: But what if I disagree? What standard do we appeal to? That’s the question we’re dealing with.

Watching Moyers interview a worthy opponent is like watching Roger Clemens duel with Barry Bonds. But watching him feed questions to people with whom he is in almost total agreement is like watching a batting practice pitcher serve up lobs to be hit out of the park.

“I came out of the two-sides school,” says Moyers, referring to his early career as a newspaper reporter and TV news editor. “But for some stories,” he says, “there aren’t necessarily two sides. Very often it’s the case that the evidence is unarguable.”

His view of objectivity changed over the years, he says, as he learned “the hard way that reality as defined by officials is often not the same as what’s actually happening.” He now believes that “objectivity means being true to your own reading of the record and your own analytical processes of reasoning and conclusion and logic,” he told Texas Monthly earlier this year. “There’s a truth behind the news that is the journalist’s obligation to discover as fairly and responsibly as possible.”

Moyers’ journalism with a purpose may be the wave of the future, or at least a wave that public TV would want to catch. With the airwaves awash in punditry, public TV could fill a niche where opinions are based on reporting. And with public TV’s glut of public affairs programs chasing a limited supply of production dollars, it’s significant that Now‘s new half-hour version will maintain funding enough, Atlas predicts, to permit some reporting from the field.

Newcomers to Friday night

Though some observers see partisan perfidy, it’s more likely a coincidence that as Moyers exits PBS stage left, two new programs are entering stage right: Tucker Carlson Unfiltered and the Wall Street Journal‘s Journal Editorial Report. What do they portend for the future of public affairs on PBS? A continuation of the traditional NewsHour-type forum for divergent views? Or the journalist-as-truth-teller approach that Moyers has practiced throughout his career and perfected on Now?

The omens are mixed. Carlson, whose host’s conservatism fueled both fears and hopes that it would serve as a right-leaning counterweight to Moyers’ liberalism, has proved instead to be an evenly balanced forum for conflicting perspectives. After all, the program comes from Washington’s WETA, which has long experience with the exquisite sensitivities of Capitol Hill. Each week’s two-person panel generally includes a conservative and a liberal or quasi-liberal guest.

The Journal Editorial Report, on the other hand, has in its first few weeks followed Moyers’ model of reporting its version of “the truth behind the news.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is the lodestar for American conservatism and its TV program, with Gigot as host, has followed suit. In an October program’s discussion of Social Security, for example, Gigot credited President Bush with thinking that “Social Security is something to deal with now, while John Kerry thinks it is something that can be postponed.” Panelist Susan Lee reinforces Gigot’s take: “The longer you wait, the more dramatic and painful reform will be.”

Moyers’ partisans bristle at any likening of Now to programs such as Carlson and Journal Editorial Report. “It’s an unfair comparison,” says Eric Alterman, media critic for The Nation. In contrast with commentators like Carlson and the Journal editorialists, says Alterman, “Moyers is a journalist; he does journalism. He presents a report, with evidence.”

Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith agrees. Smith, who also hosts a public TV interview show and is a board member at KLRU in Austin, describes himself as one of “the minority of journalists who run toward, not away from, bias” — though only if the journalist is open about it. “I defend Fox News, because, despite their slogan, they’re honest about what they’re doing. People are capable of making their own judgment, and if they don’t like what they’re watching or reading, they can switch to a different channel or get a different magazine or newspaper.”

Smith and Alterman say PBS is exactly the right place for engagé public affairs programs like Now. “People need help and insight on how to think about big issues,” Smith says. Besides, Alterman says, “PBS is supposed to provide an alternative” to what’s on commercial TV. The kinds of stories Moyers reports are “now never done anyplace except PBS,” while Carlson, a CNN commentator, and the Journal‘s Gigot already have outlets for their views.

Coby Atlas has nothing but praise for what Moyers has done on Now. “Bill has earned the right to be the journalist he is on the front lines of many different places,” she said. “He’s earned the right to have journalism with a purpose.”

But would PBS welcome that from other journalists? Atlas points to the dissenting voices that Moyers has welcomed to Now and to the diversity of the PBS public affairs lineup.

“There’ll probably never be another Bill Moyers,” she said.

The end, for now

Could the future of PBS news and public affairs include the kinds of programs Moyers has produced — produced by Moyers himself? Even at age 70, he doesn’t rule it out. He wants to write a long-postponed book about his old boss, Lyndon Johnson. But after that?

Moyers’ February announcement that he would leave Now, he points out, said only that he was retiring from the program. “I want to be free from the inflexible, implacable deadlines” of weekly TV, he says. But although he has nothing specific in mind, he’ll do more TV, he said, as well as write.

PBS’s door will be open, said Atlas. “We’ve made it clear with Bill, we’re open to anything he wants to do.”

A visitor reminded Moyers of a remark by actor Hal Holbrook during an April interview on Now: “As I’ve gotten older and more irritable, and more irritated by what I see going on in this society in which I live … the more personal this … becomes.”

Moyers chuckled. “Sounds like me . . .” he admitted. “You see things you didn’t see when you were younger and operating on your mind alone,” he said. “The tragedy of life is that as you get older, you run out of time, but you never run out of ideas.”


This article contains additional material that did not fit into the print edition.Update: Moyers’ departure from PBS was delayed until spring 2005, when PBS planned an overhaul of its Friday-night schedule.

Louis Barbash is a Current contributing editor, Washington-based writer, consultant and documentary producer. Formerly a senior program officer at CPB, he started his public television career at KLRN (now KLRU) in Austin, Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, he has also been a conciliator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and assistant counsel to the House Banking Committee.

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