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.
Fred never wanted to leave CBS, but in 1966, when the network refused to carry Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, choosing instead to run a repeat of "I Love Lucy," he resigned, became the media adviser to the Ford Foundation and was the prime mover in the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He became our Johnny Appleseed, persuading the foundation to put its money - millions of dollars - where his mind was.
I had left the White House by then to be publisher of Newsday and would soon join public television as anchor of a weekly broadcast. Fred's first teaching assistant, Martin Clancy, was my star producer. It was usually one of Fred's people who taught me the most about our craft - how it was possible through the coupling of word and image to come close to the verifiable truth and an honest accounting of reality. Fred played a critical role in my life when, after stints at both CBS and PBS, I had to choose between the two. I had found it increasingly difficult at the network to do the work I most wanted to do, but was reluctant to take off the golden handcuffs and leap into the world of independent production. I went over to see Fred at the foundation and there was nothing subtle in his advice. He said, "You're never going to do the work you most want to do until you do it for yourself." So, I followed him overboard.
Fred was right, as he so often was: independence meant the best hope for me to pursue journalism as a mission. Perhaps, we were naïve, but in those days many of us still assumed that an informed public is preferable to an uninformed one. Hadn't Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government"? And wasn't a free press essential to that end?
Maybe not. As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency "deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information." He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. "Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger." You can read the entire article online.
I won't spoil it for you by a lengthy summary here. Suffice it to say that, while "most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence," the research found that actually "we often base our opinions on our beliefs ... and rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions."
These studies help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.) Remember when Limbaugh, for one, took journalists on for their reporting about torture at Abu Ghraib? He attempted to dismiss the cruelty inflicted on their captives by American soldiers as a little necessary "sport" for soldiers under stress, saying on air: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation ... you [ever] heard of need to blow some steam off?" As so often happens, the Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber. So, it was not surprising that in a nationwide survey conducted by The Chicago Tribune on First Amendment issues, half of the respondents said there should be some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse. According to Charles Madigan, the editor of the Tribune's Perspective section, 50 or 60 percent of the respondents said they "would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic."
No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism. Partisans in particular - and the audiences for Murdoch's Fox News and talk radio - are particularly susceptible to such scurrilous disinformation. In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he "may be the antichrist."
The bigger the smear, the more it sticks. And there is no shortage of smear artists. Last year, Forbes Magazine, obviously bent on mischief, allowed the right-wing fantasist Dinesh D'Souza to tar Obama with a toxic brew so odious it triggered memories of racist babble - a perverted combination of half-baked psychology, biology and sociology - that marked the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. Seizing upon the anti-colonial views of Obama's Kenyan father, who had deserted the family when the boy was two years old and whose absence from his life Obama meditated upon in his best-selling book "Dreams of My Father," D'Souza wrote that, "Incredibly, the US is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son."
In a sane political world, you might think at least a few Republican notables would have denounced such hogwash by their own kind for what it was. But no. Newt Gingrich, once their speaker of the House, whose own fantasies include succeeding Obama in the White House, set the tone by praising D'Souza's claptrap as the "most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama." D'Souza, said Gingrich, has made a "stunning insight" and had unlocked the mystery of Obama. I could find only one conservative who stood up against this trash. David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote on his blog: "The argument that Obama is an infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner - and not just any kind of alien, but specifically a Third World alien - has been absorbed to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010." Once again, the right-wing media machine had popularized a false narrative and made of it a destructive political weapon.
Disinformation is not unique to the right, of course. Like other journalists, I have been the object of malevolent assaults from the "9/11 truthers" for not reporting their airtight case proving that the Bush administration conspired to bring about the attacks on the World Trade Center. How did they discover this conspiracy? As the independent journalist Robert Parry has written, "the truthers" threw out all the evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement, from contemporaneous calls from hijack victims on the planes to confessions from al-Qaeda leaders both in and out of captivity that they had indeed done it. Then, recycling some of the right's sophistry techniques, such as using long lists of supposed evidence to overcome the lack of any real evidence, the "truthers" cherry-picked a few supposed "anomalies" to build an "inside-job" story line. Fortunately, this Big Lie never took hold in the public mind. These truthers on the left, if that is where GPS can find them on the political map, are outgunned, outmatched and outshouted by the media apparatus on the right that pounds the public like drone missiles loaded with conspiracy theories and disinformation and accompanied by armadas of outright lies.
George Orwell had warned six decades ago that the corrosion of language goes hand in hand with the corruption of democracy. If he were around today, he would remind us that "like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," this kind of propaganda engenders a "protective stupidity" almost impossible for facts to penetrate.
But you, my colleagues, can't give up. If you do, there's no chance any public memory of everyday truths - the tangible, touchable, palpable realities so vital to democracy - will survive. We would be left to the mercy of the agitated amnesiacs who "make" their own reality, as one of them boasted at the time America invaded Iraq, in order to maintain their hold on the public mind and the levers of power. You will remember that in Orwell's novel "1984," Big Brother banishes history to the memory hole, where inconvenient facts simply disappear. Control of the present rests on obliteration of the past. The figure of O'Brien, who is the personification of Big Brother, says to the protagonist, Winston Smith: "We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves." And they do. The bureaucrats in the Ministry of Truth destroy the records of the past and publish new versions. These in turn are superseded by yet more revisions. Why? Because people without memory are at the mercy of the powers that be; there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today. History is obliterated.
The late scholar Cleanth Brooks of Yale thought there were three great enemies of democracy. He called them "The Bastard Muses": Propaganda, which pleads sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause at the expense of the total truth; sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion; and pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality. The poet Czeslaw Milosz identified another enemy of democracy when, upon accepting the Noble Prize for Literature, he said "Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember." Memory is crucial to democracy; historical amnesia, its nemesis.
Against these tendencies it is an uphill fight to stay the course of factual broadcasting. We have to keep reassuring ourselves and one another that it matters and we have to join forces to defend and safeguard our independence. I learned this early on.
When I collaborated with the producer Sherry Jones on the very first documentary ever about the purchase of government favors by political action committees, we unfurled across the Capitol grounds yard after yard of computer printouts listing campaign contributions to every member of Congress. The broadcast infuriated just about everyone, including old friends of mine who a few years earlier had been allies when I worked at the White House. Congressmen friendly to public television were also outraged, but, I am pleased to report, PBS took the heat without melting.
But shining the spotlight on political corruption is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington, as my colleague Marty Koughan and I discovered when we produced a program for David Fanning and "Frontline" on pesticides and food. Marty had learned that industry was attempting behind closed doors to dilute the findings of the American Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticide residues on children. Before we finished the documentary, the industry somehow purloined a copy of our draft script - we still aren't certain how - and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our program before it aired. Television reviewers and editorial pages of key newspapers were flooded with propaganda. Some public television managers were so unnerved by the blitz of misleading information about a film they had not yet broadcast that they actually protested to PBS with letters that had been prepared by the industry.
Here's what most perplexed us: the American Cancer Society - an organization that in no way figured in our story - sent to its 3,000 local chapters a "critique" of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled. Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it had not seen, that had not aired and that did not claim what the Society alleged? An enterprising reporter named Sheila Kaplan later looked into those questions for the journal Legal Times. It turns out that the Porter Novelli public relations firm, which had worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Kaplan found that the firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from that "charitable" work to persuade the compliant communications staff at the Society to distribute some harsh talking point about the documentary before it aired - talking points that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter Novelli. Legal Times headlined the story "Porter Novelli Plays All Sides." A familiar Washington game.
Others also used the American Cancer Society's good name in efforts to tarnish the journalism before it aired, none more invidiously than the right-wing polemicist Reed Irvine, who pumped his sludge through an organization with the Orwellian name Accuracy in Media. He attacked our work as "junk science on PBS" and demanded Congress pull the plug on public broadcasting. Fortunately, PBS once again stood firm. The documentary aired, the journalism held up and the publicity liberated the National Academy of Sciences to release the study that the industry had tried to cripple.
However, there's always another round; the sharks are always circling. Sherry Jones and I spent more than a year working on another PBS documentary called "Trade Secrets," a two-hour investigative special based on revelations - found in the industry's own archives - that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products. These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter of opinion or point of view. They state what the companies knew, when they knew it and what they did with what they knew (namely to deep-six it) at peril to those who worked with and consumed the potentially lethal products.
The revelations portrayed deep and pervasive corruption in a major American industry and raised critical policy implications about the safety of living under a regulatory system manipulated by the industry itself. If the public and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the health risks of its products when the industry knew it, America's laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would have been far more protective of human health. But the industry didn't want us to know. That's what the documents revealed and that was the story the industry fought to keep us from telling.
The industry hired as an ally a public relations firm in Washington noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI and drug enforcement officers to conduct investigations for corporations under critical scrutiny. One of the company's founders acknowledged that corporations may need to resort to "deceit" and other unconventional resources to counter public scrutiny. Given the scurrilous campaign that was conducted to smear our journalism, his comments were an understatement. To complicate matters, the Congressman, who for years had been the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry, was the very member of Congress whose committee had jurisdiction over public broadcasting's appropriations. As an independent production firm, we had not used public funds to produce the documentary. But even our independence didn't stop the corporate mercenaries from bringing relentless pressure on PBS not to air the broadcast. The then president of PBS, Pat Mitchell, stood tall in resisting the pressure and was vindicated: one year later, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded "Trade Secrets" an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism.
Now, you can understand how it is that journalism became for me a continuing course in adult education. It enabled me to produce documentaries like "Trade Secrets" and out-of-the-box series like "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth." It enabled me to cover the summits of world leaders and the daily lives of struggling families in Newark. It empowered me to explain how public elections are subverted by private money, and to how to make a poem. Journalism also provided me a passport into the world of ideas, which became my favorite beat, in no small part because I never met anyone - philosopher or physicist, historian, artist, writer, scientist, entrepreneur or social critic - who didn't teach me something I hadn't known, something that enlarged my life.
Here's an example: One of my favorite of all interviews was with my sainted fellow Texan, the writer and broadcaster John Henry Faulk, who had many years earlier, been the target of a right-wing smear campaign that resulted in his firing by CBS from his job as a radio host here in New York, one of the low moments in that network's history. But John Henry fought back in court and won a landmark legal victory against his tormentors. After he returned home to Texas, I did the last interview with him before his death in 1990. He told me the story of how he and his friend Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken coop when they were about 12 years old. They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. As John Henry put it, "All our frontier courage drained out our heels - actually it trickled down our overall legs - and Boots and I made a new door through that henhouse wall." Hearing all the commotion Boots' momma came out and said, "Don't you boys know chicken snakes are harmless? They can't harm you." And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, "Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that, but they can scare you so bad, it'll cause you to hurt yourself." John Henry Faulk told me that's a lesson he never forgot. Over and again I've tried to remember it, too, calling on it to restore my resolve and my soul.
I've had a wonderful life in broadcasting, matriculating as a perpetual student in the school of journalism. Other people have paid the tuition and travel and I've never really had to grow up and get a day job. I think it's because journalism has been so good to me that I am sad when I hear or read that factual broadcasting is passé - that television as a venue for forensic journalism is on its way out and that trying to find out "what really happened" - which is our mandate - is but a quaint relic in an age of post-structuralism and cyberspace. But despite all our personal electronic devices, people are watching more television than ever. Much of this programming is posted online; I believe at least half the audience for my last two weekly series on Friday night came over the weekend via streaming video, iPods and TIVO. I was pleased to discover that the web sites most frequented by educators are those of PBS and that our own sites were among the most popular destinations. That's what keeps us going, isn't it? The knowledge that all the bias and ignorance notwithstanding, facts still matter to critical thinking, that if we respect and honor, even revere them, they just might help us right the ship of state before it rams the iceberg.
That's why, on balance, I count WikiLeaks a plus for democracy. Whatever side you take on the controversy, whether or not you think this information should be disclosed, all parties - those who want it released and those who don't - acknowledge that information matters. Partly because I grew up in the south and partly because of my experience in the Johnson White House, I'm on the side of disclosure, even when it hurts. The truth about slavery had been driven from the pulpits, newsrooms and classrooms during the antebellum days; it took a bloody civil war to drive the truth home. At the Johnson White House, we circled the wagons and grew intolerant of news that didn't conform to our hopes, expectations and strategies for Vietnam, with terrible, tragic results for Americans and Vietnamese, north and south. I say: "Never again!"
Here's a sidebar: I remember vividly the day President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): July 4, 1966. He signed it "with a deep sense of pride," declaring in almost lyrical language "that the United States is an open society in which the people's right to know is cherished and guarded." That's what he said. The truth is, the president had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the authorized view of reality, hated them knowing what he didn't want them to know. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House. Only the courage and political skill of a Congressman named John Moss got the bill passed at all and that was after a 12-year battle against his Congressional elders, who blinked every time the sun shined on the dark corners of power. They managed to cripple the bill Moss had drafted and, even then, only some last-minute calls to LBJ from a handful of influential newspaper editors overcame the president's reluctance. He signed "the f------ thing," as he called it and then, lo and behold, went out to claim credit for it.
It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know. The official obsession with secrecy is all the more disturbing today because the war on terrorism is a war without limits, without a visible enemy or decisive encounters. We don't know where the clandestine war is going on or how much it's costing and whether it's in the least effective. Even in Afghanistan, most of what we know comes from official, usually military, sources.
Thus, a relative handful of people have enormous power to keep us in the dark. And when those people are in league with their counterparts in powerful corporations, the public is hit with a double whammy. We're usually told the issue is national security, but keeping us from finding out about the danger of accidents at chemical plants is not about national security; it's about covering up an industry's indiscretions and liabilities. Locking up the secrets of meetings with energy executives is not about national security; it's about hiding confidential memos sent to the White House showing the influence of oil companies on policies of global warming We only learned about that memo from the Bush White House, by the way, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
Consider WikiLeaks, then, to be one big FOIA dump. Were some people in high places embarrassed? Perhaps. They did squeal, but I don't think they were stuck.
And even so, we learned some important things from WikiLeaks. For example, as Reza Alsan writes in The Atlantic, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may not be as fanatical as we think he is; the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray him as "a moderate reformer who'd like to cut deals with the West, but can't because hard-liners are calling the shots." One of them even slapped Ahmadinejad across the face when, at a high-level meeting. he proposed that the government allow more personal and press freedom at the height of the 2009 public protests in Iran. Such information can help us evaluate the incessant demands of neoconservative warmongers - the very people who rode the circuit with news of "weapons of mass destruction" in an effort to build support for invading Iraq - that we use military force against Iran to eliminate its nuclear capacity.
There are other uses of the disclosures from WikiLeaks admirably compiled by Greg Mitchell in the current edition of The Nation, where the one-time editor of Editor and Publisher performed an important public service by culling the gold from the dust.
I will close with an urgent appeal to you about one fight we won't win unless all of us join it. I'm sure everyone here agrees that we will eventually be moving to the web, all of us and that "free, instant, worldwide connectivity" is the future. But I'm sure you know that this incredible, free, open Internet highway is at risk, that corporations are on the brink of muscling their way to the front of the line. Media companies want the power to censor Internet content they don't like, to put toll booths on the web so they can charge more for the privilege of driving in the fast lanes, to turn it into a private preserve.
You may have heard that last month the FCC decided to protect free/open Internet access only on landline connections, not wireless - which is to say, there's no net neutrality in most of the online world. As Jenn Ettinger of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Free Press reported in Yes! magazine just two days ago:
The rules that the FCC passed in December are vague and weak. The limited protections that were placed on wired connections, the kind you access through your home computer, leave the door open for the phone and cable companies to develop fast and slow lanes on the Web and to favor their own content or applications.
Worse, the rules also explicitly allow wireless carriers ... to block applications for any reason and to degrade and de-prioritize websites you access using your cell phone or a device like an iPad.
Perhaps the FCC is biding its time, waiting to see how things develop technologically, with the current FCC chair seemingly more open to citizen input than was his predecessor. Or, again, maybe the landline regulation was meant simply to get media reformers off the commission's back. We can't relax our vigilance. In Ettinger's words:
The FCC still has the opportunity to put in place a solid framework that would put the public interest above the profit motive of the phone and cable companies that it is supposed to regulate. And the FCC should take immediate steps to close the loopholes it created, to strengthen its rules and to include wireless protections. The fight is far from over. We can work to change the rules, demand better oversight and consumer protections and make sure that the big companies can't pad their bottom lines on the backs of their customers.
In this effort, we have a strong ally in FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who. on my broadcast last year, spelled out how "our future is going to ride on broadband. How we get a job is going to ride on broadband. How we take care of our health. How we educate ourselves about our responsibilities as citizens ... And it's absolutely imperative that we have a place, that we have a venue to go to, to make sure that that Internet is kept open ... That's our decision to make as a people, as citizens: who's going to control this ultimately?"
With all the media consolidation that's happening today, the web may be the last stand of independent factual broadcasters like you. The stakes are high and we have come to the decisive round. I'll leave you with a story Joseph Campbell told me years ago for my series "The Power of Myth." It seems a fellow rounding the corner saw a fight break out down the block. Running up to one of the bystanders, he shouted: "Is this a private fight or can anyone get in it?"
The Internet fight for democracy is a public fight. Come on in!