Journalist Bill Moyers

Award-winning broadcast journalist and best-selling author Bill Moyers reflects on some of the groundbreaking work he brings to the page in his latest text, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.

After retiring as host of PBS' NOW, journalist Bill Moyers went on to produce many groundbreaking series. He returned to PBS in '07 with Bill Moyers' Journal, which became one of the highest-rated public affairs programs on public TV. Moyers began his career as a cub reporter and has a résumé that boasts Baptist minister, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, publisher and best-selling author. He's won more than 30 Emmys and virtually every major TV and journalism award and is co-founder of the indie production company, Public Affairs Television.


Tavis: Always pleased and honored to be in the company of my friend, Bill Moyers. The award-winning journalist has been an institution on public television for so many years now, including his long-running series, “Bill Moyers’ Journal.” His latest book is an extension of that Emmy and Peabody-winning show. It’s called “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.” Mr. Moyers, I am so delighted that the conversation continues on this program tonight.

Bill Moyers: Where else but with Mr. Tavis Smiley would a conversation like this continue?

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. Let me start – speaking of conversation, there was a rumor – my word, not yours. Maybe there was some truth to it, you tell me – but a rumor some days ago all over the internet that Bill Moyers was thinking about coming back to PBS, unretiring. What can you tell me about this rumor, sir?

Moyers: Well, like rumors of my death which happen occasionally, this was exaggerated and premature. We’ve been exploring many things we might do at this age and stage, including specials, mini series, potentially an interview show of a smaller mold than the one we did with the Journal. But we haven’t decided anything yet.

I’m still enjoying this period of reflection and deliberation, working on a four-part series that we hope to finish by the end of the year on the period between the Civil War and the election of 1912 when corporate power really became dominant in the American economy and workers and ordinary people, freed men in the south, had to fight back to try to earn their place in dignity. But there’s no weekly series again in the planning right now.

Tavis: To your point now, Bill, I know and I thought of you when this happened, of course, many months ago now, but that Citizens United decision must just rub a guy like you raw.

Moyers: Well, you know, I’ve long had this concern about how money has dominated politics. It now buys the policies it wants. The Citizens United, in and of itself, was in my judgment wrong and dangerous because it said that a corporation has the same rights as an individual on the street to speak. Well, we know corporations, if they speak with money, buy the biggest megaphone in town.

But the other troubling part of the Citizens United decision was that it made possible secret money. The House actually passed a measure to require disclosure of this money, but the Senate Republicans refused to act on it and it died. So now you’ve got secret money and no requirements for disclosure.

Tavis: It’s even worse than that now and I’m curious to get your take on it. In the preceding days – in the last few days, in fact – we now hear representatives of the Obama administration – not the administration, of his campaign – David Axelrod and others who are now calling this secret money a necessary evil. There are now major Hollywood brokers, as you well know, who are getting involved in bundling money, in raising money for Democrats.

So rather than us standing in our truth and saying this is wrong, now you see the left saying boldly that they’re gonna engage the same way that Republicans engage and they’re gonna find as much secret money as they can find and spend. Is that the answer?

Moyers: Of course, it’s not the answer. The answer would have been for the Democrats to take a principle stand and say we’re not gonna turn politics into a war of the rich against the rich. But as always has been the case in this whole issue of money and politics, one wrongdoer who’s not chastened will lead others into the same wrongdoing. So we are gonna have a political system that is dependent upon secret money from anonymous sources influencing who runs, who wins, and the policies that they act upon.

Tavis: Let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second here. I want to ask whether or not you are concerned – and if so, to what degree – that there aren’t the kinds of voices. It’s not so much a question just about Bill Moyers as it is about the dearth and the paucity of voices on television, public television, commercial television, what have you, that are expressing points of view about the fragile nature of our democracy around these kinds of issues that you have laid out in this book.

Moyers: Television, including public television, rarely gives a venue to people who have refused to buy into the ruling ideology of Washington. The ruling ideology of Washington is we have two parties. They do their job; they do their job pretty well. The differences between them limit the terms of the debate. But we know that real change comes from outside the consensus. Real change comes from people making history, challenging history, dissenting, protesting, agitating, organizing.

Those voices that challenge the ruling ideology – two parties, the best of all worlds, do a pretty good job – those voices get constantly pushed back to the areas of the stage you can’t see or hear. You got voices like those on your show. You got them on Amy Goodman “Democracy Now!” and a few other places like that, but not as a steady presence in the public discourse.

Tavis: I’m gonna go right into this book here in just a second with some of the issues that you raise here that we haven’t talked about like race and religion that you have featured in these conversations. But I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that you started out inside the body politic. You start out not just inside, you’re with Lyndon Johnson, you’re inside the White House.

And your views over the years, if one did not know your back story, aren’t necessarily the views of one who was in government at the level entrenched that you were. So talk to me about how you’re hanging out inside the White House and you end up having these kinds of views about Washington.

Moyers: Well, in one part because I saw how Washington really works and, as I got away from Washington, I realized that the important thing particularly for journalists – and I had been a journalist before I wound up in Washington – was not how close you were to power, but how close you were to the truth. Because all governments lie, all governments make compromises that are designed to perpetuate their power, and you see that when you’re inside.

I was very young, 26, 27 28 when I was in Washington and in the White House, naive. Ford says we all experience our present naively. I certainly did, and I accepted the ruling ideology, that two parties are the best way to run a democracy and they all serve the public good. Well, they sometimes serve the public good, but more often than not, they’re serving their own interest.

That’s what we did when I was in Washington. We were thinking about re-election, thinking about the compromises we needed to hold on to public opinion. It was when I got away from Washington and had a perspective on it that I began to see the consequences of even well-intentioned politics at the time, particularly as more and more money began to decide the outcomes.

Tavis: I’ve been honored, quite frankly, to be on a couple of hit lists with you over the years [laugh]. Had my name right next to Bill Moyers in a number of places and occasions about what we do. But I want to ask you seriously whether or not there is a place on public television, a place on public radio, for opinion.

I mean, you’ve been accused of having a left opinion. I certainly have been accused in certain conversations of having a left opinion. Is there a place in public radio, in public television, these days for opinion?

Moyers: There should be a place for a diversity of opinions and that’s what you find in the book you’re holding in your hand is that these people range across the whole spectrum and beyond the liberal and conservative spectrum. I even have an interview with a couple of socialists and a couple of libertarians and a couple of radicals in there. Mike Davis from California. There should be a place.

I was present at the creation of public broadcasting back in 1965. Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. He who had made his money by owning television in Texas said corporate television does not provide enough alternatives in the dissent of America, in the dialog of America, in the conversation-making. We need public television to offer a forum to all kinds of views, all diversity of opinion.

We have a relatively narrow spectrum even in public broadcasting so that many of our shows that are usually establishment figures, experts, top of the business journalists who are on, people who have forums. You rarely get the radical voice, the dissenting voice, the voice of the populace, the voice of the progressive, the voice of the libertarian, the voice of the radical.

You rarely get those because, again, journalism in America is organized around opinion from Washington, around the debate in Washington, and that debate is narrowly defined as whether the truth lies between a Republican opinion and a Democratic opinion, not from outside of that consensus.

Tavis: Let me make a statement first – speaking of opinion – make a statement first and then ask your opinion, your take on this. I was troubled, as I suspect you were, you’ll tell me, by the attack that we just have had to witness, that public radio has been under, public television has been under. In some ways, this is an annual occurrence, as you know, certainly a bi-annual occurrence where public TV and public radio takes a hit from certain people in Washington, so we’ve gotten accustomed to that.

This was a bit different this time because some money was, in fact, cut this time around. Even though the Democrats held off as much as they could in the Senate, some money was cut. But I was troubled by that attack and that debate, number one.

I’m curious now that you’re on the set here to get your opinion about that debate, number one. But that’s not disconnected from this, which is what you’re raising now.

I so often – as a matter of fact, I have a copy of it in my office and I keep it in my desk to keep me on point – but I so often – and most of us don’t do this – go back and I read that charter that you spoke of that Lyndon Johnson signed. I read the charter of what public television and public radio were created to do.

I say this – and this might be politically incorrect to say on PBS – but we are not living up to that charter. We’re not living up to it on public television; we’re not living up to it on public radio when it comes to a diversity and inclusion of other voices. We’re not living up to that. So I wonder whether or not, in some ways, we deserve being pricked a little bit, pushed a little bit, if we’re not living up to the charter, but you tell me.

Moyers: I don’t think we’re living up to that charter that Lyndon Johnson proclaimed. No, I don’t. The conservatives have won to this extent. Too many people in public television and public radio are looking over their shoulders fearing that the right is after them. We don’t really have a left in this country. There’s no organized left that comes after journalists the way that the right comes after journalists who offer a different alternative.

This is an old story, Tavis. Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan, his communications director, tried to do it in public broadcasting back in the early ’70s when they accused us of being liberal when, in fact, we were just offering an alternative view of reality, something they don’t want.

Then Bob Dole when he was Senate Minority Leader came after public broadcasting. Newt Gingrich came after public broadcasting and, of course, under the George W. Bush administration, you had a Republican Corporation for Public Broadcasting more responsive to Karl Rove than they were to the stations out here.

So that constant harassment creates a kind of caution and self-censorship on the part of people who just don’t want to – you know, we don’t get but about 17 percent of the total budget from the Congress, but that’s enough to leave a big hole in what the local stations do if we don’t have it.

But it creates almost a Pavlovian response and I think there is an unintended, but inevitable, censorship that takes place on the part of people who are running the programs, booking the programs, lining up guests, to make sure that we don’t give the right wing another opportunity to come in and accuse us of being liberal.

Tavis: You’ve been discussing these issues for years, of course, on public television and this book is so beautiful because it highlights, brings to life, some of the rich conversations you’ve had over the years on public television. So the obvious question for starters is how you go about narrowing down the rich conversations you had enough to fit in this text right here.

Moyers: Those are only about 40 of the conversations. We had about 250 over the course of the Journal. We chose those essentially who were speaking to more timeless issues. We had a lot of people on every week.

The book covers three tumultuous years in American life, the last 15 months of the George Bush administration, the tumultuous election of 2008 and the first 18 months of Obama’s administration. So it was a very intensely political and topical time for journalism, but we took respites from that. You’ll find theology in there, philosophy in there, arts in there, humanities in there, science, economics, politics.

We go always for a variety. If you do only politics, as you know – I just saw you interview Betty White – if you stayed only with politics, you’d have a very narrow range of vocabulary, ideas and interest in this country. So people who watch television do want diversity in what they see.

My favorite part of the book are the poetry of Nicky Giovanni, M.S. Merwin, Robert Bly. John Lithgow, the actor, has published several books of poetry, including poetry for children.

I mean, look, the message of the book is we can fight back. Jim Hightower, who’s a great populist, says, you know, corporate power, over-weaning, overwhelming corporate power, is making a mockery of workaday Americans. He said they think they’re the top dogs and we’re their water hydrants [laugh]. That’s Jim Hightower. But he’s right. We can fight back.

The other message of the book, as Howard Zinn, the late historian, says, people making history is a beautiful sight to observe, people engaged in agitation, engaged in challenging officials. He said, you know, real change comes from outside the system. It comes from people prodding, taking responsibility, taking action, prodding the government to do the right thing. Most governments don’t want to do the right thing. They want to do what perpetuates their power.

But people can bring the change. Martin Luther King told Lyndon Johnson that. Lyndon Johnson listened to him as he argued for the demonstrations going on in the south, and LBJ said to Martin Luther King, “Dr. King, go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.” That’s where real change comes.

But the reason we have poets and the reason you and I both talk to artists and others is because we fight back by celebrating what’s good in our lives. The creativity of Louise Erdrich, the writer who’s in here, the enthusiastic populism of a Jim Hightower, the descriptive journalism of a Barry Lopez. You know, when you read Nicky Giovanni talking about love and love poems, you want to fight to save a species that can make love and a world that’s hospitable to the poetry of love.

So we fight back by celebrating what is best in our lives and in our culture, so it’s not just politics, it’s not just economics, although there are prophetic voices in there about politics and economics. This book is as relevant today as when we did these interviews. But we have to also celebrate and affirm. You know, Henry David Thoreau, the great writer of the 19th century, said to affirm the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.

You’ve got to include that kind of affirmation in your journalism or you wind up edging toward cynicism, moving toward – skepticism is healthy, cynicism is poisonous. It’s the artists and the musicians, the painters, the poets, the writers, who provide the joy and insight in life and you’ve got to talk to them if you’re doing a book even about politics.

Tavis: You’ve said a mouthful there and I want to go back and pick up one thing that really is, I think, an arc that really covers everything in the book. That is this notion earlier that you raised of truth and power.

I was literally just giving a speech yesterday where I talked about the fact that what we find ourselves up against every day, what we find ourselves in, is a battle of truth versus power. Put another way, are you going to be a truth teller or are you gonna be a power grabber? It’s about truth versus power.

So here I’m fascinated now to hear you, you know, express this same sentiment in your own brilliant and important and powerful way. But as I read these essays, that’s what it really comes down to in so many ways – these conversations, rather, these transcripts – of truth versus power. You raised that a moment ago. Unpack that a bit for me more in terms of how you see that fight.

Moyers: Well, my own conviction on this comes from first having grown up as a southerner. I come from a part of the country where the truth about slavery was driven from the newsroom, driven from the pulpit, driven from the classroom. The south was in denial. It took a bloody Civil War to drive the truth home and then it took another 100 years before we acted on the truth that we are equal.

I was part of the Johnson administration. We escalated the war in Vietnam. We drew the wagons around any but the official view of reality and even attacked and criticized and demeaned the reporters out in Vietnam who were reporting. What is the truth? You can debate that issue, but the facts are not debatable. You’re entitled, as some great editor said, to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

People call me a liberal mainly because I report the evidence that they don’t want to hear and then I draw conclusions. My “opinions” are really based on the evidence that I have gathered, but this is no longer a society that honors the facts or that honors the evidence.

There was an amazing study at the University of Michigan recently that showed that people, confronted with facts they know are right, will nonetheless not allow those facts to change their opinions because their positions are based upon their beliefs, not on facts.

So this is why you get a majority of Republicans watching Fox News who believe Obama was born in Kenya, or a majority of Republicans listening to Rush Limbaugh who think that Obama’s a socialist even though he’s as beholding to corporate power as any president I’ve seen in my lifetime.

You get all of these people whose opinions are confirmed by the journalism they hear and they’re not moved by the facts. Why do the come after you? Why do they come after me? Because we present information, fact-based evidence-driven information, that undermines their world view.

You can’t believe Obama’s a socialist if you look at the facts of his relationship with the banks and the corporations and all of that. But fact-based reporting is diminishing in this. It’s not just opinion. There’s plenty of opinion. But fact-based journalism is the endangered species of our time.

Tavis: You mentioned the Vietnam War. You were in the White House with President Johnson, of course, as one of his right-hand men, and we know that, when King was assassinated on that balcony in Memphis, he died with 75 percent of the American people having turned against him according to the last Harris Poll taken in his life.

Almost 57 percent of his own people, Black folk, had turned against him because of his vehement opposition in part to the Vietnam War. Dr. King famously said that war is the enemy of the poor. War is the enemy of the poor. You were there during the Vietnam era. We’re still engaged now in a couple of wars, maybe three, depending on how you count, even as we speak. Is war still the enemy of the poor?

Moyers: Well, it is the poor who fight it. They fought the war in Iraq; they’re fighting the war in Afghanistan. It’s the experts who declare the war. It’s like the Civil War. The great robber barons of the 19th century, Carnegie and Rockefeller and others, they bought off. They bought their way out of the war. They hired, paid a bounty, in a way, for poor people, working people, who would go and fight in their place. You could do that in the war.

I was not in the White House when Martin Luther King made that. I’d left in January of 1967. It was in April, I believe. In ’68, he made that famous speech at Riverside Church in which he came out strongly opposing the war. And I’m told by the people who remained at the White House that Lyndon Johnson was vitriolic and bitter about that because he thought it would undermine his cause, undermine the war. It did undermine the war.

I mean, after that speech, Black folks really began to question, really began to believe Martin Luther King, you know, about the fact that they were fighting the war, they and working class white people. That’s been true of every war of our time. The poor go to fight it.

I saw a study recently of the personnel, the fighting forces in Afghanistan. Most of them come from working families, many of them because they couldn’t get a job here at home. Yes, war thrives on the victims it creates on the battlefield and on the blood and muscle of young men and women who wind up serving it when others can buy their way out of it.

Tavis: For my money, nobody has ever done it better than Bill Moyers. I have been honored to be on a network at least that overlapped his service here for a number of years. But long before I got to PBS, I’ve been a Bill Moyers fan watching and learning and being empowered by his work down through the years.

And whether it’s science or race or religion or theology or the arts, anything you can imagine worthy of being discussed, Bill Moyers has had some wonderful conversation about it on this network down through the years.

So I’m delighted, as I’m sure you are, that he has a new text out. It’s called “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.” Bill Moyers, I am just delighted to have you on this program tonight. Thank you for spending some time with us.

Moyers: Well, it’s great to have you coming along in your generation to keep the conversation going.

Tavis: I appreciate it.

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Last modified: July 28, 2011 at 12:38 pm