A Democracy Can Die of Too Many Lies

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

This address
was given by Bill Moyers at the National Conference for Media Reform
in St. Louis, Mo., on Sunday, May 15.

I can’t imagine
better company on this beautiful Sunday morning in St. Louis. You’re
church for me today, and there’s no congregation in the country
where I would be more likely to find more kindred souls than are
gathered here.

There are so
many different vocations and callings in this room – so many different
interests and aspirations of people who want to reform the media
or produce for the media – that only a presiding bishop like Bob
McChesney with his great ecumenical heart could bring us together
for a weekend like this.

What joins
us all under Bob’s embracing welcome is our commitment to public
media. Pat Aufderheide got it right, I think, in the recent issue
of In These Times when she wrote: “This is a moment when
public media outlets can make a powerful case for themselves. Public
radio, public TV, cable access, public DBS channels, media arts
centers, youth media projects, nonprofit Internet news services
… low-power radio and webcasting are all part of a nearly-invisible
feature of today’s media map: the public media sector. They exist
not to make a profit, not to push an ideology, not to serve customers,
but to create a public – a group of people who can talk productively
with those who don’t share their views, and defend the interests
of the people who have to live with the consequences of corporate
and governmental power.”

She gives examples
of the possibilities. “Look at what happened,” she said, “when thousands
of people who watched Stanley Nelson’s ‘The Murder of Emmett Till’
on their public television channels joined a postcard campaign that
re-opened the murder case after more than half a century. Look at
NPR’s courageous coverage of the Iraq war, an expensive endeavor
that wins no points from this Administration. Look at Chicago Access
Network’s Community Forum, where nonprofits throughout the region
can showcase their issues and find volunteers.”

For all our
flaws, Pat argues that the public media are a very important resource
in a noisy and polluted information environment.

You can also
take wings reading Jason Miller’s May 4 article on Z Net about the
mainstream media. While it is true that much of it is corrupted
by the influence of government and corporate interests, Miller writes,
there are still men and women in the mainstream who practice a high
degree of journalistic integrity and who do challenge us with their
stories and analysis. But the real hope "lies within the Internet
with its two billion or more web sites providing a wealth of information
drawn from almost unlimited resources that span the globe … If
knowledge is power, one’s capacity to increase that power increases
exponentially through navigation of the Internet for news and information.”

Surely this
is one issue that unites us as we leave here today. The fight to
preserve the web from corporate gatekeepers joins media reformers,
producers and educators – and it’s a fight that has only just begun.

I want to tell
you about another fight we’re in today. The story I’ve come to share
with you goes to the core of our belief that the quality of democracy
and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell this
story because I’ve been living it. It’s been in the news this week,
including reports of more attacks on a single journalist – yours
truly – by the right-wing media and their allies at the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.

As some of
you know, CPB was established almost 40 years ago to set broad policy
for public broadcasting and to be a firewall between political influence
and program content. What some on this board are now doing today,
led by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, is too important, too disturbing
and, yes, even too dangerous for a gathering like this not to address.

We’re seeing
unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and
ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories
that make princes and priests uncomfortable.

Let me assure
you that I take in stride attacks by the radical right-wingers who
have not given up demonizing me although I retired over six months
ago. They’ve been after me for years now and I suspect they will
be stomping on my grave to make sure I don’t come back from the
dead. I should remind them, however, that one of our boys pulled
it off some 2,000 years ago – after the Pharisees, Sadducees and
Caesar’s surrogates thought they had shut him up for good. Of course
I won’t be expecting that kind of miracle, but I should put my detractors
on notice: They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and
back into the anchor chair.

Who are they?
I mean the people obsessed with control, using the government to
threaten and intimidate. I mean the people who are hollowing out
middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters
of the working class in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up
controlling Iraq’s oil. I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives
into a slush fund and who encourage the pious to look heavenward
and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking
their pockets. I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort
to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official
view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy.

That’s who
I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is
one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.

One reason
I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at “Now” didn’t
play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules
divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead
of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side
an opportunity to spin the news.

Jonathan Mermin
writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal.
(You’ll also want to read his book, Debating
War and Peace, Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post Vietnam
Era
.)

Mermin quotes
David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests
of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism.
The “rules of our game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to
tee up an issue … without a news peg.” He offers a case in point:
the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator so and
so hasn’t criticized post-war planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius,
“then it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

Mermin also
quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless
an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists
not discussing the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, “the
word ‘occupation’ … was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.”
Washington talked about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not
a war of occupation, so as a consequence, “those of us in journalism
never even looked at the issue of occupation.”

“In other
words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about
it, we don’t report it.” He concludes, “[Lehrer's] somewhat jarring
declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that their
reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous occupation
that has followed the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, reveals just how far
the actual practice of American journalism has deviated from the
First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of the government.”

Take the example
(also cited by Mermin) of Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer
Prize winning reporter for the Associated Press, whose fall 2003
story on the torture of Iraqis in American prisons – before
a U.S. Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced
– was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes
this lack of interest to the fact that “It was not an officially
sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source.”
Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of
Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with Beltway journalists
of American officials denying that such things happened. Judith
Miller of the New York Times, among others, relied on the
credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially
as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons
of mass destruction.

These “rules
of the game” permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism,
leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials
say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny.
Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the
truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe
both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context, background
or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.

I decided long
ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that “news
is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”
In my documentaries – whether on the Watergate scandals 30 years
ago or the Iran Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill Clinton’s
fundraising scandals 10 years ago or, five years ago, the chemical
industry’s long and despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable
withholding of critical data about its toxic products from its workers,
I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration
between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied
by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the
viewer to split the difference.

I came to believe
that objective journalism means describing the object being reported
on, including the little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie
of the people in power. In no way does this permit journalists to
make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure
that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post
with confirming evidence.

This is always
hard to do, but it has never been harder than today. Without a trace
of irony, the powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular
of George Orwell’s 1984.
They give us a program vowing “No Child Left Behind” while cutting
funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation
cheerily calling for “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” that give
us neither. And that’s just for starters.

In Orwell’s
1984, the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian
society’s dictionary, explains 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,” he said, “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 unconsciousness.”

An unconscious
people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only on partisan information
and opinions that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly
obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less
inclined to put up a fight, to ask questions and be skeptical. That
kind of orthodoxy can kill a democracy – or worse.

I learned about
this the hard way. I grew up in the South where the truth about
slavery, race, and segregation had been driven from the pulpits,
driven from the classrooms and driven from the newsrooms. It took
a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home and then it took another
hundred years for the truth to make us free.

Then I served
in the Johnson administration. Imbued with cold war orthodoxy and
confident that “might makes right,” we circled the wagons, listened
only to each other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry.
The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.

I brought all
of this to the task when PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new
weekly broadcast. They wanted us to make it different from anything
else on the air – commercial or public broadcasting. They asked
us to tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a venue
to people who might not otherwise be heard. That wasn’t a hard sell.
I had been deeply impressed by studies published in leading peer-reviewed
scholarly journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College
sociologist William Hoynes. Extensive research on the content of
public television over a decade found that political discussions
on our public affairs programs generally included a limited set
of voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives on current issues
and events. Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates, the
kind that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences,
this research found that public affairs programs on PBS stations
were populated by the standard set of elite news sources. Whether
government officials and Washington journalists (talking about political
strategy) or corporate sources (talking about stock prices or the
economy from the investor’s viewpoint), Public television, unfortunately,
all too often was offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar
brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial
television.

Who didn’t
appear was also revealing. Hoynes and his team found that in contrast
to the conservative mantra that public television routinely featured
the voices of anti-establishment critics, “alternative perspectives
were rare on public television and were effectively drowned out
by the stream of government and corporate views that represented
the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts.” The so-called experts
who got most of the face time came primarily from mainstream news
organizations and Washington think tanks rather than diverse interests.
Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted through
the views of business people, investors and business journalists.
Voices outside the corporate/Wall Street universe – nonprofessional
workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general
public were rarely heard. In sum, these two studies concluded, the
economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities
of most citizens became irrelevant.

All this went
against the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that created the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy
assistant to President Johnson, I attended my first meeting to discuss
the future of public broadcasting in 1964 in the office of the Commissioner
of Education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act
was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and
to reflect the diversity of the American people.

This, too,
was on my mind when we assembled the team for “Now.” It was just
after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We agreed on two priorities.
First, we wanted to do our part to keep the conversation of democracy
going. That meant talking to a wide range of people across the spectrum
– left, right and center. It meant poets, philosophers, politicians,
scientists, sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel Allende, the novelist,
and Amity Shlaes, the columnist for the Financial Times.
It meant the former nun and best-selling author Karen Armstrong,
and it meant the right-wing evangelical columnist Cal Thomas. It
meant Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from London, David
Suzuki from Canada, and Bernard Henry-Levi from Paris. It also meant
two successive editors of the Wall Street Journal, Robert
Bartley and Paul Gigot, the editor of the Economist, Bill
Emmott, the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and the Los
Angeles Weekly’s John Powers. It means liberals like Frank Wu,
Ossie Davis and Gregory Nava, and conservatives like Frank Gaffney,
Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie. It meant Archbishop Desmond
Tutu and Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Bishops conference
in this country. It meant the conservative Christian activist and
lobbyist Ralph Reed, and the dissident Catholic Sister Joan Chittister.
We threw the conversation of democracy open to all comers. Most
of those who came responded the same way that Ron Paul, Republican
and Libertarian congressman from Texas did when he wrote me after
his appearance, “I have received hundreds of positive e-mails from
your viewers. I appreciate the format of your program which allows
time for a full discussion of ideas … I’m tired of political shows
featuring two guests shouting over each other and offering the same
arguments … NOW was truly refreshing.”

Hold your applause
because that’s not the point of the story.

We had a second
priority. We intended to do strong, honest and accurate reporting,
telling stories we knew people in high places wouldn’t like.

I told our
producers and correspondents that in our field reporting our job
was to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth. This was
all the more imperative in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
America could be entering a long war against an elusive and stateless
enemy with no definable measure of victory and no limit to its duration,
cost or foreboding fear. The rise of a homeland security state meant
government could justify extraordinary measures in exchange for
protecting citizens against unnamed, even unproven, threats.

Furthermore,
increased spending during a national emergency can produce a spectacle
of corruption behind a smokescreen of secrecy. I reminded our team
of the words of the news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play who
said, “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse when
everyone is kept in the dark.”

I also reminded
them of how the correspondent and historian Richard Reeves answered
a student who asked him to define real news. “Real news,” Reeves
responded, “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.”

For these reasons
and in that spirit we went about reporting on Washington as no one
else in broadcasting – except occasionally “60 Minutes” – was
doing. We reported on the expansion of the Justice Department’s
power of surveillance. We reported on the escalating Pentagon budget
and expensive weapons that didn’t work. We reported on how campaign
contributions influenced legislation and policy to skew resources
to the comfortable and well-connected while our troops were fighting
in Afghanistan and Iraq with inadequate training and armor. We reported
on how the Bush administration was shredding the Freedom of Information
Act. We went around the country to report on how closed-door, backroom
deals in Washington were costing ordinary workers and taxpayers
their livelihood and security. We reported on offshore tax havens
that enable wealthy and powerful Americans to avoid their fair share
of national security and the social contract.

And always
– because what people know depends on who owns the press – we
kept coming back to the media business itself – to how mega media
corporations were pushing journalism further and further down the
hierarchy of values, how giant radio cartels were silencing critics
while shutting communities off from essential information, and how
the mega media companies were lobbying the FCC for the right to
grow ever more powerful.

The broadcast
caught on. Our ratings grew every year. There was even a spell when
we were the only public affairs broadcast on PBS whose audience
was going up instead of down.

Our journalistic
peers took notice. The Los Angeles Times said, “NOW’s team
of reporters has regularly put the rest of the media to shame, pursuing
stories few others bother to touch.”

The Philadelphia
Inquirer said our segments on the sciences, the arts, politics
and the economy were “provocative public television at its best.”

The Austin
American Statesman called “Now” “the perfect antidote to today’s
high pitched decibel level – a smart, calm, timely news program.”

Frazier Moore
of the Associated Press said we were “hard-edged when appropriate
but never Hardball. Don’t expect combat. Civility reigns.”

And the Baton
Rouge Advocate said “NOW invites viewers to consider the deeper
implication of the daily headlines,” drawing on “a wide range of
viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of the political left
or right.”

Let me repeat
that: “Now” draws on “a wide range of viewpoints which transcend
the typical labels of the political left or right.”

The Public
Broadcasting Act of 1967 had been prophetic. Open public television
to the American people – offer diverse interests, ideas and voices
… be fearless in your belief in democracy – and they will come.

Hold your applause
– that’s not the point of the story.

The point of
the story is something only a handful of our team, including my
wife and partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, and I knew at the time
– that the success of “Now’s” journalism was creating a backlash
in Washington.

The more compelling
our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican
Party became. That’s because the one thing they loathe more than
liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them
as liberal is to tell the truth.

This is the
point of my story: Ideologues don’t want you to go beyond the typical
labels of left and right. They embrace a worldview that can’t be
proven wrong because they will admit no evidence to the contrary.
They want your reporting to validate their belief system and when
it doesn’t, God forbid. Never mind that their own stars were getting
a fair shake on “Now”: Gigot, Viguerie, David Keene of the American
Conservative Union, Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, and others.
No, our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn’t
the party line. It wasn’t that we were getting it wrong. Only three
times in three years did we err factually, and in each case we corrected
those errors as soon as we confirmed their inaccuracy. The problem
was that we were getting it right, not right-wing – telling stories
that partisans in power didn’t want told.

I’ve always
thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing.
The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their
legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that
ordinary people were included in the bargain. Both would keep the
great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings,
it’s no longer an eagle and it’s going to crash.

My occasional
commentaries got to them as well. Although apparently he never watched
the broadcast (I guess he couldn’t take the diversity) Senator Trent
Lott came out squealing like a stuck pig when after the midterm
elections in 2002 I described what was likely to happen now that
all three branches of government were about to be controlled by
one party dominated by the religious, corporate and political right.
Instead of congratulating the winners for their election victory
as some network broadcasters had done – or celebrating their
victory as Fox, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard,
Talk Radio and other partisan Republican journalists had done –
I provided a little independent analysis of what the victory meant.
And I did it the old-fashioned way: I looked at the record, took
the winners at their word, and drew the logical conclusion that
they would use power as they always said they would. And I set forth
this conclusion in my usual modest Texas way.

Events since
then have confirmed the accuracy of what I said, but, to repeat,
being right is exactly what the right doesn’t want journalists to
be.

Strange things
began to happen. Friends in Washington called to say that they had
heard of muttered threats that the PBS reauthorization would be
held off “unless Moyers is dealt with.” The Chairman of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to be quite
agitated. Apparently there was apoplexy in the right-wing aerie
when I closed the broadcast one Friday night by putting an American
flag in my lapel and said – well, here’s exactly what I said.

“I wore my
flag tonight. First time. Until now I haven’t thought it necessary
to display a little metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to
see. It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties,
speak my mind, and do my best to raise our kids to be good Americans.

“Sometimes
I would offer a small prayer of gratitude that I had been born in
a country whose institutions sustained me, whose armed forces protected
me, and whose ideals inspired me; I offered my heart’s affections
in return. It no more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest
than it did to pin my mother’s picture on my lapel to prove her
son’s love. Mother knew where I stood; so does my country. I even
tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15.

“So what’s
this doing here? Well, I put it on to take it back. The flag’s been
hijacked and turned into a logo – the trademark of a monopoly on
patriotism. On those Sunday morning talk shows, official chests
appear adorned with the flag as if it is the good housekeeping seal
of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush
and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration’s patriotism
is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity
from error. When I see flags sprouting on official lapels, I think
of the time in China when I saw Mao’s little red book on every official’s
desk, omnipresent and unread.

“But more galling
than anything are all those moralistic ideologues in Washington
sporting the flag in their lapels while writing books and running
Web sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as un-American.
They are people whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to
their distance from the fighting. They’re in the same league as
those swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol
Hill for tax breaks even as they call for more spending on war.

“So I put this
on as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot
missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks, or argue that
sacrifice is good as long as they don’t have to make it, or approve
of bribing governments to join the coalition of the willing (after
they first stash the cash). I put it on to remind myself that not
every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what
bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the
government. And it reminds me that it’s not un-American to think
that war – except in self-defense – is a failure of moral
imagination, political nerve, and diplomacy. Come to think of it,
standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country.”

That did it.
That – and our continuing reporting on overpricing at Haliburton,
chicanery on K Street, and the heavy, if divinely guided, hand of
Tom DeLay.

When Senator
Lott protested that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “has
not seemed willing to deal with Bill Moyers,” a new member of the
board, a Republican fundraiser named Cheryl Halperin, who had been
appointed by President Bush, agreed that CPB needed more power to
do just that sort of thing. She left no doubt about the kind of
penalty she would like to see imposed on malefactors like Moyers.

As rumors circulated
about all this, I asked to meet with the CPB board to hear for myself
what was being said. I thought it would be helpful for someone like
me, who had been present at the creation and part of the system
for almost 40 years, to talk about how CPB had been intended to
be a heat shield to protect public broadcasters from exactly this
kind of intimidation. After all, I’d been there at the time of Richard
Nixon’s attempted coup. In those days, public television had been
really feisty and independent, and often targeted for attacks. A
Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry Kissinger in the Nixon
administration had actually been canceled. The White House had been
so outraged over a documentary called “The Banks and the Poor” that
PBS was driven to adopt new guidelines. That didn’t satisfy Nixon,
and when public television hired two NBC reporters – Robert McNeil
and Sander Vanocur – to co-anchor some new broadcasts, it was,
for Nixon, the last straw. According to White House memos at the
time, he was determined to “get the left wing commentators who are
cutting us up off public television at once – indeed, yesterday
if possible.”

Sound familiar?

Nixon vetoed
the authorization for CPB with a message written in part by his
sidekick Pat Buchanan who in a private memo had castigated Vanocur,
MacNeil, Washington Week in Review, Black Journal and Bill Moyers
as “unbalanced against the administration.”

It does sound
familiar.

I always knew
Nixon would be back. I just didn’t know this time he would be the
chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Buchanan and
Nixon succeeded in cutting CPB funding for all public affairs programming
except for Black Journal. They knocked out multiyear funding for
the National Public Affairs Center for Television, otherwise known
as NPACT. And they voted to take away from the PBS staff the ultimate
responsibility for the production of programming.

But in those
days – and this is what I wanted to share with Kenneth Tomlinson
and his colleagues on the CPB board – there were still Republicans
in America who did not march in ideological lockstep and who stood
on principle against politicizing public television. The chairman
of the public station in Dallas was an industrialist named Ralph
Rogers, a Republican but no party hack, who saw the White House
intimidation as an assault on freedom of the press and led a nationwide
effort to stop it. The chairman of CPB was former Republican congressman
Thomas Curtis, who was also a principled man. He resigned, claiming
White House interference. Within a few months, the crisis was over.
CPB maintained its independence, PBS grew in strength, and Richard
Nixon would soon face impeachment and resign for violating the public
trust, not just public broadcasting. Paradoxically, the very Public
Affairs Center for Television that Nixon had tried to kill – NPACT
– put PBS on the map by rebroadcasting in prime time each day’s
Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night after night and establishing
PBS as an ally of democracy. We should still be doing that sort
of thing.

That was 33
years ago. I thought the current CPB board would like to hear and
talk about the importance of standing up to political interference.
I was wrong. They wouldn’t meet with me. I tried three times. And
it was all downhill after that.

I was naive,
I guess. I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat
or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure
to carrying it out for the White House. But that’s what Kenneth
Tomlinson has done. On Fox News this week he denied that he’s carrying
out a White House mandate or that he’s ever had any conversations
with any Bush administration official about PBS. But the New
York Times reported that he enlisted Karl Rove to help kill
a proposal that would have put on the CPB board people with experience
in local radio and television. The Times also reported that
“on the recommendation of administration officials” Tomlinson hired
a White House flack (I know the genre) named Mary Catherine Andrews
as a senior CPB staff member. While she was still reporting to Karl
Rove at the White House, Andrews set up CPB’s new ombudsman’s office
and had a hand in hiring the two people who will fill it, one of
whom once worked for – you guessed it – Kenneth Tomlinson.

I would like
to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t. According
to a book written about the Reader’s Digest when he was its
Editor-in-Chief, he surrounded himself with other right-wingers
– a pattern he’s now following at the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. There is Ms. Andrews from the White House. For Acting
President he hired Ken Ferree from the FCC, who was Michael Powell’s
enforcer when Powell was deciding how to go about allowing the big
media companies to get even bigger. According to a forthcoming book,
one of Ferree’s jobs was to engage in tactics designed to dismiss
any serious objection to media monopolies. And, according to Eric
Alterman, Ferree was even more contemptuous than Michael Powell
of public participation in the process of determining media ownership.
Alterman identifies Ferree as the FCC staffer who decided to issue
a “protective order” designed to keep secret the market research
on which the Republican majority on the commission based their vote
to permit greater media consolidation.

It’s not likely
that with guys like this running the CPB some public television
producer is going to say, “Hey, let’s do something on how big media
is affecting democracy.”

Call it preventive
capitulation.

As everyone
knows, Mr. Tomlinson also put up a considerable sum of money, reportedly
over $5 million, for a new weekly broadcast featuring Paul Gigot
and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Gigot
is a smart journalist, a sharp editor, and a fine fellow. I had
him on “Now” several times and even proposed that he become a regular
contributor. The conversation of democracy – remember? All
stripes.

But I confess
to some puzzlement that the Wall Street Journal, which in the past
editorialized to cut PBS off the public tap, is now being subsidized
by American taxpayers although its parent company, Dow Jones, had
revenues in just the first quarter of this year of $400 million.

I thought public
television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media,
not a funder of it.

But in this
weird deal, you get a glimpse of the kind of programming Mr. Tomlinson
apparently seems to prefer. Alone of the big major newspapers, the
Wall Street Journal has no Op-Ed page where different opinions
can compete with its right-wing editorials. The Journal’s
PBS broadcast is just as homogenous – right-wingers talking
to each other. Why not $5 million to put the editors of the Nation
on PBS? Or Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” You balance right-wing
talk with left-wing talk.

There’s more.
Only two weeks ago did we learn that Mr. Tomlinson had spent $10,000
last year to hire a contractor who would watch my show and report
on political bias. That’s right. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson spent $10,000
of your money to hire a guy to watch “Now” to find out who my guests
were and what my stories were.

Ten thousand
dollars.

Gee, Ken, for
$2.50 a week, you could pick up a copy of TV Guide on the
newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent
you a coupon that can save you up to 62 percent.

For that matter,
Ken, all you had to do was watch the show yourself. You could have
made it easier with a double Jim Beam, your favorite. Or you could
have gone online where the listings are posted. Hell, you could
have called me – collect – and I would have told you what was
on the broadcast that night.

Ten thousand
dollars. That would have bought five tables at Thursday night’s
Conservative Salute for Tom DeLay. Better yet, that 10 grand would
pay for the books in an elementary school classroom or an upgrade
of its computer lab.

But having
sent that cash, what did he find? Only Mr. Tomlinson knows. He apparently
decided not to share the results with his staff or his board or
leak it to Robert Novak. The public paid for it – but Ken Tomlinson
acts as if he owns it.

In a May 10
Op-Ed piece, in Reverend Moon’s conservative Washington Times,
Mr. Tomlinson maintained he had not released the findings because
public broadcasting is such a delicate institution he did not want
to “damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy.” Where
I come from in Texas, we shovel that kind of stuff every day.

As we learned
only this week, that’s not the only news Mr. Tomlinson tried to
keep to himself. As reported by Jeff Chester’s Center for Digital
Democracy, of which I am a supporter, there were two public opinion
surveys commissioned by CPB but not released to the media – not
even to PBS and NPR! According to a source who talked to Salon.com,
“the first results were too good and [Tomlinson] didn’t believe
them. After the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of
polling and they thought they’d get worse results.”

But they didn’t.

The data revealed
that, in reality, public broadcasting has an 80 percent favorable
rating and that “the majority of the U.S. adult population does
not believe that the news and information programming on public
broadcasting is biased.”

In fact, more
than half believed PBS provided more in-depth and trustworthy news
and information than the networks and 55 percent said PBS was “fair
and balanced.”

I repeat: I
would like to have given Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt.
But this is the man who was running the Voice of America back in
1984 when a partisan named Charlie Wick was politicizing the United
States Information Agency of which Voice of America was a part.
It turned out there was a blacklist of people who had been removed
from the list of prominent Americans sent abroad to lecture on behalf
of America and the USIA. What’s more, it was discovered that evidence
as to how those people were chosen to be on the blacklist – more
than 700 documents – had been shredded. Among those on the lists
of journalists, writers, scholars and politicians were dangerous
left wing subversives like Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin, Gary
Hart, Ralph Nader, Ben Bradlee, Coretta Scott King and David Brinkley.

The person
who took the fall for the blacklist was another right-winger. He
resigned. Shortly thereafter, so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who had
been one of the people in the agency with the authority to see the
lists of potential speakers and allowed to strike people’s names.

Let me be clear
about this: There is no record, apparently, of what Ken Tomlinson
did. We don’t know whether he supported or protested the blacklisting
of so many American liberals. Or what he thinks of it now.

But I had hoped
Bill O’Reilly would have asked him about it when he appeared on
“The O’Reilly Factor” this week. He didn’t. Instead, Tomlinson went
on attacking me with O’Reilly egging him on, and he went on denying
he was carrying out a partisan mandate despite published reports
to the contrary. The only time you could be sure he was telling
the truth was at the end of the broadcast when he said to O’Reilly,
“We love your show.”

We love
your show.

I wrote Kenneth
Tomlinson on Friday and asked him to sit down with me for one hour
on PBS and talk about all this. I suggested that he choose the moderator
and the guidelines.

There is one
other thing in particular I would like to ask him about. In his
Op-Ed essay this week in the Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson
tells of a phone call from an old friend complaining about my bias.
Wrote Mr. Tomlinson: “The friend explained that the foundation he
heads made a six-figure contribution to his local television station
for digital conversion. But he declared there would be no more contributions
until something was done about the network’s bias.”

Apparently
that’s Kenneth Tomlinson’s method of governance. Money talks and
buys the influence it wants.

I would like
to ask him to listen to a different voice.

This letter
came to me last year from a woman in New York, five pages of handwriting.
She said, among other things, that “After the worst sneak attack
in our history, there’s not been a moment to reflect, a moment to
let the horror resonate, a moment to feel the pain and regroup as
humans. No, since I lost my husband on 9/11, not only our family’s
world, but the whole world seems to have gotten even worse than
that tragic day.” She wanted me to know that on 9/11 her husband
was not on duty. “He was home with me having coffee. My daughter
and grandson, living only five blocks from the Towers, had to be
evacuated with masks – terror all around … my other daughter,
near the Brooklyn Bridge … my son in high school. But my Charlie
took off like a lightning bolt to be with his men from the Special
Operations Command. ‘Bring my gear to the plaza,’ he told his aide
immediately after the first plane struck the North Tower … He
took action based on the responsibility he felt for his job and
his men and for those Towers that he loved.”

In the FDNY,
she continued, chain-of-command rules extend to every captain of
every firehouse in the city. “If anything happens in the firehouse
– at any time – even if the Captain isn’t on duty or on vacation
– that Captain is responsible for everything that goes on there
24/7.” So she asked: “Why is this Administration responsible for
nothing? All that they do is pass the blame. This is not leadership
… Watch everyone pass the blame again in this recent torture case
[Abu Ghraib] of Iraqi prisons …”

She told me
that she and her husband had watched my series on “Joseph Campbell
and the Power of Myth” together and that now she was a faithful
fan of “Now.” She wrote: “We need more programs like yours to wake
America up … Such programs must continue amidst the sea of false
images and name calling that divide America now … Such programs
give us hope that search will continue to get this imperfect human
condition on to a higher plane. So thank you and all of those who
work with you. Without public broadcasting, all we would call news
would be merely carefully controlled propaganda.”

Enclosed with
the letter was a check made out to “Channel 13 – NOW” for $500.

I keep a copy
of that check above my desk to remind me of what journalism is about.

Kenneth Tomlinson
has his demanding donors.

I’ll
take the widow’s mite any day.

Someone has
said recently that the great raucous mob that is democracy is rarely
heard and that it’s not just the fault of the current residents
of the White House and the capital. There’s too great a chasm between
those of us in this business and those who depend on TV and radio
as their window to the world. We treat them too much as an audience
and not enough as citizens. They’re invited to look through the
window but too infrequently to come through the door and to participate,
to make public broadcasting truly public.

To
that end, five public interests groups including Common Cause and
Consumers Union will be holding informational sessions around the
country to “take public broadcasting back” – to take it back
from threats, from interference, from those who would tell us we
can only think what they command us to think.

It’s a worthy
goal.

We’re big kids;
we can handle controversy and diversity, whether it’s political
or religious points of view or two loving lesbian moms and their
kids, visited by a cartoon rabbit. We are not too fragile or insecure
to see America and the world entire for all their magnificent and
sometimes violent confusion. “There used to be a thing or a commodity
we put great store by,” John Steinbeck wrote. “It was called the
people.”

May
19, 2005

Journalist Bill Moyers, the author of Moyers
on America: A Journalist and His Times

and many other books, is the host most recently of PBS’s NOW With
Bill Moyers, on which Lew Rockwell was a guest.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare