In the beginning, there was CBS Reports. Then came Bill Moyers. It was 1976. Executive Producer Howard Stringer wanted to show the world that the hour documentary was still viable despite the gaggle of magazine-style news shows pushing their way to the screen.
Accountants had discovered there was profit in the magazine format and wise men in good-looking suits informed us we were behind the times. Howard held a staff meeting to solicit ways to best exploit the talents of this man from Texas. A hand went up.
“Can we send him for speech lessons? Who will take us seriously when they hear that country accent?
Some of us thought the question sounded New York Provincial. Maybe it’s my Southern roots, but I liked the way the guy from Texas talked. I had read his book Listening To America : A Traveler Rediscovers His Country. I thought the book an excellent blueprint for a documentary series.
My moment with Bill Moyers came when I was asked to produce a CBS Reports film we would call “The Fire Next Door.” Just nine miles north of our office on West 57th Street, the Bronx was burning. Thirty thousand buildings had been torched. The Bronx is big, a city bigger than Buffalo. A million and a half people lived there. A few had turned parts of this city into a ruin resembling Berlin after World War II.
I wanted the audience to experience this tragic phenomenon, to feel the heat and the pain and the panic. We didn’t prepare Bill the way most correspondents are prepared for a shoot. No list of questions. No grooming. We simply gave him some background information and said, “You’re the reporter. Here’s the turf. The camera will follow you. What you see, we’ll see. What you learn, we’ll learn.”
“OK,” he said. “Let’s go.”
We followed Bill into burning buildings with the men from Battalion 19. He walked the streets with a woman named Texas Mary who lived alone in an abandoned building and had suffered the loss of her beloved dogs — boys had thrown them off the roof. On Davidson Avenue Bill ran into old Mrs. Sullivan, a retired waitress from the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
While she was telling Bill of her plan to move, two cops came running toward us. They brushed right past us and ran into Mrs. Sullivan’s building. Upstairs, kids were ransacking her apartment. The destruction was savage and total. Mrs. Sullivan wept at the sight, and choking back her tears, told Bill her cat Muffy was missing. Bill persuaded a cop to search through the debris for Muffy. It took a little while but the cop unearthed the terrified cat who dug her claws into his forearms, drawing blood. Bill then leaned close to the cop and whispered, “Mrs. Sullivan hasn’t any place to stay. It isn’t safe here. Can you take her to some place that’s safe?”
“We don’t do that. You have to call Social Services . . . .”
Bill leaned closer and whispered some more. And then some more.
Soon we were riding in Bill’s Ford station wagon, following a police car to a new home for Mrs. Sullivan.
We filmed for 30 days, and the editing took four months, a process that is expensive and time-consuming. I believe it to be the only way. Editing has its own process of discovery, and we needed the time to find and shape the perfect 46-minute hour from 150 hours of raw footage we brought back from the Bronx. Bill wanted to reach the audience right away. Every now and then he would stick his head in the door and ask, “Why is this taking so long?” We were all working furiously. We would look up and explain the process and he would nod his head, assuring us he understood. A few days later he would be back, “Why is this taking so long?” This question would hang like a shroud over every project we did together.
The Fire Next Door ends with Bill picking his way through the ruins of a fire-ravaged building. Ducking under a charred beam he looked up and observed: “We don’t approach a disaster like the death of the Bronx with the same urgency and commitment we carry to problems abroad. Americans don’t accept unsolved conflicts with foreign powers as permanent and immutable. Past mistakes or failures don’t keep us from trying again. So the vice president travels to Europe and Japan, the secretary of state to the Middle East and Russia, the U.N. ambassador to Africa. No one of comparable stature comes here.”
The film was broadcast Nov. 1, 1977. It caused a real stir. President Jimmy Carter showed it to his Cabinet the next morning. Soon after, Carter went to Charlotte Street in the South Bronx to see the destruction for himself. Sen. John Glenn wrote arson reform legislation, quoting from the film’s transcript. People in bars collected money and sent it to Mrs. Sullivan. The critics wrote Valentines, and writer David Halberstam declared Bill the new Edward R. Murrow.
Howard Stringer, who had worried at first, was now grinning and collecting awards. I got a raise. CBS Reports producers Jay McMullen, Judy Crichton, Irv Drasnin, Judy and Janet Roach traveled the world with Bill, generating what folks now refer to as The Golden Age of Television Journalism. The hour documentary was back in the game.
We went out and listened to America some more, finding a strong work ethic and old-fashioned American values in families then referred to as “The Illegal Alien Horde.” CBS labeled the program The Aliens. Bill’s closing words reminded his fellow citizens once again that Democratic Capitalism could use some manners. “Somehow America loses when it takes down the welcome sign.”
In 1980 we produced a program called “Anyplace But Here,” which took us to the third floor of Building 35 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. Here Bill was at his very best. It was a year when mental patients were being dumped onto the streets because it was believed the new drugs would enable them to function on the outside. This thinking hadn’t reckoned with a force called institutionalization, in which patients had become so dependent on life in the hospital that it was nearly impossible for them to survive outside the walls.
Bill toured the ward as a guest of Eddie Smith, a gracious and charming patient who had been in and out of mental hospitals since he was 7. Forming a friendship with Eddie, Bill discovered new dimensions of the injustice and pain of nature’s cruelest illness. Bill didn’t have to say much and he knew it. You could see it all in his face as he moved from one patient’s story to another. He took time to pause and listen to beleaguered staff members, learned about the byzantine forces that made the director’s job impossible. Then, when someone made an unkind remark to him, Eddie Smith exploded and got into a fistfight. Staff members struggled to restrain him. Bill was caught up in the middle of this fracas and you could see, in his face, the whole crazy dilemma that is mental illness. He didn’t have to say a word. He might have, but he didn’t.
This skill of listening and letting a story tell itself is rare in television. Not many TV correspondents really enjoy listening to other people. They’re more comfortable BROADCASTING! Bill spoke quietly into the microphone as if he were alone in the room with you, very much in the style of FDR, whose dreams and drives are woven into the fabric of Bill’s political soul.
Bill could make a scene come alive. We discovered that our pictures from the ward at Creedmoor without Bill had a voyeuristic feel, impersonal, off-putting and embarrassing. With Bill in the scene, everyone came alive, taking on a personality, and in a very short time our hearts were with them. He was our surrogate and the folks he was visiting suddenly became real. Some we enjoyed; others we disliked. Either way, they mattered. It was wonderful discovery: Bill Moyers is us. What he did there in Building 35 was help us see that we are all in this together.
Bill is an idea machine, 24 hours a day. He is never not working. I remember catching sight of him one morning in a stairwell the 34th Street subway station. He was crouched like a cat, furiously writing in a notebook. He looked up, cocked his head and listened, then quickly turned back to the scribbling. He was poised there so he could sprint through the tunnel and up the stairs to the express. Or to another set of stairs to the local, whichever came first. Save five minutes. This time it was the express, and off he ran. I saw this scene frequently but didn’t speak to him. I tried it once. We made small talk on the way to the office. It was awkward. His mind was busy somewhere else. He was producing four story ideas while I was planning my bagel and coffee.
Suddenly, in 1980, Bill left CBS Reports to launch a series at WNET to be broadcast on PBS. Shock waves rattled CBS. Why did he leave when everything was going great? My guess is that it was because CBS had more correspondents than it could count, and there was simply not enough air time for someone like him. He was trained as a preacher and craved his pulpit. CBS Reports was on only once a month. Also, the production of our documentaries was slow and deliberate. Bill was in a hurry.
In the early 1980s Bill worked in both commercial and public television — making series such as Creativity for PBS and doing commentaries on the CBS Evening News. My son, Frank, who worked in the CBS newsroom at the time, says that when Bill did his commentaries, the whole place stopped what it was doing — cameramen, desk assistants, writers, make-up people, all of them — turned and listened, intent on hearing what Bill had to say. Phones went unanswered; the control room hushed. Frank says in all the years he worked there, the only time this happened was when Bill spoke his piece.
I worked with Bill infrequently after the CBS Reports days. We did some good work, but he never really took to my style. Complained that the camera did all the storytelling. Nothing could have made me prouder.
For the next 25 years I tuned into PBS and marveled at what I saw.
Then, in 2001, he called and asked me to help out on a PBS film he was making about the history of the Hudson River.
“Mile per mile, it has more history than any river in America,” he said. “We’ll call it America’s First River.” I remember shooting a dinner scene for this film in a robber baron’s castle high above the river. In an elegant dining room, ablaze with candlelight, grandchildren of the great financial titans of the 1880s described to Bill the rampant greed and social injustices of the Gilded Age. Bill reflected that we were now in a Second Gilded Age and collapse was coming.
“All of us will suffer for it except the very rich,” he said. Outrage was in his eyes. “We should do something on this subject,” he said to me as we packed up.
It had been almost 40 years since we first worked together and the fountain of story ideas was still flowing, faster than ever.
We finished shooting America’s First River in the Adirondacks the following week. I sensed it was going to be a good film and began to breathe little bit. Then, at dinner that night, Bill wanted to know, “Why is this taking so long?
Copyright 2010 American University