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Moyers a flash point in balance talks led by CPB

Originally published in Current, July 14, 2003
By Karen Everhart

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, and
  • 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 story). "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 agenda.

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 added.

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.


Text of 1992 objectivity and balance amendment to law governing CPB.

Knocking God's party: Moyers, PBS hear from angry conservatives, December 2002.


Form on Now's website where you can give feedback.


Web page posted July 14, 2003, corrected July 24, 2003
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