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Friday, August 22, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Journalism's Passing Parade

Three events this past weekend that have nothing much to do with ombudsmanship nevertheless struck me as markers in today's media world that were worthy of note.

Two of those events unfolded — folded-up might be a better way to put it — on PBS Friday evening. One was the end of Bill Moyers Journal and the other was the end of NOW on PBS with host David Brancaccio.

Both the Journal and NOW were long-running public affairs programs with devoted followings. Both dealt with serious issues of our time. Both were, at times, controversial. Even though NOW was only a half-hour and Moyers an hour, they both gave their subjects enough time to be dealt with in some depth without interruption. Both provided an outlet for people and subjects that are not in the safe, comfortable center of what passes for most public affairs programming on television. Rather, they often presented guests and topics that rarely get an airing, although what they have to say is of interest to many people who live and think outside that safe comfort-zone.

The end of both series had been announced months ago. Moyers is retiring, at least from the weekly program. He's nearly 76 and deserves to do whatever he wants to, but he didn't look tired. NOW just ran out its string, apparently, after eight years.

The third event, the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, took place the next evening. This gathering has about as much to do with covering the American presidency as a beauty contest has to do with — well, let's just leave it as a beauty contest.

Each year, the dinner, according to press coverage, seems to grow in size and glamour, flooded with beautiful and handsome Hollywood stars and television entertainers as guests of journalists, who have also grown to become stars, and news organizations. It is a testimonial to the celebrity culture that dominates much of Washington and New York journalism. (The New York Times, to its great credit, in my opinion, does not attend.) It is also, in my opinion, an embarrassment, just one more brick on the pile that buries confidence in the U.S. press.

The hot new face of American journalism and political reporting, Politico, posted 84 stories about the dinner by my last count. All of it great stuff, no doubt.

Hoping for the Best

The familiar 90-minute stretch on Friday nights filled for these past several years by Moyers and Brancaccio will be filled, starting this Friday, for 60 minutes with the new public affairs show "Need to Know." As a viewer, I'm hoping for the best.

I've written many times in recent months about the end of the Journal and NOW, about which I have received many thousands of e-mails, and the approach of "Need to Know." And it is without any sense of prejudice or pre-judgment about the new program that I say that I will miss the two series that are ending.

I have written about Moyers' program, especially, many times in this column, and also about NOW, although less frequently. Moyers is a lightning rod, with devoted followers and critics. At one point I joked that Moyers attracted so much mail that he needed his own ombudsman. But when I say that I will miss these programs, I don't mean it as an ombudsman; that they sometimes provide fodder for me and my position here. Rather, I mean it as a viewer.

Both programs, but Moyers' longer Journal in particular, simply provided an array of guests, in-depth interviews and subjects that is usually, indeed most often, informative and, hence, valuable whether you agree with the thrust of the content or not.

What is frequently controversial about Moyers is his editorial analysis that usually ends the weekly broadcast. There is nothing else quite like that, or no one else with such a platform, on PBS. And conservative critics, in particular, often don't like it. That is understandable. But there is clearly no shortage of opposing views elsewhere on the airwaves. That leaves PBS vulnerable to some criticism, yet it is clear that Moyers has a voice that many people want to hear and that most people, I believe, are able to fit in to everything else that is being said "out there."

The Farewells

Here's what Moyers had to say to viewers during his last program on April 30:

"Finally — and that's for real this time, the Journal comes to an end with this broadcast. Thanks to those of you who have been with us all the way. I am grateful for your loyalty, and for all your letters and postings. I've tried to read every one of them.

"To our critics, I'm glad you paid attention; the second most important thing to journalists is to know we're not being ignored. The most important thing is the independence that enables us to do our job without fear or favor. In this I have been unbelievably blessed. When, for the last time, you read the credits at the conclusion of this broadcast, consider that every funder, or underwriter as we say, came to our support asking only that we enrich the public conversation by adding more and different voices to it. I could not have had more generous or brave partners. Not one of them has ever tried to influence the content; none has asked for a favor; or made a single demand."

On April 21, Moyers also posted some more details on his blog that addresses funding issues and the reasons for his departure from the Journal:

"Thanks to all of you who wrote to express your disappointment and dismay at hearing me say last week that the JOURNAL will be coming to an end with the April 30th broadcast. My team and I were touched by your messages, but I want to disabuse those of you who fear that we are being pushed off the air by higher-ups at PBS pointing to the door and demanding that we go. Not so. PBS doesn't fund the JOURNAL; our support comes from foundations and our sole corporate funder, Mutual of America. Together they've given me an independence rare for broadcast journalists. Our reporting and analysis trigger controversy from many quarters, as any strong journalism will, but not one — not one! — of my funders has ever mentioned to me the complaints directed their way. They would continue their support if I were to stick around.

"I'm leaving for one reason alone: It's time to go. I'll be 76 in a few weeks, and while I don't consider myself old (my father lived into his 80s, my mother into her 90s) there are some things left to do that the deadlines and demands of a weekly broadcast don't permit. At 76, it's now or never. I actually informed my friends at PBS of my decision over a year ago, and planned to leave at the end of last December. But they asked me to continue another four more months while they prepare a new series for Friday night broadcast. I agreed, but said at the time — April 30 and not a week longer . . . It has indeed been a long time (almost 40 years since I launched the original JOURNAL in 1971), and that's why I can assure you that my departure is entirely voluntary."

Brancaccio: The End of a Journey

Here's what David Brancaccio had to say at the beginning of the last NOW on PBS broadcast:

"There's a West African proverb I've often shared. It goes: One must come out of one's house to begin learning. Those were the operative words of this broadcast in our eight-plus years on the air — get our cameras out of the studio and out into the world to learn from you about what's broken and what's working. We've come to the end of that journey. This program is the last broadcast of NOW on PBS. A different news program starts next week on many PBS stations called 'Need to Know.' And I'll be watching."


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