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PBS Ombudsman

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Over the last many years, reporters have grown fond of the once-secret tape recordings of White House conversations made by former President Richard Nixon. They are sometimes jokingly referred to as "the gift that keeps on giving," not just because each new batch that gets released is likely to reveal something new, but because they almost always produce stories and give journalists and commentators something to write about.

I'm beginning to think the same way about Bill Moyers and his weekly Journal on PBS. A few months ago, soon after Moyers returned as a regular to PBS, I said, half-jokingly, that there may need to be an ombudsman just for Moyers. Since then, I've written about segments of his programs, in response to viewer comments, several times, and Moyers and I have also aired our differences in this space. Actually, I'd rather not spend so many of my columns on one person or series of programs, but, like the Nixon tapes, the Journal and Moyers keep on providing material that viewers react to and that the ombudsman hears about.

Moyers, of course, produces informative and often powerful public affairs programs and has a large and loyal following. But he also draws fire from others for his approach to some issues and that, for the most part, is what keeps an ombudsman busy.

So, here we go again. Last Friday, Aug. 17, Moyers ended his program with what can only be described (by me) as an editorial. Here's the transcript of how Moyers bid farewell to White House political strategist Karl Rove:

BILL MOYERS: Some closing thoughts now on politics. When Karl Rove announced his resignation from the White House earlier this week, he got some rave reviews. Here's a sample circulating on the Internet.

CNN CORRESPONDENT: We should be congratulating Karl Rove for a long successful run — this is a guy who elected a president twice — who's known as one of the most brilliant political activists of our time . . .

CHRIS MATTHEWS: If you've ever talked to him he's almost got, almost like a blinder's eye — he looks you right in the eye — and he talks faster than I do — really fast right in your face totally intent on you — and it's real like talking to a fire hydrant . . .

BILL PLANTE: He's not only the mastermind behind everything — he's the president's senior advisor . . .

MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Boy genius, Bush's brain, the architect . . .

KAREN HUGHES: Karl is brilliant — he is funny — and he's a passionate advocate . . .

ANDREW CARD: Karl rove is a superstar — he's very insightful — he's a great friend to the president — he's also a very broad thinker — he is one of the more intelligent that people I know — he's very quick witted — he's got a great sense of humor and the president will miss him . . .

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well generally where there's brains, there's Rove . . .

BILL MOYERS: There is, of course, more to be said. What struck me about my fellow Texan, Karl Rove, is that he knew how to win elections as if they were divine interventions. You may think God summoned Billy Graham to Florida on the eve of the 2000 election to endorse George W. Bush just in the nick of time, but if it did happen that way, the good lord was speaking in a Texas accent.

Karl Rove figured out a long time ago that the way to take an intellectually incurious draft-averse naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket and make him governor of Texas, was to sell him as God's anointed in a state where preachers and televangelists outnumber even oil derricks and jack rabbits. Using church pews as precincts Rove turned religion into a weapon of political combat — a battering-ram, aimed at the devil's minions, especially at gay people.

It's so easy, as Karl knew, to scapegoat people you outnumber, and if God is love, as rumor has it, Rove knew that, in politics, you better bet on fear and loathing. Never mind that in stroking the basest bigotry of true believers you coarsen both politics and religion.

At the same time he was recruiting an army of the lord for the born-again Bush, Rove was also shaking down corporations for campaign cash. Crony capitalism became a biblical injunction. Greed and God won four elections in a row — twice in the lone star state and twice again in the nation at large. But the result has been to leave Texas under the thumb of big money with huge holes ripped in its social contract, and the U.S. government in shambles — paralyzed, polarized, and mired in war, debt and corruption.

Rove himself is deeply enmeshed in some of the scandals being investigated as we speak, including those missing emails that could tell us who turned the attorney general of the United States into a partisan sock-puppet. Rove is riding out of Dodge City as the posse rides in. At his press conference this week he asked God to bless the president and the country, even as reports were circulating that he himself had confessed to friends his own agnosticism; he wished he could believe, but he cannot. That kind of intellectual honesty is to be admired, but you have to wonder how all those folks on the Christian right must feel discovering they were used for partisan reasons by a skeptic, a secular manipulator. On his last play of the game all Karl Rove had to offer them was a Hail-Mary pass, while telling himself there's no one there to catch it.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Now, let's set aside the question, for a moment, of whether editorials (again, that's my word for it) belong on PBS. One other thing that jumped out at me, especially, about this commentary was the use of the formulation, "even as reports were circulating," to portray Rove as not a religious person and thus a "skeptic, a secular manipulator."

That, in my view, is not like Moyers; not up to his standards. Although Moyers is clearly a consistent target for conservatives, his reporting frequently hits a nerve but is almost always well-attributed, which is what makes it so often hard-hitting and why it draws a strong reaction from supporters and critics. I, personally, didn't know what Moyers was talking about when I heard this line, and my guess is that most viewers were also in the dark about what reports were circulating, where they were circulating and what, exactly, were they saying. The portrayal of this contrast in Rove's use of the Christian right politically and his own alleged non-belief was at the core of this commentary. So it seemed an important point, not to be skimmed over without any attribution or evidence.

Since then, those "closing thoughts" by Moyers and the particular point about Rove's faith have attracted a fair amount of attention. Two days later, Rove was a guest on "Fox News Sunday" and host Chris Wallace played a clip of the Moyers program and asked Rove about it. Then on Tuesday, Moyers, on his blog, responded to Wallace. Then on Thursday, Rove called me to say, among other things, that he had been inclined to just leave this thing alone but that Moyers' online response to Wallace, and the program itself, had gone "beyond the pale" and he wanted to register a complaint with PBS. I'll get to all of this, so hang in there.

First, the interview with Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: After you resigned, Bill Moyers — some would say he's part of the mob — went after you as an agnostic who flim-flammed the Christian right . . . Your response.

ROVE: I'm a Christian. I go to church. I'm an Episcopalian. I think he may have taken a comment that I made where I was talking about how — I have had colleagues at the White House — Mike Gerson, Pete Wehner, Lindsey Drouin, Josh Bolten and others — who I'm really impressed about how their faith has informed their lives and made them really better people. And it took a comment where I acknowledged my shortcomings in living up to the beliefs of my faith and contrasted it with how these extraordinary people have made their faith a part of their fiber. And somehow or another he goes from taking it from me being an Episcopalian wishing I was a better Christian to somehow making me into a agnostic. You know, Mr. Moyers ought to do a little bit better research before he does another drive-by slander.

After a bit of our own Web surfing and research early in the week, my assistant, Marcia Apperson, and I found two references which we thought may have been the ones that provided the basis for those "reports" that are "circulating" that Moyers alluded to. One is an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program on Sept. 6, 2006, with Wayne Slater, author of a book about Rove, and the other is an interview with author Christopher Hitchens in May 2007 in New York magazine. In both cases, Rove is reported as a non-believer, although neither report could be considered definitive, and Rove's statement to Wallace contradicts that.

And now Moyers has responded on his blog to Wallace's interview with more support for his reference to those circulating reports. Among other things, Moyers says in his posting: "There were several references to it online as well as in print journalism last week. The San Antonio Express News, which knows Rove well, wrote in an editorial (August 14): 'The White House will miss his indubitable political acumen. What other agnostic could have mobilized hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians behind a political banner?'" Moyers, as you can read on the link above, also cites two other writers — Marc Ambinder and James Moore — but the quote used from Ambinder begins, "I could be wrong here, but . . ." and the quote from Moore begins, "[Rove] told his friend Bill Israel years ago that he was an agnostic . . ." and the quote from a book by Slater and Moore that Moyers uses begins, "Rove once told a colleague . . ." These are of interest but not exactly authoritative, first-hand reports.

In his call to me, Rove said, "If someone says he is a believer, why is that not accepted? He (Moyers) has decided he will be the judge and the jury about whether I'm a believer. He attributes this to unknown parties and then defends it in a letter to Chris Wallace, with no personal interface with me at all. How does the San Antonio Express know? They don't. They don't know me well. He (Moyers) then relies on a blogger who says 'I could be wrong here.' Well, he is wrong." Rove calls Moore an "incredible left-wing ideologue." Bill Israel, he says, "was once my teaching assistant. He was no more a close friend of mine than the man in the moon. I attend church in my neighborhood and here in Washington. I was married in church, worship in church, tithe to the church. My faith is my business. This is just beyond the pale."

Opinion and Commentary

PBS's Editorial Standards and Policies require that when "a program, segment, or other content is devoted to opinion or commentary, the principle of transparency requires that it be clearly labeled as such" and "should identify who is responsible for the views being presented." It is clear that Moyers was expressing his own thoughts in this matter. And my guess is that, in his view, he was also adding some "balance" to the television coverage of the official departure of Rove from the administration. Although there were many newspaper articles, and I'm sure a fair number of television reports, that captured both the accomplishments and criticism of Rove's tenure, Moyers introduced his commentary only with TV clips of "rave reviews" about Rove.

Viewers probably know what to expect from "Bill Moyers Journal." To repeat what I've made note of in earlier columns, the program is clearly dedicated, as Moyers says in his online description of his weekly series, to "perspectives seldom available anywhere else on television." In my view, that is most often a big plus for the viewing public. And Rove, whether one praises him or vilifies him, is a major figure in contemporary American politics and a fair subject for intense reporting and commentary. He has indeed been lionized often over the past several years, especially on many radio and television outlets and in conservative periodicals. So a broadcaster presenting a strongly worded negative assessment is okay, an important and valuable part of the mix for viewers to sort out. But in this case, I thought a central point of the criticism was not supported for those listening.

But aside from this point, what makes Moyers such a lightning rod is that not only is he one of the few TV broadcaster/journalist/commentators that goes after the big and sensitive targets and presents such strong critiques, but that he does it on PBS, where, as far as I can tell, he occupies a unique position. There is no other high-profile program on PBS that I'm aware of where the host frequently presents such strongly worded "closing thoughts."

When I asked PBS how the service justifies broadcasting editorials by the host of a major program, here is the response I got from "programming officials":

"As we stated last month in our reply to your (previous) inquiry, 'the title of the series, Bill Moyers Journal, signals to viewers that they can expect to encounter the strongly reasoned viewpoints of Bill Moyers and his guests.' Last Friday, in Bill Moyers' closing remarks, he began by quoting several broadcasters. Among them was a CNN correspondent who said 'We should be congratulating Karl Rove for a long successful run — this is a guy who elected a president twice — who's known as one of the most brilliant political activists of our time . . .' Chris Matthews of MSNBC was quoted as saying, 'Well generally where there's brains, there's Rove . . .' These are but two examples of how in the days immediately following Mr. Rove's announcement that he was leaving the White House, many journalists made known their assessments of Mr. Rove's tenure. Bill Moyers did exactly the same thing at the conclusion of last Friday's Bill Moyers Journal. Mr. Moyers is not hiding anything from viewers; his show is not a 'nightly news' program where the format standards are more narrowly defined. It is completely appropriate for him to express his informed analysis."

A CNN Correspondent, Not

Actually, the person on CNN whose face and voice — but no name or title — appear in the clip Moyers used, is not a CNN correspondent. He is Terry Holt, identified in the transcript of the CNN program from which the sound bite was extracted as a "Republican Strategist." Holt was a national spokesman for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign.

Two other people — of the six who were shown at the start of Moyers' segment on Rove — were also not journalists but former top officials of the Bush administration, Karen Hughes and Andrew Card. So it is not surprising that Rove got some "rave reviews." In fairness to Moyers, he did not describe these people as journalists and was using these clips to make his point about how Rove was being portrayed on television and how that was circulating on the Internet. But it seems to me it should have been made clear that this was not exactly the journalistic community fawning over Rove and that it was not indicative of how, as the PBS "programming officials" statement above says, "many journalists made known their assessments of Mr. Rove's tenure."

When I asked PBS whether there are any other regular programs in which the host provides editorial opinion or informed analysis analogous to what Moyers does, the officials said, "There is no other program or host precisely analogous to Bill Moyers Journal/Bill Moyers but the hosts of other PBS talk and public affairs programs certainly express their opinions on occasion."

Here is a sampling of the letters I received. Although there are undoubtedly large numbers of viewers who applaud Moyers' perspective, all the letters that came to me were uniformly critical (with one exception).

The Letters

Tell me, sir, how does a supposedly objective, non-partisan reporter refer to the president of the US as an "intellectually incurious, draft-averse, naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket"? The lack of integrity found in today's media is outrageous. It's no wonder the American public has a lack of trust in the media when it continues to be represented by elite snobs like Bill Moyers who continue to denigrate anyone who doesn't live on the east side of Manhattan.

Arlene Barron, Colorado Springs, CO

The most recent episode of Bill Moyers' journal contains an embarrassingly bias commentary about Karl Rove that shames public broadcasting. Not only should PBS decline to broadcast the pitiable views of Mr. Moyers on the grounds that they are without merit, but also because you do not give equal time to idiotic conservative rants. By broadcasting material like this PBS is giving tacit endorsement — "what you allow, you endorse."

Charlie Dragon, East Brunswick, NJ

Just what ARE PBS's standards of editorial integrity? Does that include permitting Bill Moyers to spill his hateful poison year after year? His most recent tirade against Karl Rove and President Bush was so beyond the pale of decency that I am barely able to think or talk about it. No facts, just an emotional screed that went further than even his most intemperate remarks of years past. I think Moyers' derangement over the Bush administration has pushed him entirely over the edge.

Barbara Duran, Kaneohe, HI

Just a comment on the creditability of Bill Moyers. He should suppress his personal feelings and spend more time checking out his information concerning others. So often his comments can't be checked out with the facts.

Gordon Record, San Diego, CA

Bill Moyers, you are a true hero. You speak truth to power, albeit in a soft, well-spoken voice. Karl Rove is no Christian when he does the work of Satan (no matter if he occasionally sits in the pew of an Episcopalian church.) Rove helped elect a "true believer" though, a "born again" Bush, who thought that God "wanted" him to run for President. Talk about delusions of grandeur! The "God" that then "talked" to Bush is living in Hell now — or in Iraq.

David Wyles, Playa Del Rey, CA

I am outraged and disgusted at the recent incoherent ravings of Mr. Moyers on PBS. Obviously, he actively hates the President of the United States and more viciously hates Mr. Rove and I guess anyone else who is not a rabid liberal.

Lynn Campbell, Whittier, CA

I happened to have seen Bill Moyers' commentary on Karl Rove. His holier-than-thou posturing and frankly stupid comments on Rove and Bush (and religious Christians in general) cast Moyers as the intellectually inferior of those he desperately attempts to malign. He unwittingly reveals that liberals are not tolerant nor frankly intellectually gifted as advertised.

Richard Friedman, Los Angeles, CA

My question is should a public TV station allow such one sided critique of Bush and Rove? In the past I never heard any one sided critique of Pres. Clinton. I am offended by this for I look to public TV as one place an individual can be told facts without a man's personal bias so blatantly expressed. I ask PBS to look into this matter and advise me how this will be changed in the future. I do not want my tax dollars used to express any individual's biased point of view. We get enough of this on regular TV broadcasts.

Patricia Sommerkamp, Crestview Hills, KY

There was a day when Mr. Moyers had something to say. I often disagreed with him, but he was a reasonable advocate for his political position. Sadly that day is past. His latest mad ravings regarding Karl Rove were embarrassing to PBS and to Mr. Rove himself.

Wade Malloy, Charlotte, NC

Bill Moyers is, as they say in the south, losing his "religion." This is a bitter and totally off base journalist. The latest salvo was his commentary on Karl Rove. What creditability he held in the past has run dry.

Gary Clower, Narvon, PA

I am an atheist, a college graduate, a Texan, a former Democrat, and a former contributor to PBS . . . I am trying to be respectful and objective but is Bill Moyers an idiot, stupid, hateful, a resentful Democrat hack or what?? In my 60 years of following history and mainline politics I have never heard such hateful, unconstructive rantings in a respected media outlet. I too disagree with the President and Mr. Rove but disagree is not to hate.

KW Kessler, Austin, TX

I do not believe in censorship or in boycotting, but Bill Moyers' latest rants have moved him into the tinfoil hat crew and I have to question why he has a PBS platform for his outbursts. They have become rants and outpouring of bile which 1) should cause PBS management to take note and 2) make me wonder why he should be publicly supported.

Dave Cotts, Alexandria, VA

I am indignant at Bill Moyers' description of our president. He can criticize his policy but he slandered him with his description in the article about Rove . . . he also offended me as a Christian who is a moderate and lumped me together with a group that I am not a part of. PBS has some great programming but I for one will not watch again as long as Bill Moyers is allowed to speak this rubbish.

Suzanne Allen, Wagram, NC

I listened to the comments of Bill Moyers regarding Karl Rove and President Bush. While commentators are entitled to their opinion, Mr. Moyers' comments were entirely out of line. They were biased, hate filled and full of stereotypes. If Don Imus had said what Mr. Moyers said . . . he would have been fired. Shame on him for his remarks about the President of the United States.

Luci Snyder, Carmel, IN

My wife and I watch PBS more than any other network, having 3 stations in our area from which to choose. I am appalled at the sloppy, rude, arrogant, and inaccurate nature of Bill Moyers' nasty commentary upon Karl Rove's resignation. Moyers played loosely with the facts, or with no facts at all. I appreciate objective journalism that deals with all sides of issues, but I deplore the tone and nastiness of Moyers' diatribe about Rove and the President. For a man who once worked for a President, he shows amazing immaturity and very lazy research habits about the facts. He is embarrassing to those of us who revel in the wonderful programs on PBS.

Richard Palmer, Springboro, OH

You folks have to do something about Bill Moyers. He has really gone way over the top on some of his latest rantings. I understand PBS is for ALL of the people but Mr. Moyers represents such a small portion of this country's population it is incredible. The statements he made about Karl Rove and our President are extreme to say the least. These comments by Mr. Moyers, "intellectually incurious, draft-averse, naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket" are just unbelievable. Even if you do not agree with someone's political view this is just personal attacks. I do not mind hearing other viewpoints but this is ridiculous. PBS is throwing away any credibility they have left by continuing to air this person on our public airwaves. On top of that there is no balance to this perspective at all but how can you balance personal attacks against political viewpoints.

James Ward, Kaneohe, HI

Objective journalism goes right out the window every time you play something by Bill Moyers. Give me a break this guy is a half a mile left of Marx himself. You would have to play Rush Limbaugh for 3 days straight to offset him. I enjoy NOVA and some of the history programming but if you wonder why you do not see money from young men in their 30s don't play stuff that tells us our country is the worst thing on the planet.

B. Peterson, WI

I wonder why PBS permits Bill Moyers to provide slanted political commentary which at times is inflammatory rather than balanced. For example, he rails against Bush, but instead of sticking to presenting opposing viewpoints, he tries to paint unflattering and misleading pictures of Bush as a person or suggest malevolent, conspiratorial efforts underfoot as the reason we should hate Bush. If PBS is supposed to offer itself up as an intellectual broadcaster of issues, then tell him to act more like Charlie Rose and stop thinking he is on a personal crusade and newscast representative for the Democratic Party. Maybe he is pining for a job as the news spokesman for the next Democratic President if the party takes over the White House. It is this kind of performance which turns me off from PBS.

Bomoseen, VT

Please investigate Bill Moyers. He has gone/is going too far in his rhetoric. His anti-Bush rhetoric is damaging PBS not to mention his own reputation.

Reno, NV

Bill Moyers owes Karl Rove an apology. If he can't bring himself to do that, he is obliged by journalistic ethics to issue a correction. Moyers, a seasoned journalist and former White House staffer himself, relies on "reports were circulating" as the source for his characterization of Rove's religious beliefs.

After reading Moyers' blog and watching a video of his broadcast, I alerted Karl Rove via e-mail that Moyers had described him as an "agnostic." This was Karl Rove's reply, once again via e-mail: "I am a believing Christian who attends his neighboring Episcopal parish church. People have taken out of context a quote in which I express admiration for the deep faith of colleagues that so clearly informs their lives as a statement I am not a believer. I am: just not as good a Christian as some very fine people I have been honored to call friends and colleagues."

Deal Hudson, Washington, DC

(Ombudsman's note: Hudson's role in religious issues and relationship to Bush and Rove is referred to in the interview with Wayne Slater and the recent blog posting by Moyers after the Fox News Sunday interview.)

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