A Man of Ideas: Talking With Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers has been at the forefront of American journalism for the majority of his 25 years in the profession. His reports for PBS on subjects as diverse as the Iran-Contra scandal and the role of myth in Western culture have won him innumerable awards and accolades from all corners of America. His light Texan drawl is instantly recognizable, whether he's narrating investigations into corporate influence-peddling in Congress for the newsmagazine Frontline or in conversation with religious philosopher Huston Smith on his latest production, The Wisdom of Faith.On the eve of a public appearance in Sacramento, Moyers recently spoke with News & Review staff writer Benjamin Adair about PBS, the state of journalism and the issues that matter most to Americans near the close of the 20th century.SN&R: In an address you gave to the PBS National Convention last year, you spoke about the Democracy Project and how that program challenged the people's traditional views on the American political system. You concluded by saying, "Democracy is not what people watch; it is what they do." What role does television have to play in the public square?Moyers: In an ideal world, it would be the equivalent of the old poster in the center of the village where people came to look at the latest postings of ship arrivals and political speeches and news items that become the common conversation of the time. That's where people not only got their news but debated their reactions to the news. Ideally, journalism reflects and provokes the public debate. It reports what the different political factions are saying or doing about issues and then challenges citizens to challenge them. And ideally, that's what the media would do.Unfortunately, our general press has taken a different route. I saw a report that said last year on the evening news, entertainment received more attention than education or the environment. Almost everything in the country has been turned into entertainment today, and I think that's failing the public's and the democracy's needs of an informed electorate. You're not going to get much information about what you need as a citizen by watching commercial television. Journalists are serving more the interest of the capitalist institutions they work for than they are serving the public interest of the community.Independent journalism as a critical mass in commercial media no longer exists, and independent journalism as a prominent player on the stage of public broadcasting is very, very endangered. Our decisions are being made not on the basis of what ought to be done, but on the basis of what we can get funding to do. By and large, most corporations and even most foundations do not want to fund the kind of truth-telling that is essential to independent journalism. So we wind up doing nature stories, not environmental stories. We wind up doing history and not current affairs. Those are the most entertaining; they get the largest audience, and they create the least controversy.It's all becoming entertainment. News divisions [in corporate media] now are not news divisions but program divisions. Their mission is programs that will reach a large audience no matter how much they have to vulgarize their material. The purpose is not news and information; the purpose is programming that reaches an audience.Q: It's an interesting tension. On the one hand, you have programmers making the news more entertainment-oriented, but on the other you have a public that's very disenchanted with traditional media. There really seems to be a public crisis of confidence in the press.Moyers: I have no question about that. First, let me say that the people in this country who want to be told the truth about the situation are in the minority. Most people want to have their prejudices confirmed. And that's why the partisan press in the first part of the American experience was so effective: They were able to inflame people's passions against the opposition.Point No. 2 is, you're exactly right, however. Even among the people who still hope for some basically disinterested and dispassionate analysis of what's going on in the country are being turned off by the media's own behavior. I was very taken recently by the comments of Phil Scheffler, the executive editor of 60 Minutes. He said, if journalists are not believed anymore, it's not that we're behaving differently than other great institutions of our society, but rather that we're behaving the same. And that's what has created so much skepticism if not outright enmity toward the press by those people who do want to be treated as intelligent citizens and not just as prospective consumers.There have been some disturbing changes in American politics. Today, we're faced with two fundamental questions: One is how do we respond to radical capitalism, that is, capitalism that knows no boundaries, has no ethical moorings and is indifferent to individual and community values? Second, how do we restore a vigorous politics? Because fewer than half the electorate bothered to vote at all in our presidential elections compared to 80 percent a century ago. Only one-third vote in our congressional elections. The decline of politics, mostly because of the inundation of money, has driven people to a state of disillusionment. The media are all a party to this.Q: Your work recently has been going in somewhat of a different direction. You've been producing many shows on religion and spirituality in America, shows on poetry. How does that fit into a legacy of independent journalism?Moyers: Part of journalism is education. I consider myself a public educator in the sense of being an impresario who puts on people who would have no other way to be heard if it weren't for our work. The most political series I put on was the poetry series. Poetry is the most democratic conversation in the country. That is, poets are the most honest voices left in our country because their work is not profitable. They do not speak to earn a living. Because they have no price tag on their work, they're really free to tell the truth.Q: It was interesting in The Power of Myth when Joseph Campbell brought up his belief that the old myths are part of an older time, and that we're struggling to find a new story and new myth to help us deal with an increasingly hectic and confusing modern society.Moyers: That's exactly right. But it's a myth that has to be distilled from the essence of many voices and many contributions. George Orwell believed that all issues are political issues. And religion is too. And mythology is too. I don't do anything that isn't political in that sense: that it brings into the public discourse ideas that can shape, sustain and challenge us. Ideas that find their way into the warp and woof of society and get chewed on and spit out. If all we know and talk about is entertainment and celebrities ...Q: And what products you want to buy ...Moyers: Did you read this book by David Denby who spent the year going through the liberal arts program at Columbia?Q: It's on my list. I haven't gotten to it yet.Moyers: He has this idea that we've ceased talking to one another. Instead, we entertain one another. And we do so in all sorts of places where entertainment is beside the point, or corrupting. Under the purity of affability and simplicity, public discourse has collapsed into smiling drivel. I think that's true. And it leads to a kind of impoverishment of personality and an impoverishment of politics. I don't want to make it sound too dire, but the fact of the matter is that I am troubled by it.

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