Bill Moyers, Giant of Television, Retires
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Nearly twenty years ago, I spoke to Edward R. Murrow's top producer, Fred Friendly, who told me he thought of Bill Moyers as "the Murrow of our time...the broadcaster who most upholds his mantle." But while Murrow remains television journalism's most admired historical figure, it's all but inarguable that Moyers long ago surpassed his achievements.
This is no knock on Murrow, who, after all, spent most of his career on radio. His See It Now --the program that helped take down Joe McCarthy in 1954--enjoyed just four years of life in a regular prime-time slot before it gradually disappeared as an occasional series, unable to find a sponsor. Defenestrated at CBS, Murrow gave up on network news entirely and accepted John Kennedy's offer to head up the USIA in 1961. But when Bill Moyers likewise found his brand of journalism unwelcome on network news, he had another option. He was able to return to PBS, where he had begun his career as a broadcaster fifteen years earlier. With his decision to found his own production company, Public Affairs Television (PAT), together with his wife and executive producer, Judith Davidson Moyers, he assured himself complete editorial independence, and in the quarter-century that followed, he fashioned a body of work without parallel in the medium's brief history.
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?
Bill and I have been friends--and frequent professional collaborators -- for nearly two decades. But we first met in Managua in 1987, where he and his crew were talking to protesters outside the US Embassy for his landmark PBS special on The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis . Not long afterward, I spent months speaking to his co-workers at CBS and elsewhere for a magazine profile of him. All were eager to talk, as we were in the midst of one of many brief "Draft Moyers for President" movements, though a few were conflicted. Some felt abandoned by his decision to leave CBS and quit fighting the good fight for network news; but most remained grateful for the opportunities his work had offered them. Onetime CBS Morning News producer Jon Katz told me, "When you work with Bill, it ruins you for everyone else." Yes, Moyers would "drive the executives berserk with his agonizing over everything, and getting him on the morning news was like a three-month Kabuki dance every time. But the end result was the most brilliant stuff we ever had."
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.