Bill Moyers: A Tribute
A giant of journalism is stepping down tonight, but it’s not getting that much attention. PBS has announced that tonight will be the last episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal, as well as NOW, another PBS public affairs show started by Moyers during the George W. Bush Administration.
Moyers is a national treasure, a reporter who has always treated his fellow citizens as adults who can understand nuanced arguments and multi-syllabic words. In an era of soundbites, blatant lies, and superficiality, he is a thoughtful, probing critic who exposes the abuses of the powerful and espouses a brand of populism that honors the dignity of every person, regardless of their class, race, citizenship, religion, or gender. He has taken on oil companies, tobacco companies, the chemical industry, mining companies, polluters, agri-business exploitation of undocumented farm workers, union-busters, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the corporate media’s complicity in the lead-up to the Iraq War, just to name a few. As a result, he has been a lightning rod for many conservatives, most recently when George W. Bush’s appointee to Chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlison, engaged in a secret inquiry into Moyers’ alleged left-wing bias.
Charlie Rose says of Moyers: “He is, I’ve always believed, a true son of Texas and like the best Texans he drew from the land his poetry, his politics, his populism, his spirituality and yes, his instinct for power.”
This is my tribute to an American and Texan treasure.
As for me, Moyers is a big reason why I studied journalism, though I wound up not being one. I’ve been aware of Moyers and have followed his career since I was a kid in Texas. (Yes, I was a bit of a geek watching CBS and PBS at age 7). This was the era when CBS was dominated by Texans – Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers, Dan Rather, and Bob Schieffer – who had been forged in the crucible of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. LBJ had died less than ten years earlier, and his aura still hung over much of Central Texas. I can’t count the number of times I toured the Johnson Family Ranch on Brownies and school field trips. And in a liberal household such as mine, but one where both my father and my uncle had been drafted and served in the military for the folly of the Vietnam War, there was a great deal of mixed emotion towards the architect of the Great Society who insisted on escalating an unwinnable war.
But every time Bill Moyers would pop up on television, my mother, an avowed atheist, would shush anyone who might be talking or not paying attention, and say some variation on the same theme: “Listen to that man – he is a religious person you should listen to. LBJ should have listened to him.” I had no idea what she meant at the time, only learning later when studying the fascinating life of LBJ that in 1966 Bill Moyers quit as LBJ’s Press Secretary and principal aide over the escalation of the Vietnam War. LBJ and Moyers had a complicated father-son relationship; Moyers himself described them as being connected by an “umbilical cord.”
They came from similar humble backgrounds, and thus Johnson, insecure over his roots when surrounded by “those Harvard boys in Washington” trusted him deeply. Moyers was born in Oklahoma in 1934 during the height of the Great Depression and was raised in East Texas. His parents were dirt farmers whose greatest hope for him was that he would become a Baptist minister. Moyers started his journalism career at 16 as a cub reporter at the Marshall News-Messenger, and studied journalism at North Texas State College, where he was a top student. His sophomore year he wrote then-Senator Johnson about the importance of the youth vote, and LBJ offered him a summer internship in DC in charge of his personal mail.
After that summer, recognizing Moyers’ potential, LBJ convinced him to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin, throwing in a job as the assistant to the news editor for a television station owned by Lady Bird. Moyers graduated from UT as one of the best academic students in the history of the journalism school. But he felt a religious calling, and had been preaching at Baptist churches while a student. He turned down political and journalism positions to study moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and theology at the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1959.
The Great Persuader, LBJ, was not going to let Moyers get away to the church. He hired Moyers to work for him as a special assistant during the campaign of 1960. Moyers helped in the creation of the Peace Corps, serving as the principal architect of its mission and purpose, drafting the authorizing Congressional legislation, and serving as its deputy director. On November 22, 1963, Moyers was in Austin when he heard the terrible news that President Kennedy had been shot. He chartered a plane to Dallas and arrived at Love Field just as LBJ was to take the oath of office in the cabin of Air Force One, a blood-splattered Jacqueline Kennedy at his side. Moyers was there to witness the saddest Presidential swearing-in in 98 years.
In the chaos at the White House after JFK’s assassination, Moyers was everywhere and the one who LBJ trusted as much as Lady Bird. He brought order to the turmoil, served as a liaison between the Kennedys and Kennedy staff and LBJ, and was described as “The Young Man in Charge of Everything” by Time Magazine. It was heady days. Moyers developed and drafted much of the Great Society legislation and was Johnson’s main speechwriter. He was eventually named Press Secretary, and was Johnson’s unofficial chief of staff. He was described by many as the son LBJ never had. (Though rumor has it that LBJ had an illegitimate son).
Yet he would stand up to the powerful and bullying Johnson. Molly Ivins told the story that one time in the Johnson years, LBJ called on Moyers to say the blessing at a dinner. “Speak up, Bill,” LBJ roared. “I can’t hear you.”
Moyers replied, “I wasn’t speaking to you, sir.”
But Moyers’ faith and deep sense of right and wrong and morality were tested by Johnson. During the 1964 campaign, LBJ ordered Moyers to have the FBI get information on possible derogatory information and the sexual proclivities of persons both on the Goldwater campaign and within the White House. In 1965 and 1966, LBJ ordered the escalation of the Vietnam War over Moyers’ objections, and the war became the focus of the administration. Moyers felt that the escalation of the war would eventually tear the country apart. The difference of opinion was so profound, that in December 1966, Moyers resigned.
His mentor, Johnson, never spoke to him again.
Historians can debate what would have happened in Vietnam had Moyers stayed and continued to oppose his boss.
“Bill Moyers has been my North Star, in his eloquence, his quiet passion and courage, and in the way he presents me and millions of others with the ideals of our nation, from our past to our present to our uncertain future. Always he offers the gifts of thoughtfulness and of hope.” – Studs Terkel
After leaving the White House, Moyers became the publisher of Newsday. The paper won numerous awards during his three years as publisher, until the owner accused him of “left-wing sympathies” for endorsing Hubert Humphrey in the Presidential election, and sold the paper to the Times-Mirror conglomerate. Moyers was asked to leave.
His television career on PBS began in 1971. Off and on for 40 years, he has produced some of the most memorable news stories and documentaries in television history. As Eric Alterman writes in this month’s Nation:
Who but Bill Moyers could have devoted so much time to the work of Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly; done television’s most hard-hitting reporting on the Iran/Contra scandal; investigated the media’s failure in Iraq; defined the human impact of economic inequality; examined the ability of corporations to manipulate the “public mind”; evaluated the real-world impact on local communities of corporate-driven “free trade” agreements; devoted hours and hours of TV to a poetry festival, to the Book of Genesis, to the sources of addiction and to the relationship between the environment and religion, etc.? The variety of topics, moreover, is only half the story. Moyers’s methods were unique. Where else but on a Bill Moyers program were Nobel laureates and laid-off steelworkers invited to speak at length to America, without interruption or condescension?
If I were forced to name a single broadcast emblematic of what Bill Moyers brought to our national conversation–and what we stand to lose with his April 30 retirement from regular broadcasting–it would be his amazing 1986 CBS documentary The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America. Taking on so sensitive a topic–one that had remained taboo in public discussion since the furious leftist attacks on the now infamous 1965 Moynihan Report had traumatized Pat Moynihan and nearly destroyed his career–Moyers waded into waters no one else wished to enter. Confronting a problem that had metastasized after two decades of liberal silence in the face of a relentless right-wing war on the poor, Moyers walked into the ghetto to give its residents the chance to speak for themselves.
The program was remarkable in what it did not contain. It had no “responsible” black political voices explaining away the problem of fatherless children, no white liberals offering excuses, no conservative condemnation and no experts framing the issue with sociological theory. It was just one struggling teenage single mom after another, along with more than a few absent fathers, trying to explain how they coped and why they had made the choices they had. In an age before cable, the Internet or much talk-radio, its impact was explosive, comparable, perhaps, to Murrow’s famous 1960 “Harvest of Shame” report on migrant farmworkers. (Ironically, both men did their best work at the network with one foot out the door.) Like Murrow, Moyers deployed television’s unmatched power to focus attention on the voiceless, forcing Americans to confront the humanity of those who are usually demonized or ignored. As even a conservative New York Times reviewer noted at the time, the program’s “intelligence and grace…redeems television journalism.”
In an excellent 2003 interview with BuzzFlash.com touching on the role of media, the government, corporate conglomeration, and the War in Iraq, Moyers said,
The corporate right and the political right declared class war on working people a quarter of a century ago and they’ve won. The rich are getting richer, which arguably wouldn’t matter if the rising tide lifted all boats. But the inequality gap is the widest it’s been since l929; the middle class is besieged and the working poor are barely keeping their heads above water. The corporate and governing elites are helping themselves to the spoils of victory — politics, when all is said and done, comes down to who gets what and who pays for it — while the public is distracted by the media circus and news has been neutered or politicized for partisan purposes.
Take the paradox of a Rush Limbaugh, ensconced in a Palm Beach mansion massaging the resentments across the country of white-knuckled wage earners, who are barely making ends meet in no small part because of the very policies of those corporate and ideological forces for whom Rush has been a hero. I recently came across an account of the tabloid era of British journalism in the late 1950s when the Daily Mirror, for one, presented itself as the champion of the working man, fearlessly speaking truth to power, when out of sight its gluttonous and egomaniacal chairman was demanding and extorting favors from frightened or like-minded politicians and generally helping himself to greater portions of privilege like any other press baron. It’s the same story for Limbaugh, Murdoch and his minions, and the tycoons of the megamedia conglomerates. They helped create the new Gilded Age to whose largesse they have so generously helped themselves while throwing the populace off the trail with red meat served up in the guise of journalism.
Moyers’ brand of journalism refuses to treat viewers like idiots who need to be coddled and have information packaged and spoon-fed to them. He has given a forum to insightful thinkers such as Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Ehrenreich, who were talking about the economic squeeze on working families long before financial meltdowns. But he also has featured conservatives such as Cal Thomas and Ron Paul. Even with the election of Barack Obama, he isn’t afraid to criticize the current administration’s policies on issues such as unmanned drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan, the continued use of torture in Guantanamo, and coziness with Wall Street.
Fittingly, his last episode tonight is on the future of populism. Rather than fixating on the Astroturfed and inchoate rage and racism of the teabaggers, he is looking at “true” populists – people who want to reduce the corporate influence that is inexorably destroying our country’s future. How appropriate that his final guest will be fellow Texan storyteller and self-proclaimed populist Jim Hightower, a man who like his former Austin neighbor Molly Ivins, is never afraid to speak truth to power with a bunch of humor mixed in.
I’ll be watching. You should too. Check your local PBS listings for the time of tonight’s show.