By Michael Getler
July 20, 2009
It was relatively quiet around the ombudsman's office last week; not many e-mails from viewers. But if you listened closely you could hear the sound of one icon getting smashed, and another coming under attack.
For example, Bill Moyers ended his regular Friday night "Bill Moyers Journal" on July 10 with his customary editorial commentary about some timely news event or issue that stirred his critical juices. This time it was a whack at Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth for her ill-considered, and now cancelled, plans to host a series of private, off-the-record "salons" at her home which CEOs and lobbyists would sponsor for $25,000 and up. In return, they get to mingle with Post reporters, editors, administration officials and legislators. Politico.com, founded by two former Post reporters, first disclosed this on July 2 and it created quite a media furor.
The first salon was to be on health care, and that was also the subject of the Moyers Journal, so the editorial closing fit the theme of the program. As Moyers saw it, the disclosure showed that "before you can cross the threshold in Washington to reach 'the select few who will actually get it done,'" as the now-cancelled invitation said, "you must first cross the palm of some outstretched hand." It was enough, he said, "to give us a glimpse into how things really work in Washington."
The Post's egregious error stirred my juices as well. As someone who spent 35 years with the Post as reporter, editor and, finally, ombudsman, the revelation about the salon plans pained me deeply. There is nothing more precious or protected within a newsroom, and within a career in journalism, than credibility, and to have it stained by people at the top, not just the publisher, is a terrible blow. Readers of the Post, I believe, will understand this as a mistake and continue to have faith in their newspaper. It is within the newsroom where confidence in the newspaper's leaders will take longer to be restored.
But later in the week, it was Moyers who was on the receiving end of some sharp criticism about that July 10 program on health care from conservative commentator Brent Bozell published first on NewsBusters.org.
Moyers' guest was Wendell Potter, until last year the chief of corporate communications for Cigna, one of the largest U.S. health insurance companies. But after many years defending his company and the industry, Potter resigned and changed course and is now a severe and public critic of what he calls a "duplicitous and well-financed PR and lobbying campaign" by the industry to shape any future health care reform so that it "benefits Wall Street far more than average Americans."
Always in the Cross Hair
Moyers is a constant target of many conservatives and Bozell's commentary includes all of the fairly standard attacks on Moyers and anyone who agrees with him — shameless lefties, intellectually dishonest, socialists, etc — that one would expect. You can make your own choice about the critics and their issues. As a viewer, I was grateful to Moyers for the lengthy interview with Potter, who also testified before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this summer, and I thought Potter's views deserved exposure to the larger PBS audience.
On the other hand, what got more of my attention within Bozell's critique was his point that Potter's new job is as a senior fellow with an organization known as the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and that another organization with a similar name — the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, of which Bill Moyers is president — is one of the funders of the CMD. This linkage was not disclosed on the broadcast. So Moyers, according to Bozell, had as a guest a representative of a group he helps support financially "without disclosing the glaring conflict of interest to the viewers or the taxpayers." To support his argument that this was not a new phenomenon, Bozell cited an article in the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, from 2003.
First, some background. Moyers and his weekly Journal have been the subject of several previous ombudsman columns. Most involve some specific points raised by viewers or by me. In this column, Moyers, in response to questions from me, answers the criticisms raised by Bozell. These are good answers and important explanations, and I hope they are also read by readers of Bozell's column and other conservative critics who picked it up.
But Bozell also raises a broader point that remains troublesome, in my view, and that had not been raised before by me in previous ombudsman columns; that is Moyers role as president of a major media foundation the — Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. I, in fact, was not really aware of Moyers connection to it; which is my fault. It wasn't hidden, it just hadn't gotten my attention.
So this column got longer than I intended, but I hope that the result is newly informative. What follows is an initial round of exchanges between Moyers and me about the Bozell column. After that come two longer submissions by Moyers which I agreed to post. Since this column links to Bozell's full critique, Moyers asked to respond to that, beyond the specifics I asked about. And, since I began asking more about his role with the Schumann Center, there are also explanatory comments about that.
Back to the Beginning
When I asked Moyers about Bozell's charges, he responded: "I'm glad to have this opportunity to set the record straight again. I say 'again' because Brent Bozell has been attacking me (and public broadcasting) for over 20 years now. This is, in fact, his mode of operation - to refer repeatedly to his own previous attacks as well as attacks by other right-wing activists without mentioning our rebuttals or producing the evidence to substantiate the charges."
Specifically, I asked: 1) Why did Moyers not disclose, on the air, that Wendell Potter is a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy and that the foundation that Moyers heads is among the funders of that Center?
Moyers reply: "We did. Three times during the broadcast, to be exact, we noted on screen that Potter is affiliated with the Center for Media and Democracy. "CTR. FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY" (shortened to fit the space available) was prominently displayed directly under Wendell Potter's name.
"The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy is not currently funding the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Schumann did make grants to CMD in 2005 and 2006 for the purpose of establishing SourceWatch, an Internet-based operation that provides accessible, timely and reliable research to journalists and citizen journalists. At the time the grants were made, Bill Moyers Journal was not on the air and Wendell Potter was still working for CIGNA. Furthermore, Potter only joined CMD a few weeks ago. I never met him or knew that he was becoming a senior fellow there until my staff and I were pre-interviewing him in preparation for the broadcast. But as he is not a beneficiary of Schumann funding and as the Center for Media and Democracy is not being funded by the Schumann Center, I saw no conflict and no reason to disqualify him as a credible source."
I also asked: 2) Is it not inconsistent with the role of "journalist" to be the head of a foundation that funds a wide-range of organizations, many of which are linked to public policy positions?
Here's Moyers' reply: "I am not sure why you put 'journalist' in quotation marks but let me quickly assure you that I do not consider there to be a conflict between practicing journalism and the mission of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, which is to support independent journalism, alternative media, and transparency in government. The chairman of the Schumann board of trustees is the former dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Among the recipients of Schumann funding have been NPR, PBS broadcasts such as Expose, Wide Angle, Frontline, NOW on PBS (with host David Brancaccio), On the Media, as well as The Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones (for investigative journalism), American News Project, and various books, projects, and articles of investigative journalism by free-lance reporters. Schumann has also established writing fellowships for independent journalists who came to us with proposals as varied as investigating voting practices at the state level to tracking campaign contributions to judicial candidates. In no situation where a journalist or journalistic organization has received funding from the Schumann Center have I exerted any influence over content. So, the short answer to your question is: No, I do not consider it a conflict of interest to be a journalist while helping other journalists do their work as well."
I also included a third question relating to another Journal broadcast in May, and involving the Schumann Center, which dealt with the issue of torture and included extended clips from the film "Torturing Democracy." The film became the subject of some controversy last year and was never actually distributed by PBS.
So question 3) Why, on the May 29 program revisiting "Torturing Democracy," was it not noted on the air that Schumann Center made a grant to the National Security Archives for the production of the film? I know there was a note at the end of the transcript.
Moyers' reply: "At the end of the May 29 broadcast, within the production credits, we included the following information on the screen: 'The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, of which Bill Moyers is president, made a bridge grant to the National Security Archives to assist this film in 2008. The funds were subsequently replaced.'"
Some of the half-dozen or so ombudsman columns I've written about the Journal in the past have been critical. But I have also consistently said that Moyers presents many of the best and most important interviews anywhere in the public domain — at length and in depth — and that it is doubtful that these voices would be heard anywhere else on television other than his program or perhaps one or two others on PBS. That, in my view, is a big plus for PBS viewers and for informed national discourse.
I've also made the point before that Moyers is unconventional and hard to categorize — journalist, advocate, definitely a force and an original, a person of many talents and interests. To his critics he is "a left-wing, agenda-driven propagandist." But Moyers says he is first of all a journalist and the Journal's Web site describes him as "one of America's foremost journalists."
I believe that Moyers does practice journalism, and has for many years, and that what he brings to American television is often absolutely vital for a full understanding of people and issues that are important yet rarely get a full airing elsewhere. He has injected a huge dose of thought-provoking material into the public domain over the last quarter century in a medium that has mostly deteriorated on that score. Viewers are smart. They can agree or disagree. Turn the TV off or keep it on. That's the system.
Dual, or Dueling, Roles?
I accept Moyers' explanations about Potter's appearance. But the reason parts of Bozell's column still interest me is because working journalists usually don't also run foundations that provide financial support to other organizations that, in turn, sometimes provide guests for your own program, or other programs or projects and issues you care about, and sometimes the connections are not made clear on the air. And even if they are sometimes printed on the screen or in the credits, are the full relationships really clear to the viewing audience?
The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy is a generous organization that makes grants to tax-exempt organizations seeking to "create worthy projects in the areas of health, education or community development" and its main focus, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service, is "invigorating democracy." It spends a lot on campaign finance reform, on environmental projects and to "expand independent non-commercial journalism and to encourage new voices in the conversation of democracy." All inquiries, its statement says, should be addressed to the President of the Center, and that's Bill Moyers.
The list of recipients is long and impressive, some of the best and most independent-minded think-tanks and investigative journalism enterprises. But it gets tangled as well. For example, in 2004, according to IRS filings, the Schumann Center sponsored a grant of $2 million to The Florence Fund "to support the TomPaine.com project and operating costs. Balance of $1.5 million was rescinded on May 18, 2004." TomPaine.com was founded in 1999 by John Moyers, Bill's son, and he left in 2003, before the 2004 Schumann grant. But the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, which was the Center's earlier name, also supported TomPaine.com with an earlier $2.5 million grant via The Florence Fund in 2001, according to IRS records. There were also grants in 2006 and 2007 to support the investigative series on PBS called "Expose" and a special edition of NOW on PBS with David Brancaccio on election financing. I have no problems with providing financial support to such things, but what I don't understand is why Bill Moyers, a working journalist, needs to be president of this.
Can't the Schumann Center figure this stuff out for itself? Isn't it enough being able to choose your topics, have a one-hour, prime-time spot on one of the nation's most respected brand-name outlets every week, along with a closing editorial whack at your target of choice? Why be president of a Center handing out millions in grants that can lead, no matter how carefully it is done, to questions of credibility, self-interest and conflict-of-interest, and possibly diminish the impact of the programs, or at least make them vulnerable to critics? I haven't done the research, but is there any other high-profile, or low-profile for that matter, working journalist who is involved in this kind of arrangement? Anybody on 60-Minutes, Frontline, the NewsHour, the New York Times?
(My associate, Marcia Apperson, contributed to the research for this column.)
More from Moyers
Aside from my exchanges with Moyers above, he asked to be allowed the following comments since my column would link to the full Bozell attack upon him as well as the earlier 2003 article in The Weekly Standard. Here's Moyers' letter:
"Dear Michael Getler:
"This is how they do it: Bozell issues an attack. Then his sidekick follows up with a second one. They have been quoting that now very old Stephen Hayes piece [in The Weekly Standard] since it ran, never once mentioning anything of my lengthy rebuttal. Since you've been in the mix, they will do yet another column quoting the PBS ombudsman on their attack in such a way as to make their case appear legitimate rather than ideological. I know that you must be on to them, as they take swipes at you, too.
"But, they've been at this ever since Nixon and Pat Buchanan, his director of communications, set out to defund public broadcasting. Bozell and his team launched their offensive more than 20 years ago, and have continued with no regard for accuracy or evidence and no one challenging the legitimacy of ideologically driven attacks. It's one reason a chill developed over the years in the public affairs atmosphere of public television. It's bizarre, frankly, how successful they have been. It's why I suggested you ought to take a look at Bozell's Media Research Center in order to provide your readers the ideological context of quotes from Bozell and Graham or the links you provide.
"One example, MRC asks others for transparency it won't itself provide. Take a look online at the latest year for which it posts a tax return (2007). Although it indicates revenue that year of over $11 million dollars, it doesn't identify the funders. Every funder to a public broadcast identifies the funders on the air. The Schumann Center posts its grantees online. If Schumann funds a broadcast, that's publicly stated.
"MRC operates by a double standard. Long before you came to PBS, it set out — with grants from Bradley, Scaife, Olin, Castle Rock, and Carthage foundations, all prime funders of the conservative movement — to discredit mainstream journalists in order in order to advance the right's political aims. Bozell and MRC are right-wing operatives. As Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post, June 28, 2004, 'Bozell's Media Research Center has raised $2.8 million for newspaper ads in 15 markets, billboards in 40 cities, and a talk-radio blitz aimed at countering what he sees as a 'liberal jihad' that is unfair to President Bush. The slogan is not exactly subtle. A finger-pointing Uncle Sam declares: 'Don't believe the liberal media!'' That is just one example. Doesn't it seem to you that MRC attacks on public broadcasting should be put in such a context? Otherwise they get away with attacking a Wendell Potter for supporting 'socialized medicine' when in fact Potter identified himself as a capitalist on the air and when in fact not a single variety of 'public option' being discussed in Washington would have doctors and nurses employed by the government or prevent a patient from choosing his or her on doctor.
"Such a context would also help readers of your column see why Bozell was not telling the truth when, for example, he writes that Potter and Moyers discussed how Michael Moore's film 'was a misunderstood work of genius.' Neither of us used that language. It would also help your own audience understand why Bozell would attack us for covering different alternatives to health care reform that had been ignored by Congressional committees (Baucus wouldn't admit any testimony by an advocate of a single payer system at his hearings until after we dealt with the subject on BMJ), the White House, and the Washington media, including PBS broadcasts — despite the fact that polls by NBC, CBS, the WSJ, and the NYT show that those alternatives have considerable support in the public at large. I don't have a personal opinion on what health care reform should be adopted, but I do believe that PBS has an obligation to foster discussion of alternatives that are otherwise blacked out from the official agenda inside the beltway. But that's exactly what the Bozells of the world don't want to happen.
"I'm not advocating that you ignore ideological attacks on PBS or on me, but only that you help your readers understand where they are coming from.
On Other Linkages
When I than asked about the earlier relations and links between what was then the Florence and John Schumann Foundations and John Moyers, Bill's son, and TomPaine.com, Moyer's deputy, relaying her notes from an interview with Moyers, said this:
"John Moyers was the program officer at Schumann when it was the Florence and John Schumann Foundation. The two brothers, Ford and Robert Schumann, had a special affinity for John, having met him when he proposed an environmental series for NPR which they funded (that's how he came to work for the Foundation later.) When John Moyers then proposed to them creating a web operation based in Washington as an independent operation, they agreed. Bill recused himself from the decision because of the father-son relationship, but he was pleased with their decision. They formed a new entity called the Florence Fund (named after the late mother of the two brothers) with a separate board of directors and with John as its publisher and editor. Bill had no input in the operation but was very proud when John Moyers created a very successful Web journal for which he received the Herblock Award for outstanding independent journalism at an occasion in Washington at which Bill was asked to speak. After five years of working seven days a week and practically around the clock, John was exhausted and resigned to return to Vermont where he is an environmentalist and in business. He has twice declined the Schumann brothers' invitation to take over the Schumann Center as Bill's successor because he prefers his life in Vermont.
"Incidentally, since you are so curious about the Schumann Center, you will perhaps want to know that Bill met the family in 1986 when the then president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, Bill Mullins, read in the New York Times that Moyers was leaving CBS News to start his own independent production company to create programs for public broadcasting. Mullins introduced him to the Schumanns who then made a large grant to help launch the operation. Over the next three years Bill made periodic reports in person to the Schumann Board. In 1991, when that original grant had been expended, the family on its own volition made a $6 million grant to PAT (Public Affairs Television). When Bill Mullins suddenly was stricken with a raging cancer that took his life in six months, the family asked Bill to succeed him even while continuing his journalism. His decision to accept meant that PAT would have to rescind the $6 million to the foundation — which PAT did — because it would have been inappropriate for the Foundation he was then running to support his own work on the air. Since assuming the presidency at the Foundation, no Schumann funds have ever been used for Bill's own journalism or for any PAT programming.
"By the way, according to MRC's 2007 990 returns, Brent Bozell's son David received $83,250 for his 'employment services.'"