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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: A Letter from Bill Moyers

This edition of the mailbag contains just one letter. It is a response from Bill Moyers to the Ombudsman's Column posted on Jan. 9. That column dealt with a couple of issues surrounding the Jan. 3 presentation of the weekly "Moyers & Company" series. That series is distributed by American Public Television rather than PBS, but many PBS member stations carry it. The program was titled: "State of Conflict: North Carolina." The column dealt with issues involving viewer reaction to the handling of the program by the largest PBS-member station in that state, to the program itself, and to a rebuttal to Moyers from the Pope Foundation that was linked to within the column.

Here is Moyers' Letter

Thank you for devoting so much space to my recent documentary, "State of Conflict: North Carolina." I am pleased that you found it important enough to write about.

You raise many good points, and I will comment on just a few.

You were right to point out that UNC-TV was not in fact "censoring" the broadcast by running it on the narrowcast channel accessible only on cable. For reasons never explained to me, UNC-TV programmers have long carried my work on that subsidiary channel. State of Conflict: North Carolina was treated no differently. It was an episode of my weekly series and ran in the usual time slot.

There was, however, a missed opportunity, and I'm pleased that you raised the question of why the programmers didn't make an exception and show a broadcast about North Carolina on the channel where the most North Carolinians would see it. Not only would that have let more people make up their own minds about its content, it would have provided an excellent opportunity for UNC-TV to do what public television stations often do when there is a local public-affairs controversy: air a program and then invite specially chosen guests on for a live discussion in the studio afterward. Though they didn't respond to our interview requests for the program, it would certainly have been in the public interest for Art Pope and Governor McCrory to appear on their own state's local PBS to say whatever they wished about the report.

As for suggestions our report was "one-sided": Investigative journalism is not a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. My team and I aim to be fair to the subject but we must be truthful with the public if our journalism is to be credible. That meant sharing what we found about the extraordinary influence of Art Pope's money on North Carolina politics and governance. A few days before the broadcast I wrote Mr. Pope to remind him the program was about to be broadcast and to invite him to appear on a subsequent edition of Moyers & Company (my weekly series) for an unedited conversation. Three weeks later, I have still not heard from him.

Having refused my interview requests, and having been afforded no opportunity to respond on his local public television channel, Mr. Pope relied instead on the John William Pope Foundation, one of the nonprofits in his network, to respond. You did your readers a service by linking to that press release. I would like to ask them now to consider my response to it.

David W. Riggs, the President of the Pope Foundation, charges that my colleagues and I made "false" claims and "concealed" information about the Pope Foundation's "charitable" spending. That's not true. There is nothing false in our reporting, and Mr. Riggs did not identify a single inaccuracy or challenge one fact that we presented. He argued instead that we should have produced the documentary he and Art Pope would have preferred to see — one reporting on Mr. Pope's humanitarian "charity."

There is, however, something false about labeling the heavy spending the Pope Foundation does to influence North Carolina politics as "charity." Mr. Riggs points out that the Pope Foundation spends million on causes such as food banks and homeless shelters, and for that we agree it should be lauded. But our report was not about his "charity." It was about the unique power one man wields in one state — power that Mr. Riggs ignores in his critique of our documentary.

If David Riggs, or anyone else in the Pope network, knows of any other single individual anywhere in the United States who, like Art Pope, has spent so many tens of millions to attain so much influence over so many elected officials (including the Governor) and then has been handed the keys to the state budget by that same Governor, we would welcome the sharing of that information. And we would do a story on how that individual — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal — had spent a fortune to attain the power to steer the state in the direction of his or her choosing.

Until Mr. Riggs supplies that information, we think it's journalistically appropriate, and a public service, to shine a spotlight on the unique way that Mr. Pope has used his money — at least as much of that money as can be traced.

Which brings me to another point in your column.

You concluded that "what seemed missing" from our program was help in judging how significant a role "big money" has played in North Carolina politics. I beg to differ. Granted, it's a very difficult task to undertake in this era of "dark money" when donors can hide their contributions to political candidates and causes. One of the insidious aspects of uncountable, untraceable amounts of money in politics — and perhaps one of the reasons so few journalists, as you point out, even attempt to cover the subject — is that its effect can't be measured quantifiably. Thanks to measures like the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the dollars themselves can't even be counted! The "smoking gun," so to speak, has been wiped clean of fingerprints and tossed in the deepest part of the river in the dark of the night. The suspect under scrutiny can simply declare: "Prove it!" — and in this case point the journalist and the public toward his "charity."

So journalists, like detectives, have to try to figure out why the dog didn't bark.

The case for the power of money — whether to win elections or influence the debate — is almost always, per force, a circumstantial one. It's like the "dark matter" that exerts a powerful force in the cosmos and may be the source of the pressure driving the accelerating expansion of our universe. Astrophysicists don't know what it is — they can't even see it — but they know it's there by studying the effect the "dark matter" has on other bodies. Things happen because of this unseen force. So does money influence politics even — especially — when it is invisible; "dark money" makes other things happen.

And that's true even when some of the spending can be traced, as in the case of over $2 million that Art Pope and his allies put into local legislative elections in 2010. Remember, campaigns in local elections feature a lot more lawn signs and hand-shaking at the strip mall than the expensive TV advertising that Pope's money paid for. Is it a coincidence that Pope's side won? One could argue yes, because you can't "prove" otherwise.

Fortunately, however, the First Amendment gives journalists the right to draw conclusions from the evidence we do collect. We are not just stenographers, left helpless if the subjects refuse to speak on the record. When the health and welfare of the public are involved, we are obligated to address the real implications of our reporting. Doing so in pursuit of an informed citizenry is nothing to apologize for; failing to do so is a cop-out.

For example, our broadcast reported how money from a Republican political action committee in Washington, itself funded by secret donors, found its way both into the work of North Carolina legislators as they gerrymandered the state for their partisan advantage (Mr. Pope, according to one witness, was sitting at a work bench in the room as the redistricting was done) and into the campaign of one of the state's supreme court justices who will now be passing judgment on a challenge to the legitimacy of the redistricting. The money trail may have been obscured and so deliberately tangled as to be virtually impossible for everyday citizens to sort out, but a journalist, having been convinced by the validity of research and reporting, is empowered to call this duplicitous arrangement a conflict of interest and abuse of public trust.

So I hope you would agree that to ignore the extraordinary concentration of one person's money when evaluating election results would be journalistic malpractice. We presented to our viewers the well-considered case that Art Pope's money is a prime mover in North Carolina politics and the success of its far-right agenda. We included in our report his contention that his money was spent to simply to "educate" voters, but having done our homework, we weren't prepared to leave it there. I think we did as well as journalists can do at helping the viewer judge the impact of that money on the election process and legislative agenda.

What would help journalists and the public even more, of course, are disclosure laws that make transparent in every case just who is spending how much to win elections and influence policy in statehouses across the country. But that's a different story, for a different documentary. Stay tuned.

Bill Moyers