Journalism and Democracy
by Bill Moyers
The Nation magazine, May 7, 2001
My name is Bill, and I'm a recovering Unimpeachable Source.
I understand "Unimpeachable Source" is now an oxymoron
in Washington, as in "McCain Republican" or 'Democratic
Party." But once upon a time in a far away _ place-Washington
in the 1960s-I was one. Deep Backgrounders and Unattributable
Tips were my drugs of choice. Just go to Austin and listen to
me on those tapes LBJ secretly recorded. That's the sound of a
young man getting high...without inhaling. I swore off thirty-four
years ago last month, and I'm here to tell you, it hasn't been
easy to stay clean. I can't even watch The West Wing without breaking
into a sweat. A C-SPAN briefing by Ari Fleischer pushes me right
to the edge. But I know one shot-just one-and I could wind up
like my friend David Gergen, in and out of revolving doors and
needing to go on The NewsHour for a fix between Presidents.
But I'm not here to talk about my time in the White House.
I haven't talked much about it at all, though I do plan to write
about it someday soon. During the past three and a half decades,
I have learned that the job of trying to tell the truth about
people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated
and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. Unless
you're willing to fight and refight the same battles until you
go blue in the face, to drive the people you work with nuts going
over every last detail to make certain you've got it right, and
then to take hit after unfair hit accusing you of having a "bias,"
or these days even a point of view, there's no use even in trying.
You have to love it, and I do.
I always have. Journalism is what I wanted to do since I was
a kid. Fifty years ago, on my 16th birthday, I went to work at
the Marshall News Messenger. The daily newspaper in a small Texas
town seemed like the best place in the world to be a cub reporter.
It was small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy,
happy and learning something new every day. I was lucky. Some
of the old-timers were out sick or on vacation and I got assigned
to cover the Housewives' Rebellion. Fifteen women in Marshall
refused to pay the new Social Security withholding tax for their
domestic workers. The rebels argued that Social Security was unconstitutional,
that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that-here's
my favorite part-"requiring us to collect [the tax] is no
different from requiring us to collect the garbage." They
hired themselves a lawyer-Martin Dies, the ex-Congressman best
known (or worst known) for his work as head of the House Committee
on Un-American Activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Eventually the
women wound up paying the tax-while holding their noses. The stories
I wrote for the News Messenger were picked up and moved on the
Associated Press wire. And I was hooked.
Two years later, as a sophomore in college, I decided I wanted
to become a political journalist and figured experience in Washington
would show me the ropes. I wrote a man I had never met, a United
States senator named Lyndon Johnson, and asked him for a summer
job. Lucky again, I got it. And at summer's end LBJ and Lady Bird
offered me a job on their television station in Austin for $100
a week. Looking back on all that followed-seminary, the Peace
Corps, the White House, Newsday, PBS, CBS and PBS again-I often
think of what Joseph Lelyveld' the executive editor of the New
York Times, told some aspiring young journalists. "You can
never know how a life in journalism will turn out," he said.
It took me awhile after the White House to learn that what's
important in journalism is not how close you are to power but
how close you are to reality. Journalism took me there: to famine
in Africa, war in Central America, into the complex world of inner-city
families in Newark and to working-class families in Milwaukee
struggling to survive the good times. My life in journalism has
been a continuing course in adult education. From colleagues-
from producers like Sherry Jones-I keep learning about journalism
as storytelling. Sherry and I have been collaborating off and
on for a quarter of a century, from the time we did the very first
documentary ever about political action committees. I can still
see the final scene in that film-yard after yard of computer printout
listing campaign contributions unfurled like toilet paper stretching
all the way across the Capitol grounds.
That one infuriated just about everyone, including friends
of public television. PBS took the heat and didn't melt. When
Sherry and I reported the truth behind the news of the Iran/contra
scandal for a Frontline documentary called "High Crimes and
Misdemeanors," the right-wing Taliban in town went running
to their ayatollahs in Congress, who decried the fact that public
television was committing-horrors-journalism. The Clinton White
House didn't like it a bit, either, when Sherry and I reported
on Washington's Other Scandal, about the Democrats' unbridled
and illegal fundraising of 1996.
If PBS didn't flinch, neither did my corporate underwriter
for ten years now, Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. Before
Mutual of America I had lost at least three corporate underwriters,
who were happy as long as we didn't make anyone else unhappy.
Losing your underwriting will keep the yellow light of caution
flickering in a journalist's unconscious. I found myself-and I
could kick myself for this-not even proposing controversial subjects
to potential underwriters because I had told myself, convinced
myself: "Nah, not a chance!" Then Mutual of America
came along and the yellow light flickers no more. This confluence
of good fortune and good colleagues has made it possible for us
to do programs that the networks dare not contemplate.
Commercial television has changed since the days when I was
hired as chief correspondent for CBS Reports, the documentary
unit. A big part of the problem is ratings. It's not easy, as
John Dewey said, to interest the public in the public interest.
In fact, I'd say that apart from all the technology, the biggest
change in my thirty years in broadcasting has been the shift of
content from news about government to consumer-driven information
and celebrity features. The Project for Excellence in Journalism
conducted a study of the front pages of the New York Times and
the Los Angeles Times, the nightly news programs of ABC, CBS and
NBC, and Time and Newsweek. They found that from 1977 to 1997
the number of stories about government dropped from one in three
to one in five, while the number of stories about celebrities
rose from one in every fifty stories to one in every fourteen.
Does it matter? Well, as we learned in the 1960s but seem
to have forgotten, government is about who wins and who loses
in the vast bazaar of democracy. Government can send us to war,
pick our pockets, slap us in jail, run a highway through our garden,
look the other way as polluters do their dirty work, take care
of the people who are already well cared for at the expense of
those who can't afford lawyers, lobbyists or time to be vigilant.
It matters who's pulling the strings. It also matters who defines
the news and decides what to cover. It matters whether we're over
at the Puffy Combs trial, checking out what Jennifer Lopez was
wearing the night she ditched him, or whether we're on the Hill,
seeing who's writing the new bankruptcy law, or overturning workplace
safety rules, or buying back standards for allowable levels of
arsenic in our drinking water.
I need to declare a bias here. It's true that I worked for
two Democratic Presidents, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But
I did so more for reasons of opportunity than ideology. My worldview
was really shaped by Theodore Roosevelt, who got it right about
power in America. Roosevelt thought the central fact of his era
was that economic power had become so centralized and dominant
it could chew up democracy and spit it out. The power of corporations,
he said, had to be balanced in the interest of the general public.
Otherwise, America would undergo a class war, the rich would win
it, and we wouldn't recognize our country anymore. Shades of deja
vu. Big money and big business, corporations and commerce, are
again the undisputed overlords of politics and government. The
White House, the Congress and, increasingly, the judiciary reflect
their interests. We appear to have a government run by remote
control from the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association
of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. To hell
with everyone else.
What's the role of journalism in all this? The founders of
our nation were pretty explicit on this point. The First Amendment
is the first for a reason. It's needed to keep our leaders honest
and to arm the powerless with the information they need to protect
themselves against the tyranny of the powerful, whether that tyranny
is political or commercial. At least that's my bias. A college
student once asked the journalist Richard Reeves to define "real
news." He answered: "The news you and I need to keep
our freedoms." Senator John McCain echoed this in an interview
I did with him a couple of years ago for a documentary called
"Free Speech for Sale." It was about the Telecommunications
Act of 1996, when some of America's most powerful corporations
were picking the taxpayers' pocket of $70 billion. That's the
estimated value of the digital spectrum that Congress was giving
away to the big media giants.
Senator McCain said on the Senate floor during the debate,
referring to the major media, "You will not see this story
on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it
directly affects them." And, in our interview, he added "The
average American does not know what digital spectrum is. They
just don't know. But here in Washington their assets that they
own were being given away, and the coverage was minuscule."
Sure enough, the Telecommunications Act was introduced around
May of 1995 and was finally passed in early February of 1996.
During those nine months, the three major network news shows aired
a sum total of only nineteen minutes on the legislation, and none
of the nineteen minutes included a single mention of debate over
whether the broadcasters should pay for use of the digital spectrum.
The Founders didn't count on the rise of mega-media. They
didn't count on huge private corporations that would own not only
the means of journalism but also vast swaths of the territory
that journalism should be covering. According to a recent study
done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press for
the Columbia Journalism Review, more than a quarter of journalists
polled said they had avoided pursuing some newsworthy stories
that might conflict with the financial interests of their news
organizations or advertisers. And many thought that complexity
or lack of audience appeal causes newsworthy stories not to be
pursued in the first place.
I don't mean to suggest there was a Golden Age of journalism.
I told you earlier about covering the Housewives' Rebellion in
Marshall, Texas, fifty years ago. What I didn't tell you is that
it was the white housewives who made news with their boycotts
of Social Security, not the domestic workers themselves. They
were black; I wasn't sent to interview them, and it didn't occur
to me that I should have. Marshall was 50 percent black, 50 percent
white, and the official view of reality was that only white people
made news. I could kick myself for the half-blindness that has
afflicted me through the years-from the times at the White House
when I admonished journalists for going beyond the official view
of reality in Vietnam to the times I have let the flickering yellow
light turn red in my own mind on worthy journalistic projects.
I'm sure that growing up a Southerner and serving in the White
House turned me into a fanatic-at least into a public nuisance-
about what journalism should be doing in our democracy. In the
South the truth about slavery was driven from our pulpits, our
newsrooms and our classrooms, and it took the Civil War to bring
the truth home. Then the truth about Jim Crow was censored, too,
and it took another hundred years to produce the justice that
should have followed Appomattox. In the White House we circled
the wagons, grew intolerant of news that didn't comfort us and,
if we could have, we would have declared illegal the sting of
the bee. So I sympathize with my friends in commercial broadcasting
who don't cover the ocean they're swimming
in. But I don't envy them. Having all those resources-without
the freedom to use them to do the kinds of stories that are begging
to be done-seems to me more a curse than a blessing. It reminds
me of Bruce Springsteen's great line, "It's like eating caviar
But I am not here to hold myself up as some sort of beacon.
I've made my own compromises and benefited from the special circumstances
of my own good luck. But the fact that I have been so lucky shows
that it can be done. All that is required ~ is for journalists
to act like journalists, and their sponsors- public or private-to
back them up when the going gets a little rough. Because when
you are dealing with powerful interests, be they in government
or private industry, and bringing to light what has been hidden,
the going does-inevitably-get a little rough.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean-why the
battle is never-ending: Some years ago my colleague Marty Koughan
was looking into the subject of pesticides and food when he learned
about a National Academy of Sciences study in progress on the
effects of pesticide residuals on children. With David Fanning
of Frontline as an ally, we set about a documentary. Four to six
weeks before we were finished the industry somehow purloined a
copy of our rough script-we still aren't certain how- and mounted
a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit the documentary
before it aired. They flooded television reviewers and the editorial
pages of newspapers with propaganda. A Washington Post columnist
took a dig at the broadcast on the morning of the day it aired-without
even having seen it-and later admitted to me that the dig had
been supplied to him by a top lobbyist in town. Some station managers
were so unnerved that they protested the documentary with letters
that had been prepared by industry. Several station managers later
apologized to me for having been suckered.
Here's what most perplexed us: Eight days before the broadcast,
the American Cancer Society-a fine organization that in no way
figured in our story-sent to its 3,000 local chapters a "critique"
of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated
the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled: Why was the
American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing
a documentary that it hadn't seen, that hadn't aired and
that didn't claim what the society alleged? An enterprising
reporter in town named Sheila Kaplan later looked into this question
for Legal Times, which headlined her story: "Porter/Novelli
Plays All Sides." It turns out that the Porter/Novelli public
relations firm, which has worked for several chemical companies,
also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Kaplan
found that the firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from
that pro bono work to persuade the compliant communications staff
at the society to distribute some harsh talking points about the
documentary that had been supplied by, but not attributed to,
Others used the society's good name to discredit the documentary,
including the right-wing polemicist Reed Irvine. His screed against
what he called "Junk Science on PBS" called on Congress
to pull the plug on public broadcasting. PBS stood firm. The report
aired, the journalism held up (in contrast to the disinformation
about it) and the National Academy of Sciences was liberated to
release the study that the industry had tried to cripple.
But there's always the next round. PBS broadcast our documentary
on "Trade Secrets." It's a two-hour investigative special
based on the chemical industry's own archives on documents that
make clear, in the industry's own words, what the industry didn't
tell us about toxic chemicals, why they didn't tell us and why
we still don't know what we have the right to know. These internal
industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter
of opinion or point of view. They state what the industry knew,
when they knew it and what they decided to do.
The public policy implications of our broadcast are profound.
We live today under a regulatory system designed by the industry
itself The truth is, if the public, media, independent scientists
and government regulators had known what the industry knew about
the health risks of its products-when the industry knew it- America's
laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would be
far more protective of human health than they are today. But the
industry didn't want us to know. That's the message of the documents.
That's the story.
The spokesman for the American Chemistry Council assured me
that contrary to rumors, the chemical industry was not pressuring
stations to reject the broadcast. I believed him; the controversy
would only have increased the audience. But I wasn't sure for
a while. The first person to contact us from the industry was
a public relations firm here in Washington noted for hiring private
detectives and former CIA, FBI and drug enforcement officers to
do investigations for corporations. One of the founders of the
company is on record as saying that sometimes corporations need
to resort to unconventional resources, and some of those resources
"include using deceit." No wonder Sherry and I kept
looking over our shoulders. To complicate things, the single biggest
recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry
over the past twenty years in the House has been the very member
of Congress whose committee has responsibility for public broadcasting's
appropriations. Now you know why we don't take public funds for
reports like this!
For all the pressures, America, nonetheless, is a utopia for
journalists. In many parts of the world assassins have learned
that they can kill reporters with impunity; journalists are hunted
down and murdered because of their reporting. Thirty-four in Colombia
alone over the past decade. And here? Well, Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes
said to me recently that "the 1990s were a terrible time
for journalism in this country but a wonderful time for journalists;
we're living like [GE CEO] Jack Welch." Perhaps that's why
we aren't asking tough questions of Jack Welch.
I don't want to claim too much for our craft, but I don't
want to claim too little, either. The late Martha Gellhorn spent
half a century observing war and politicians and journalists,
too. By the end she had lost her faith that journalism could,
by itself, change the world. But she had found a different sort
of comfort. For journalists, she said, "victory and defeat
are both passing moments. There is no end; there are only means.
Journalism is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping
the record straight is valuable in itself. Serious, careful, honest
journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but
because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter
and the reader." And one hopes, the viewer, too.
Bill Moyers is executive editor of Public Affairs Television,
the independent production company he founded in 1986.
[Editors' Postscript: This article is adapted from Moyers
s speech to the National Press Club on March 22, hosted by PBS
to observe his thirtieth year as a broadcast journalist. The chemical
industry s trade association did attempt to discredit the March
26 documentary, "Trade Secrets", accusing Moyers and
Jones of 'journalistic malpractice " for inviting industry
participation only during the last half-hour of the broadcast.
Moyers replied that investigative journalism is not a collaboration
between the journalist and the subject.]
Control and Censorship