Bill Moyers Discusses Independent Media and Fighting Back Against Unbridled Corporate Greed and Power

Legendary journalist Bill Moyers discusses the transformation of democracy from a citizens' to a consumer society and the importance of non-corporate media.

This is an excerpt of Democracy Now!'s interview with legendary journalist Bill Moyers. You can read theentire transcripton Democracy Now!'s website.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to return to a clip from your 2007 special. It’s when you came back to PBS, and it was a documentary called Buying the War. This part goes back to September 8th, 2002, the day the New York Times published a front-page article by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller entitled "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts." That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, hosted by, well, the late Tim Russert.

BILL MOYERS: Quoting anonymous administration officials, the Times reported that Saddam Hussein had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, using specially designed aluminum tubes. And there, on Meet the Press, that same morning, was Vice President Cheney.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There was a story in the New York Times this morning that says—and I want to attribute to the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but...

JONATHAN LANDAY: Now, ordinarily, information, like the aluminum tubes, would—wouldn’t appear. It was top-secret intelligence. And the vice president and the national security adviser would not be allowed to talk about this on the Sunday talk shows. But it appeared that morning in the New York Times, and therefore, they were able to talk about it.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring, through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.

BILL MOYERS: Using the identical language of the anonymous sources quoted in the Times, top officials were now invoking the ultimate specter of nuclear war: the smoking gun as mushroom cloud.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a nuclear weapon, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Those sorts of stories, when they appear on the front page of the so-called liberal New York Times, it absolutely comes with a stamp of approval. I mean, if the New York Times thinks Saddam is on the precipice of some mushroom clouds, then there is really no debate.

BOB SCHIEFFER: We read in the New York Times today a story that says that Saddam Hussein is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. Does he have nuclear weapons? Is there a smoking gun here?

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: "Smoking gun" is an interesting phrase.

COLIN POWELL: As we saw in reporting just this morning...

TIM RUSSERT: What specifically has he obtained that you believe would enhance his nuclear development program?

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence, in your mind, that Cheney came on your show, and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know. The New York Times is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean—

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn’t make any—didn’t leak to you that there’s going to be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean, I don’t—I don’t have a—this is, you know—on Meet the Press, people come on, and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tube story until I read it in the New York Times.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September 8th, 2002, and to your show, in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times, and then the vice president comes on your show and points to the New York Times, and it’s a circular self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and the others came out that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of Buying the War. Of course, the late Tim Russert, who was the host of Meet the Press. Bill Moyers, as you watch this, your thoughts?

BILL MOYERS: Well, the consensual seduction of the mainstream media by and with the government is one of the most dangerous toxins at work in America today. They wouldn’t see it this way, and there are exceptions, but the corruption of corporate media, corporate power and government is what makes so vital what the two of you do. I’m serious about that. You don’t have the scope of Meet the Press. I mean, look at Meet the Press. Who’s been on Meet the Press more than any other figure in Washington in the last several years? Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich, I later learned, when I was briefly at NBC as an analyst doing commentaries, controversial commentaries, actually came to the brass of NBC and GE. Newt Gingrich has had some nefarious relationship with General Electric, which is one of the huge government contractors, as well as the owner of Meet the Press. And it’s just an example of what I’m talking about. The consensual seduction of the mainstream media with power, corporate power, government power—with exceptions, I repeat—is something that, without the antidote of independent reporting and analysis that you do and others, we would be in—we would be in a dark, dark pit with no light shining on us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back, since we’re talking about broadcasting, right back to the Johnson era and then jump back to here, which is about the founding of public broadcasting and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, especially for young people, to understand why it began and where it’s gone.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there were—believe it or not, I mean, nobody below 40 will believe this. You may not believe it, because both of you are much younger than I am. But when I was 20 years old, there were three networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. And ABC was only half a network—no news division, all of that. And so, we were dependent upon three corporate, advertising-driven, commercial networks for our information. And to his credit, Lyndon Johnson, who made his fortune, part of his fortune, by controlling the three—he had one station in Austin that had a monopoly over broadcasting the product, the content, of all three networks. I mean, that’s how he made his money, much of his money. But he really did believe—he was a teacher. He had taught poor Mexican students in the little town of Cotulla, Texas. He was a populist, from a poor part of Central Texas—


BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but he went to South Texas. He came from Central Texas, went to South Texas to teach in this Mexican school. And he really cared about the poor, and he cared about education. He felt there should be one channel that was free of commercials and free of commercial values, because he knew what commercial values will do to people who are reporting the news, producing content. The desire to amuse and entertain will cause us to compromise the truth.

So he—when the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Commission—John Gardner had been head of the Carnegie Corporation—and they did a study of what to do about educational television in this country. The report was actually delivered to my desk when I was still at the White House. The Carnegie Commission became the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And I wish we had it here, because the speech Lyndon Johnson made when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 is a great tribute to a network devoted to the life of the mind, the life of the spirit, and the diversity of American voices. He believed that only white male straight guys got on national television in those days, and he was right. And he saw the value, the changing—the changes coming in America, and he believed there should be a public media that was devoted to the diversity, the pluralism of American life, and to the highest expression of the creative and journalistic arts in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the actual act of the—creating the Corporation for Public Television, talked about serving underserved—


JUAN GONZALEZ:—communities of America.

BILL MOYERS: And unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, that there was a report done by Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a public interest group—

AMY GOODMAN: In Reporting.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, right?


BILL MOYERS: FAIR. And they showed that even on public broadcasting today, in our mainstream broadcasts, it’s usually the official view of reality that’s represented, far more corporate spokesmen than labor or working people spokesmen, far more white, male figures of authority than people of color and marginalized people. That’s just a tendency of human beings that always has to be resisted. And public television, public radio belongs to the people. Go back and read a great document, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And when we stray from it, as we sometimes do, the public has to rise up and say, "We own you. We are your shareholders. Come back to first principles. Come back to first things."

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has happened to public broadcasting right now, the onslaught? You talk about—–you just wrote a piece about NPR and PBS, and you talk about, well, Nixon first tried to gut it, and then take it forward.

BILL MOYERS: Richard Nixon tried to—tried to—he did succeed in fragmenting our authority, because he didn’t like—I was on the air. Robert MacNeil was on the air. We were doing journalists’ work, but he called us liberals because we were trying to get at the facts. He and Pat Buchanan, his communications director, succeeded in harming, injuring public broadcasting back in the 1970s. Thanks to a great Republican who was chairman of the public television station in Dallas, we beat him off. They wanted to defund us completely, but they didn’t. Then Newt Gingrich comes—Robert Dole comes along with the right wing in the late ’80s, and he tries to defund public broadcasting. Then comes Newt Gingrich in 1994, and now—then we had George W. Bush and his team, who came after some of us on public broadcasting.

Conservatives, on principle, don’t believe that federal funds should be used to support the media. But then also, they don’t believe in allowing any alternative voices, any alternatives to the official view of reality, to be heard. So they have always been against public broadcasting.

And sometimes self-censorship occurs because you’re looking over your shoulder, and you think, well, if I do this story or that story, it will hurt public broadcasting. Public broadcasting has suffered often for my sins, reporting stories the officials don’t want reported. And today, only about seven—you know, a very small percentage of funding for NPR and PBS comes from the government. But that accounts for a concentration of pressure and self-censorship. And only when we get a trust fund, only when the public figures out how to support us independently of a federal treasury, will we flourish as an independent medium.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet you’ve managed to have an extremely successful career, not only in public broadcasting, but for a while also with the commercial networks. I think, as I recall, you were the last person to do commentaries on the NBC Evening News, you were the last person to do commentary on the CBS Evening News, and you had a string of remarkable documentaries. Even on the old networks, there were still documentaries that had a major impact on how Americans saw particular social issues. How were you able to accomplish that then, and why is it virtually impossible to do it now?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I learned from Lyndon Johnson how to be a broken-field runner. You know, I learned something about how to survive in a hostile environment. I learned some things from him about raising money. I also came—Fred Friendly, who had been Edward R. Murrow’s great executive producer—the two of them created modern broadcast journalism—he was a good friend of mine. He nutured me, a mentor to me. He taught me a lot. And I came in that—I was in the second generation of the pioneers of journalism. Edward R. Murrow, I used to listen to on radio when I was growing up in East Texas. I listened to him on CBS News. So I inherited something of that mantle. Many of us did. And those of us—I was younger than most—but those of us who came in the wake of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly and that first generation benefited from the aura that was surrounding the news as a result of their magnificent first efforts at broadcasting. And I was new to public broadcasting. Public broadcasting was new.

I was fortunate to find sympathetic kindred spirits—I mean, I look out on this audience, and there’s Barbara Fleischman, who supports Democracy Now!, who’s been a supporter of mine—individuals and foundations who believed in an independent, alternative media to corporate journalism. And I’ve been fortunate. I hope others coming along—I still believe in public media, still believe in PBS, still believe in NPR. Even with our faults and our deficiencies, we are still the alternative to the corporate media. We must resist encroachments. I mean, I saw a story the other day that, perhaps in September, PBS programs will begin to have underwriting content within the broadcast. That would be a terrible step toward the slippery slope of changing the nature of public broadcasting, and we have to resist that. But we are still the place that respects you as a citizen and doesn’t treat you as a consumer.

The greatest change in politics in my time has been the transformation of democracy, America, from a citizens’ society, the moral agency of all those people in the civil rights movement who stood up against the weight of authority and against persecution and acted as agents of change—the change from a citizens’ society to a consumer society, where most of us are caught up on that treadmill, trying to get more, trying to keep our head above water. And as a result of that, public broadcasting, which remains a place that treats you as a citizen and not a consumer, is also threatened. We must defend it. We must call it back to its heights. We must continue to support it, because without it, we’re at the mercy, totally—except for the internet—of corporate power.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by asking about your future plans. In 2007, you came out of retirement. In late March, the New York Times reported you had received preliminary approval for a major grant to return to PBS with a half-hour show, but then in April the Times reported you wouldn’t be returning to PBS, because PBS couldn’t find a time slot for your new show. So, this is what you told us in 2007, just prior to your return to the airwaves then.

BILL MOYERS: The world is still here. It’s still intriguing. Things are happening. I mean, I don’t have retirement skills. I don’t play golf. I don’t play bridge. I’m getting too creaky to lean over and play with my little grandchildren. All I know to do is work. And as long as you’re a journalist with two feet and two eyes, and a good team around you, the work is endless. So here I am.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, here you are in 2011. What are your plans now?

BILL MOYERS: This gratuitous and generous offer from the Carnegie Corporation—remember, the Carnegie Corporation presented the Carnegie Commission in 1965 to me, to turn into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And my good, dear friend, Vartan Gregorian, the Carnegie Corporation is—he’s president of the Carnegie Corporation’s foundation.

AMY GOODMAN: Used to be head of the New York Public Library.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, head of the New York Public Library. And I interviewed him, when he was head of the New York Public Library, about teaching and learning, on my show World of Ideas. And we bonded, and I gave the commencement at his last—the speech at his last commencement at Brown before he came to be head of Carnegie. He came to see me and said, "Look, this is our centennial. Why don’t you come back with some of those conversations like you see in Bill Moyers Journal? And if you will, we’ll make a generous grant to prime the pump." And it was March or April, and I then called my other funders, because I have a very loyal funders, some of whom are here in the audience tonight. And they said, "Sure, we will be glad to collaborate." But when I called PBS, their fall schedule is set. I mean, they have to work ahead. Television works that way. And they said, "We don’t have any airtime now."

That may be a blessing in disguise, because my young team and I are exploring the internet. I mean, that’s a new medium for me. I would like to live long enough to see—I mean, I started in print in a little newspaper in East Texas at the age of 16. Here I am, 77, in this whole new medium of social networking and Twitter and all of that. And we used to do Twitter: we just sent them as Valentines when I was growing up. So, maybe at 77 I will find yet another frontier that will challenge me, so that when I retire the next time, it will be for real.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Are you hopeful these days, despite the—what we discussed about the state of the media? We’re obviously seeing these enormous uprisings throughout the Arab world. On Democracy Now!, we’ve covered the—really, the democratic popular renaissance that’s occurred throughout all of Latin America in recent years, that there are parts of the world where things are hopeful. But right here at home, in the United States, things don’t always seem like they’re heading in a good direction.

BILL MOYERS: I think this country is in a very precarious state at the moment. I think, as I say, the escalating, accumulating power of organized wealth is snuffing out everything public, whether it’s public broadcasting, public schools, public unions, public parks, public highways. Everything public has been under assault since the late 1970s, the early years of the Reagan administration, because there is a philosophy that’s been extant in America for a long time that anything public is less desirable than private.

And I think we’re at a very critical moment in the equilibrium. No society, no human being, can survive without balance, without equilibrium. Nothing in excess, the ancient Greeks said. And Madison, one of the great founders, one of the great framers of our Constitution, built equilibrium into our system. We don’t have equilibrium now. The power of money trumps the power of democracy today, and I’m very worried about it. I said to—and if we don’t address this, if we don’t get a handle on what we were talking about—money in politics—and find a way to thwart it, tame it, we’re in —democracy should be a break on unbridled greed and power, because capitalism, capital, like a fire, can turn from a servant, a good servant, into an evil master. And democracy is the brake on my passions and my appetites and your greed and your wealth. And we have to get that equilibrium back.

I said to a friend of mine on Wall Street, "How do you feel about the market?" He said, "Well, I’m not—I’m optimistic." And I said, "Why do you, then, look so worried?" And he said, "Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified." And I feel that way. So I fall back on the balance we owe in a—in the Italian political scientist, Gramsci, who said that he practices the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will. By that, he meant he sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses, as I try to do as a journalist. I see what’s there. That will make you pessimistic. But then you have to exercise your will optimistically, believing that each of us singly, and all of us collectively, can be an agent of change. And I have to get up every morning and imagine a more confident future, and then try to do something that day to help bring it about.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers, thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary journalist Bill Moyers. His new book is Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!. Bill Moyers is a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News, and legendary public broadcaster. He has won more than 30 Emmy Awards. His most recent book is Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.