Bill Moyers: America Can't Deal With Reality -- We Must Be Exposed to the Truth, Even If It Hurts
History Makers is an organization of broadcasters and producers from around the world concerned with the challenges and opportunities faced by factual broadcasting. Bill Moyers was the keynote speaker at the 2011 convention on January 27, 2011, in New York City.
Thanks to all of you for your welcome - and for the chance to be here among so many kindred spirits. Your dedication to factual broadcasting, to our craft and calling; your passion for telling stories that matter; for connecting the present to the past, has created a community whose work is essential in this disquieting time when "what is happening today, this hour, this very minute, seems to be our sole criterion for judgment and action." It is a sad world that exists only in the present, unaware of the long procession that brought us here. As Milan Kundera’s insight reminds us, the struggle against power "is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
I talked about this gathering when I was in California this past weekend and spent time with a good friend and supporter of my own work on television, Paul Orfalea. He's the maverick entrepreneur who founded Kinko's in a former hamburger stand with one small rented Xerox copier and turned it into a business service empire with more than two billion dollars a year in revenue. After selling Kinko's, Paul became one of the most popular, if unorthodox, teachers of undergraduates at the University of California/ Santa Barbara. When I told him what I would be doing today he applauded and understood immediately the importance of what you do. He described to me how he teaches history "backwards" to college students who have learned little about the past in high school, don't know that the past is even alive, much less that it lives in them and question its value today. He hands his students a contemporary story from some daily news source, tells them to begin with the "now" of it and to then walk the trail back down the chronology to trace the personalities, circumstances and choices that made it today's news. Their assignment, in effect, is to begin at the entrance to the cave and rewind Ariadne's thread in the opposite direction, back to the deep origins of the story. In an era marked by the lack of continuity and community between the generations, this strikes me as an inspired way to stretch young imaginations across the time zones of human experience.
And it's, of course, what you do so often in your work. No one I know does it more effectively than "Frontline." and I was pleased to learn that you are honoring its executive director, David Fanning, who is a genius, in my book, at story telling grounded in fact and presented with perspective. Over the past quarter century, I have been privileged to collaborate occasionally with David. But beyond my own personal and professional gratitude to him, all of us who produce current affairs and history programming know that he has kept the bar high while producing a body of work unequaled since Fred Friendly. Most of you are too young to have seen the whole arc of David's extraordinary career or to have known Fred Friendly's work. But some of us can never forget we're standing on the shoulder of those two giants.
I also had the privilege of witnessing Fred in action. When he was president of "CBS News" and I was the White House press secretary, he would come down from New York on the shuttle and slip in the back door of the White House and along the hall past the Cabinet Room to the private entrance to my office for an hour-or-so chat. I had done some preliminary work at the Office of Education on the future of public television in 1964, and we were soon talking about the medium's future; he was a true believer in television "that dignifies instead of debases" and of the importance "of at least one channel free of commercials and commercial values." Little did we know at the time that he would soon quit the job he relished as president of the news division that he and Edward R. Murrow had built. The two of them created "See It Now" and "CBS Reports," which set the standard for investigative reporting and documentaries of unprecedented power and impact. One of their collaborations was the famous documentary on the demagogic and dangerous Senator Joseph McCarthy. They made the brilliant decision to let McCarthy speak for himself, an entire broadcast's worth of his bullying words and techniques. McCarthy obligingly hanged himself on national television, far more effectively and fatally than anyone else's words could. His own words had turned Americans against his demagoguery - something for which the right to this day has never forgiven what they denounced as the "Communist Broadcasting System." Watching that documentary over and again, I realized that it is through such unhurried honoring of reality that we can approach the myriad and messy truths of human experience. For lasting effect, those truths cannot be forced into the mind of the public; they must be nurtured.