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PBS Ombudsman

He's Back: Moyers, not Tomlinson

I spent most of last week in Orlando at PBS's third annual "Showcase" gathering, a coming together of several hundred people — station managers, producers, programmers and executives — from PBS-affiliated stations around the country and from headquarters in Arlington, Va. There were also documentary filmmakers and representatives from other organizations that have ties to the Public Broadcasting Service.

The meeting is a chance to get a glimpse of what's coming up and discuss what's going down, meaning what's happening in programming from kids shows to science, from cultural productions to news and public affairs, and lots of other subjects.

The keynote address to the opening general session this year was by Bill Moyers on the occasion of his being presented with PBS's "Be More" Award, an honor that plays off of the PBS slogan and is given "to an individual who inspires the world to be more informed." Two years ago, the first award went, posthumously, to Fred Rogers, the famed "Mister Rogers" of children's television. Last year, it went to the host of the nightly "NewsHour," Jim Lehrer.

Moyers, who will be 72 next month, has been one of the dominant figures of American television journalism for the past 35 years; about 10 of those with CBS and the rest with PBS. A former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson and an ordained Baptist minister, he has also been the focus of controversy.

In December 2004, Moyers announced his retirement after three years as the host for PBS's popular weekly newsmagazine "NOW with Bill Moyers." That program, and the reporting and assessments of Moyers, in particular, had become the focus of attention of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and particularly its Chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.

The CPB was created by Congress in 1967 with a nine-member board appointed by the President. One of its roles is to distribute federally-appropriated funds to public television and radio. Another is to protect those institutions from political interference. But another role gives it authority to assess "objectivity and balance issues." It is about that role that Moyers and Tomlinson clashed.

The irony is that about a year after Moyers left "NOW," a report by the CPB's own Inspector General was highly critical of Tomlinson's role in several matters, including the manner in which CPB scrutiny of the "NOW" program was carried out, and Tomlinson stepped down just before the report was published.

Next month, Moyers is back on PBS with a new series of seven hour-long programs about "Faith and Reason," featuring discussion with nine major writers and thinkers who grapple with the issue of religion in the modern world.

So it was with this irony in mind — of Tomlinson being gone and Moyers coming back — that I settled in to listen to Moyers' keynote address on Thursday, May 18. What I heard was a speech that one doesn't hear very often these days; a real stem-winder, a speech that had been crafted with both content and passion, but that was unguarded, uncautious, the words of the true believer that built up as it coursed through 45 minutes. It was a pastor's speech, one that comes alive from a pulpit more than from a printed page. It preached the gospel of unfettered public journalism that will bring many people out of their chairs in admiration, yet undoubtedly chill others who disagree with some of its assessments.

Wherever you fit in those groups, or somewhere in between, I thought it was a rare display, worthy of focus by those who agree or disagree. So this week's ombudsman's column is not really a column feeding off viewer commentary, but rather excerpts from that speech. (The little sub-headlines throughout to break-up the text are mine, and are not part of the speech.)

Here Are Some Excerpts:

I am the past and you are the future. And the best is yet to come.

How can that be, you ask? There's not enough money. Competition is fierce. America is polarized. Our adversaries are powerful. The market is god. Privatization is the gospel. The public is fickle. And the age of the Internet is upon us. Public broadcasting is lucky even to be here — and you say the best is yet to come?

Yes, I do. I am an optimist.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci once explained that he practiced "the pessimism of the intellect" and the "optimism of the will." Me, too. My day job as a journalist is to see the world as it is, without whitewash or illusions. But I am also a father, grandfather, husband, neighbor, and citizen. Like everyone else I have some responsibility, as I pass through, to help fix what's broken. "Pessimism of the intellect" requires of the journalist candor in reporting, facing the facts in what can be an impossible world. But "optimism of the will" means expecting a confident future and getting out of bed every morning to do something to help bring it about. So I'm a qualified optimist. I believe the best is yet to come — IF! I'll come back to the IF . . .

Those of you with grey in your hair may remember that the Carnegie Commission coined the phrase "public television" in calling for a broadcasting system that would be publicly funded but not government run, an important distinction to keep in mind.

The Carnegie Commission report has been my other bible for 40-plus years now. It's our equivalent of the Declaration of Independence. From it came the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, creating the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and the system that has survived, creakily but quite often creatively, against the odds, to this very moment.

Some of you were not even born in 1964. But the language of the Carnegie Commission is embedded in your DNA. We owe our mission to it, and when we grow unmindful of it, those traces have a way of paying us a visitation — like the ghost that haunts Marley in "A Christmas Carol" — calling us back to first things . . .

Will Moxy Equal Money?

That's why my heart raced a little faster this morning seeing Paula Kerger (the new President of PBS), Pat Harrison (the new President of the CPB), and John Lawson (the President of APTS — Association of Public Television Stations) on the same platform. There's not a naïve hair on any of those three heads, I said to myself, and there's plenty of moxy inside each of them. It's just possible, I thought, that the stars are aligned and that the three of them can get fixed the most broken part of our system — our finances.

We only get fifteen percent of our budget from the federal government, but the truth is we're unconsciously held hostage to it. That's also the public perception. Michael Booth of the Denver Post says public television needs a radical makeover to free itself of the bland programming designed not too offend. A liberal public interest group has called for cutting the strings to Congress — 'Time to unplug CPB', said the headline — arguing that the money requires us to focus on a very narrow slice of the political debate lest we antagonize the powers-that-be.

The dilemma is that federal support is large enough to be a permanent crutch but too small to ease our need for corporate underwriting. That leaves us between a rock and a hard place. It leaves us with our credibility vulnerable . . .

It won't be easy. We're getting hit from all sides. Conservatives don't want to increase our funding at all, for philosophical reasons. And liberals are going to balk if we wind up letting corporate money diminish the difference between us and commercial television.

We tried to fix this once before. Ten years after Carnegie One, I was privileged to serve on the Second Carnegie Commission. Funding was a mess, and our assignment was to take a hard look at the situation. We were unsparing in our diagnosis, and we came up with some promising prescriptions. But before anyone could act on our recommendations a tidal wave of free market ideology swept across the country. Suddenly powerful voices were calling for public broadcasting to be privatized . . .

What they conveniently overlook is the contradiction between the logic of the economic market and the logic of the marketplace of ideas. My conservative friends — yes, I have conservative friends — tell me the market is the divine hand at work on earth. At the same time they deplore the crudity, vulgarity, and violence of popular culture, and they try to keep their kids away from television as long as possible so they will not be polluted by the flood of mass-produced and mass-consumed images that every day erode the psychological and moral boundary between life and make-believe. Yet the very thing they deplore is market driven . . .

Journalism and Markets

Because market-driven television has failed to provide a true marketplace of ideas it has betrayed the founders' belief that constitutional freedom of the press would produce an uncensored competition of ideas, opinion, and information, giving Americans the means to think as citizens. What we have instead is a very narrow range of political debate usually between partisans of two parties both deeply corrupted by their complicity with the media and their dependence on big money. Given these realities you can make an intellectually honest case that for democracy to flourish, some journalism needs to be isolated from the market altogether.

The novelist Salman Rushdie — whom you will soon be seeing in the premiere broadcast of our upcoming series entitled "Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason" — put it this way in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors: "Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked, and it is the skepticism of journalists, their show-me, prove it unwillingness to be impressed . . . (their) disrespect for power, for orthodoxies, for party lines, for theologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity, maybe even for editors . . . that is perhaps their most important contribution to the free world."

One reason we get such pale and unquestioning journalism in America is that skepticism and irreverence toward the prerogatives of power and privilege are exactly what corporate media moguls don't want from the journalists who work for them. If they did, there wouldn't have been such gullible groupthink from the press when America went to war in Iraq on the basis of false information, faulty intelligence, fallacious propaganda, and flagrant secrecy. It's what happens when the news media becomes a complacent conduit for the government and multimedia corporations, failing to challenge authority, and passing information spun carefully by special interests both in and out of government.

What an opportunity this is for us. What a future is ours — if we don't confuse the chicken snake for a boa constrictor and commit preventive capitulation and if we refuse to allow government officials and corporate spokesmen to set our agenda with no scrutiny of their words and deeds and no sifting of the truth from spin.

I took to heart those scholarly peer-reviewed studies some years ago that looked at PBS's national news and pubic affairs programming and found it hard to distinguish our guest lists from those of commercial broadcasting. According to these studies, our programming had taken on a pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt that sets narrow political limits for the discussion of public affairs. Whether government officials and Beltway journalists talking about political strategy or corporate sources talking about stock prices or the economy almost exclusively from the investor's viewpoint, public television, these studies reported, all too often were offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar brand of inside-the-Beltway discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television.

2050: Keep That Year in Mind

I was reminded of George Orwell's chilling novel "1984" in which the government develops a language called Newspeak that will keep people docile and happy. One of the writers of the new official dictionary says to the protagonist Winston: "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious."

There's a way to keep that from happening. It's right in our own PBS guidelines. Go to Paragraph F, under headline "Courage and Controversy."

You will read there: "The ultimate task of weighing and judging information and viewpoints is, in a free and open society, the task of the audience."

You will read there the pledge we have made as public broadcasters to seek "content that provides courageous and responsible treatment of issues, and that reports and comments, with honesty and candor, on social, political and economic tensions, disagreements and divisions."

You will read there the promise that our "overall content will offer a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society's existing consensus" — those from outside society's existing consensus.

We couldn't ask for a clearer statement of our mission. We couldn't find a more affirmative reason for being. We couldn't want a more resounding call to action.

I read those guidelines from time to time when I grow faint of heart, or my knees turn weak, or my resolve falters after I've been attacked by people who don't like us — people representing power, privilege, or ideology who despise any journalist who shatters the silence. Reading them, I realize again how corporate media pollutes the meaning of "fair and balanced" with the pretense that two well-rehearsed sound bites by representatives of self-serving interests constitutes "analysis" of the news.

Fair and Balanced

I believe in "fair and balanced." I say let's be more fair than anyone else. Let's be as fair to Main Street as we are to Wall Street — to the working men and women of America as we are to the big corporations, big government, and big investors.

Let's be as fair to poor families as we are to the First Family and the Royal Family. Let's be as fair to the skeptic of official policy as we are to its spokesman, as fair to the commoner as to the celebrity, and as fair to the lived experience of ordinary people as we are to the calculated opinion of think tank experts.

I'm for balance. Let's balance the spin with the evidence, the rhetoric with the record, and opinion with reporting. Let's balance what we're told with what we know. Where did this idea come from that politicians and ideologues define objectivity? No one knows what objectivity means.

You've heard of Irving Kristol. He's the Tony Soprano of the neocons — their godfather, one of the most influential conservatives of our time. Surprisingly, I sometimes agree with Irving Kristol. And I especially agreed with him when he said: "The commitment to so-called 'objective' and impersonal reporting is, in practice, a rationalization for 'safe' and mindless reporting. To keep a reporter's prejudices out of a story is commendable, to keep his judgment out of a story is a guarantee that truth will be emasculated."

Let's balance the view from Washington with the view from the country. I saw this letter to the editor in the paper this morning and brought it with me. The writer was joining in the debate over whether Stephen Colbert had violated decorum at the White House Correspondents' dinner in Washington recently when he satirized the President and the journalists. Other letters had pointed out that hardly anyone in the room laughed and accused Colbert of being offensive.

This writer had a different take. He wrote: "Mr. Colbert wasn't really interested in making any one in the room laugh. He was playing to the home audience on C-SPAN. Mr. Colbert views the D.C. insider 'culture' the same way most Americans do, as a cesspool of narcissism, corruption, and detachment from reality. Mr. Colbert, like most Americans, thinks that the press corps is generally spineless, complacent, and frequently complicit in government deception. The audience didn't get the jokes because they were the jokes. He hit too close to home."

We ought to hit close to home, too — no matter who's in power.

Balance? Let's balance the complaint of ideologues and their patrons in Congress and the press with the unarticulated pain and silent lament of the maid in the hotel room, the waitress in the coffee shop, and the clerk in the shopping mall — all struggling to make ends meet in an economy rigged against them. On second thought, let's give the maid, the waitress, and the clerk a voice. Let's give them a say. They deserve it. Their taxes pay for this system.

And let's balance programs underwritten by the National Mining Association and Boeing with programs underwritten by the United Mine Workers, Consumer's Union, and Citizens for a Fair Economy. If they can't afford the underwriting, let's at least give them a hearing.

Does the Digital Future Have a Soul?

My friends, I close with a proposal for us. How we can get back on the map again, as we did with those Watergate hearings thirty years ago when for the first time we served notice with those hearings that we were going to be a force for democracy. Here's what I mean:

Paula Kerger talked this morning about the telecommunications revolution that is rolling over us. My friend, the public advocate Jeff Chester, writes cogently about it in his forthcoming book "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy." It's on everybody's mind — this flood of compelling video images propelled by the interactivity of the Internet, delivered through digital TVs, PCs, cell phones, and countless mobile devices.

If we can afford it, we'll have access to an ever-expanding array of news, entertainment, and information from around the world. Every day brings some technological innovation, some new industry merger, and some dazzling new promise. It's hard for anyone to keep up, almost impossible for ordinary people out there to know what it means to their lives or our society.

That's the way the big guys want to keep it — the giant media companies, the lobbyists, the politicians. They know where they want to take us; they just don't want us to know until we get there and it's too late for us to do anything about it. If they are successful, we will be living in a communications system that offers us endless entertainment and satisfies our every consumer desire. But whether it will honor the life of the mind, nurture the heart, encourage free expression, education, social justice, and economic security is up for grabs.

Right now, as we meet, the big story is how the media giants are working to transform the Internet into a digital tollbooth where, says Jeff Chester, "we will travel over a corporate-run piece of discriminatory electronic real estate where we will be numbered and evaluated . . . based on income, race, and class . . . so we can be better sold, round the clock, all the time."

Even as we meet here, the lobbyists are using their money and their access to have Congress, the White House, the Courts and the FCC to help transform the Internet from what one Federal Court called "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed" into a system of corporate-controlled pipes. Yet it's happening largely behind the scenes, with little public debate — one important measure was recently slipped through a House committee in the dark of night.

That's what happened with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 while we weren't looking, and democracy was betrayed — it changed our media and our country. It's happened every time: some new technology arrives and we're assured paradise is just around the corner. We're told America is about to become more democratic, more open, with greater freedom of choice. Then it's hijacked, and the public is frozen out. First radio, then television, then cable — all promised democracy would be served — but when we woke up they had taken our birthright and turned the first amendment into a private franchise . . .

Reporting the Revolution

Let's not let it happen this time. Let's make the telecommunications revolution our story. Let's tell the public how the decisions are getting made, who's making them and why, who will win and who will lose. Let's own this story with reporting, hearings, commentary, talking heads. Let's get the country involved in the debate about where the Internet is going, where our digital revolution is headed, how our media can foster civic participation, make government more accountable, give low-income people a place at the table.

We have it in our power to bring the country into the story. We are public broadcasting, right? We're not congressional broadcasting — that's C-SPAN. We're not the White House network — that's Fox News. We're the only broadcasting operation in the country with the words "public" and "service" in our name. That's our constituency — not the politicians and Washington officials — but the public . . .

I've been around a long time now. What great company all of you have been. But I really think the best is yet to come. We've never been more needed. Democracy is troubled. Our two parties are wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Money and subservient to Big Media. The majority of the American people don't know where to turn, who to trust. Here we are — with a mandate to put the public first.

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