Take Public Broadcasting Back
by Bill Moyers
Closing address - National Conference
on Media Reform, St. Louis, Missouri, May 15, 2005
I can't imagine better company on this
beautiful Sunday morning in St. Louis. You're church for me today,
and there's no congregation in the country where I would be more
likely to find more kindred souls than are gathered here.
There are so many different vocations
and callings in this room -- so many different interests and aspirations
of people who want to reform the media or produce for the media
-- that only a presiding bishop like Bob McChesney with his great
ecumenical heart could bring us together for a weekend like this.
What joins us all under Bob's embracing
welcome is our commitment to public media. Pat Aufderheide got
it right, I think, in the recent issue of In These Times when
she wrote: "This is a moment when public media outlets can
make a powerful case for themselves. Public radio, public TV,
cable access, public DBS channels, media arts centers, youth media
projects, nonprofit Internet news services . . . low-power radio
and webcasting are all part of a nearly-invisible feature of today's
media map: the public media sector. They exist not to make a profit,
not to push an ideology, not to serve customers, but to create
a public-a group of people who can talk productively with those
who don't share their views, and defend the interests of the people
who have to live with the consequences of corporate and governmental
She gives examples of the possibilities.
"Look at what happened," she said, "when thousands
of people who watched Stanley Nelson's 'The Murder of Emmett Till'
on their public television channels joined a postcard campaign
that re-opened the murder case after more than half a century.
Look at NPR's courageous coverage of the Iraq war, an expensive
endeavor that wins no points from this Administration. Look at
Chicago Access Network's Community Forum, where nonprofits throughout
the region can showcase their issues and find volunteers."
For all our flaws, Pat argues that the
public media are a very important resource in a noisy and polluted
You can also take wings reading Jason
Miller's May 4th article on Z Net about the mainstream media.
While it is true that much of it is corrupted by the influence
of government and corporate interests, Miller writes, there are
still men and women in the mainstream who practice a high degree
of journalistic integrity and who do challenge us with their stories
and analysis. But the real hope 'lies within the internet with
its two billion or more web sites providing a wealth of information
drawn from almost unlimited resources that span the globe. . .
If knowledge is power, one's capacity to increase that power increases
exponentially through navigation of the Internet for news and
Surely this is one issue that unites us
as we leave here today. The fight to preserve the web from corporate
gatekeepers joins media reformers, producers and educators --
and it's a fight that has only just begun.
I want to tell you about another fight
we're in today. The story I've come to share with you goes to
the core of our belief that the quality of democracy and the quality
of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell this story because
I've been living it. It's been in the news this week, including
reports of more attacks on a single journalist -- yours truly
-- by the right-wing media and their allies at the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.
As some of you know, CPB was established
almost forty years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting
and to be a firewall between political influence and program content.
What some on this board are now doing today, led by its chairman,
Kenneth Tomlinson, is too important, too disturbing and yes, even
too dangerous for a gathering like this not to address.
We're seeing unfold a contemporary example
of the age old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish
journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests
Let me assure you that I take in stride
attacks by the radical right-wingers who have not given up demonizing
me although I retired over six months ago. They've been after
me for years now and I suspect they will be stomping on my grave
to make sure I don't come back from the dead. I should remind
them, however, that one of our boys pulled it off some two thousand
years ago -- after the Pharisees, Sadducees and Caesar's surrogates
thought they had shut him up for good. Of course I won't be expecting
that kind of miracle, but I should put my detractors on notice:
They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into
the anchor chair.
Who are they? I mean the people obsessed
with control, using the government to threaten and intimidate.
I mean the people who are hollowing out middle class security
even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class
in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq's
oil. I mean the people who turn faith based initiatives into a
slush fund and who encourage the pious to look heavenward and
pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking
their pockets. I mean the people who squelch free speech in an
effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into
the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes
That's who I mean. And if that's editorializing,
so be it. A free press is one where it's okay to state the conclusion
you're led to by the evidence.
One reason I'm in hot water is because
my colleagues and I at NOW didn't play by the conventional rules
of beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats
and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists
to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the
truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity
to spin the news.
Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a
recent essay in "World Policy Journal." (You'll also
want to read his book, "Debating War and Peace, Media
Coverage of US Intervention in the Post Vietnam Era.")
Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington
Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly
served by beltway journalism. The "rules of our game,"
says Ignatius, "make it hard for us to tee up an issue...without
a news peg." He offers a case in point: the debacle of America's
occupation of Iraq. "If Senator so and so hasn't criticized
post-war planning for Iraq," says Ignatius, "then it's
hard for a reporter to write a story about that."
Mermin also quotes public television's
Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless an official says something
is so, it isn't news. Why were journalists not discussing the
occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, "the word occupation...was
never mentioned in the run-up to the war." Washington talked
about the invasion as "a war of liberation, not a war of
occupation, so as a consequence, "those of us in journalism
never even looked at the issue of occupation."
"In other words," says Jonathan
Mermin, "if the government isn't talking about it, we don't
report it." He concludes, "[Lehrer's] somewhat jarring
declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that
their reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous
occupation that has followed the 'liberation' of Iraq, reveals
just how far the actual practice of American journalism has deviated
from the First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent
of the government."
Take the example (also cited by Mermin)
of Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter
for the Associated Press, whose fall 2003 story on the torture
of Iraqis in American prisons -- before a U.S. Army report and
photographs documenting the abuse surfaced -- was ignored by major
American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to
the fact that "It was not an officially sanctioned story
that begins with a handout from an official source." Furthermore,
Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib
simply did not have the credibility with beltway journalists of
American officials denying that such things happened. Judith Miller
of The New York Times, among others, relied on the credibility
of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as
the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons
of mass destruction.
These "rules of the game" permit
Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving
the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead
of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead
of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth
from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe
both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context,
background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are
I decided long ago that this wasn't healthy
for democracy. I came to see that "news is what people want
to keep hidden and everything else is publicity." In my documentaries
- whether on the Watergate scandals thirty years ago or the Iran
Contra conspiracy twenty years ago or Bill Clinton's fund raising
scandals ten years ago or, five years ago, the chemical industry's
long and despicable cover up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding
of critical data about its toxic products from its workers, I
realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration
between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied
by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the
viewer to split the difference.
I came to believe that objective journalism
means describing the object being reported on, including the little
fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the people in power.
In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and
allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting
and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming
This is always hard to do, but it has
never been harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-be
have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell's "1984."
They give us a program vowing "No Child Left Behind"
while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give
us legislation cheerily calling for "Clear Skies" and
"Healthy Forests" that give us neither. And that's just
In Orwell's "1984", the
character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society's
dictionary, explains to the protagonist Winston, "Don't you
see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?"
"Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050,
at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who
could understand such a conversation as we are having now? The
whole climate of thought," he said, "will be different.
In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy
means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
An unconscious people, an indoctrinated
people, a people fed only on partisan information and opinion
that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind
and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to
put up a fight, to ask questions and be skeptical. That kind of
orthodoxy can kill a democracy - or worse.
I learned about this the hard way. I grew
up in the South where the truth about slavery, race, and segregation
had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms and
driven from the newsrooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring
the truth home and then it took another hundred years for the
truth to make us free.
Then I served in the Johnson administration.
Imbued with cold war orthodoxy and confident that "might
makes right," we circled the wagons, listened only to each
other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn't carry. The results
were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.
I brought all of this to the task when
PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They
wanted us to make it different from anything else on the air --commercial
or public broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no one else
was reporting and to offer a venue to people who might not otherwise
be heard. That wasn't a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed
by studies published in leading peer-reviewed scholarly journals
by a team of researchers led by Vassar College sociologist William
Hoynes. Extensive research on the content of public television
over a decade found that political discussions on our public affairs
programs generally included a limited set of voices that offer
a narrow range of perspectives on current issues and events. Instead
of far-ranging discussions and debates, the kind that might engage
viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, this research found
that public affairs programs on PBS stations were populated by
the standard set of elite news sources. Whether government officials
and Washington journalists (talking about political strategy)
or corporate sources (talking about stock prices or the economy
from the investor's viewpoint), Public television, unfortunately,
all too often was offering the same kind of discussions, and a
similar brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly
on commercial television.
Who didn't appear was also revealing.
Hoynes and his team found that in contrast to the conservative
mantra that public television routinely featured the voices of
anti-establishment critics, "alternative perspectives were
rare on public television and were effectively drowned out by
the stream of government and corporate views that represented
the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts." The so-called
'experts' who got most of the face time came primarily from mainstream
news organizations and Washington think tanks rather than diverse
interests. Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted
through the views of business people, investors and business journalists.
Voices outside the corporate/Wall Street universe -- nonprofessional
workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general
public were rarely heard. In sum, these two studies concluded,
the economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities
of most citizens became irrelevant.
All this went against the Public Broadcasting
Act of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
I know. I was there. As a young policy assistant to President
Johnson, I attended my first meeting to discuss the future of
public broadcasting in 1964 in the office of the Commissioner
of Education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act
was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and
to reflect the diversity of the American people.
This, too, was on my mind when we assembled
the team for NOW. It was just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
We agreed on two priorities. First, we wanted to do our part to
keep the conversation of democracy going. That meant talking to
a wide range of people across the spectrum -- left, right and
center. It meant poets, philosophers, politicians, scientists,
sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel AlIende, the novelist, and
Amity Shlaes, the columnist for the Financial Times. It meant
the former nun and best-selling author Karen Armstrong, and it
meant the right-wing evangelical columnist, Cal Thomas. It meant
Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from London, David Suzuki
from Canada, and Bernard Henry-Levi from Paris. It also meant
two successive editors of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley
and Paul Gigot, the editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, the
Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel and the Los Angeles Weekly's John
Powers. It means liberals like Frank Wu, Ossie Davis and Gregory
Nava, and conservatives like Frank Gaffney, Grover Norquist, and
Richard Viguerie. It meant Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop
Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Bishops conference in this country.
It meant the conservative Christian activist and lobbyist, Ralph
Reed, and the dissident Catholic Sister Joan Chittister. We threw
the conversation of democracy open to all comers. Most of those
who came responded the same way that Ron Paul, Republican and
Libertarian congressman from Texas did when he wrote me after
his appearance, "I have received hundreds of positive e-mails
from your viewers. I appreciate the format of your program which
allows time for a full discussion of ideas I'm tired of political
shows featuring two guests shouting over each other and offering
the same arguments NOW was truly refreshing."
Hold your applause because that's not
the point of the story.
We had a second priority. We intended
to do strong, honest and accurate reporting, telling stories we
knew people in high places wouldn't like.
I told our producers and correspondents
that in our field reporting our job was to get as close as possible
to the verifiable truth. This was all the more imperative in the
aftermath of the terrorist attacks. America could be entering
a long war against an elusive and stateless enemy with no definable
measure of victory and no limit to its duration, cost or foreboding
fear. The rise of a homeland security state meant government could
justify extraordinary measures in exchange for protecting citizens
against unnamed, even unproven, threats.
Furthermore, increased spending during
a national emergency can produce a spectacle of corruption behind
a smokescreen of secrecy. I reminded our team of the words of
the news photographer in Tom Stoppard's play who said, "People
do terrible things to each other, but it's worse when everyone
is kept in the dark."
I also reminded them of how the correspondent
and historian, Richard Reeves, answered a student who asked him
to define real news. "Real news," Reeves responded,
"is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms."
For these reasons and in that spirit we
went about reporting on Washington as no one else in broadcasting
-- except occasionally "60 Minutes" -- was doing. We
reported on the expansion of the Justice Department's power of
surveillance. We reported on the escalating Pentagon budget and
expensive weapons that didn't work. We reported on how campaign
contributions influenced legislation and policy to skew resources
to the comfortable and well-connected while our troops were fighting
in Afghanistan and Iraq with inadequate training and armor. We
reported on how the Bush administration was shredding the Freedom
of Information Act. We went around the country to report on how
closed door, back room deals in Washington were costing ordinary
workers and tax payers their livelihood and security. We reported
on offshore tax havens that enable wealthy and powerful Americans
to avoid their fair share of national security and the social
And always -- because what people know
depends on who owns the press -- we kept coming back to the media
business itself -- to how mega media corporations were pushing
journalism further and further down the hierarchy of values, how
giant radio cartels were silencing critics while shutting communities
off from essential information, and how the mega media companies
were lobbying the FCC for the right to grow ever more powerful.
The broadcast caught on. Our ratings grew
every year. There was even a spell when we were the only public
affairs broadcast on PBS whose audience was going up instead of
Our journalistic peers took notice. The
Los Angeles Times said, "NOW's team of reporters has regularly
put the rest of the media to shame, pursuing stories few others
bother to touch."
The Philadelphia Inquirer said our segments
on the sciences, the arts, politics and the economy were "provocative
public television at its best.
The Austin American Statesman called NOW
"the perfect antidote to today's high pitched decibel level
- a smart, calm, timely news program."
Frazier Moore of the Associated Press
said we were "hard-edged when appropriate but never Hardball.
Don't expect combat. Civility reigns."
And the Baton Rouge Advocate said "NOW
invites viewers to consider the deeper implication of the daily
headlines," drawing on "a wide range of viewpoints which
transcend the typical labels of the political left or right."
Let me repeat that: NOW draws on "a
wide range of viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of
the political left or right."
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had
been prophetic. Open public television to the American people
-- offer diverse interests, ideas and voices be fearless in your
belief in democracy -- and they will come.
Hold your applause - that's not the point
of the story.
The point of the story is something only
a handful of our team, including my wife and partner Judith Davidson
Moyers, and I knew at the time -- that the success of NOW's journalism
was creating a backlash in Washington.
The more compelling our journalism, the
angrier the radical right of the Republican party became. That's
because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth.
And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell
This is the point of my story: Ideologues
don't want you to go beyond the typical labels of left and right.
They embrace a world view that can't be proven wrong because they
will admit no evidence to the contrary. They want your reporting
to validate their belief system and when it doesn't, God forbid.
Never mind that their own stars were getting a fair shake on NOW:
Gigot, Viguerie, David Keene of the American Conservative Union,
Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, and others. No, our reporting
was giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the party
line. It wasn't that we were getting it wrong. Only three times
in three years did we err factually, and in each case we corrected
those errors as soon as we confirmed their inaccuracy. The problem
was that we were getting it right, not right-wing -- telling stories
that partisans in power didn't want told.
I've always thought the American eagle
needed a left wing and a right wing. The right wing would see
to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed.
The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included
in the bargain. Both would keep the great bird on course. But
with two right wings or two left wings, it's no longer an eagle
and it's going to crash.
My occasional commentaries got to them
as well. Although apparently he never watched the broadcast (I
guess he couldn't take the diversity) Senator Trent Lott came
out squealing like a stuck pig when after the mid-term elections
in 2002 I described what was likely to happen now that all three
branches of government were about to be controlled by one party
dominated by the religious, corporate and political right. Instead
of congratulating the winners for their election victory as some
network broadcasters had done -- or celebrating their victory
as Fox, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, Talk Radio
and other partisan Republican journalists had done -- I provided
a little independent analysis of what the victory meant. And I
did it the old fashioned way: I looked at the record, took the
winners at their word, and drew the logical conclusion that they
would use power as they always said they would. And I set forth
this conclusion in my usual modest Texas way.
Events since then have confirmed the accuracy
of what I said, but, to repeat, being right is exactly what the
right doesn't want journalists to be.
Strange things began to happen. Friends
in Washington called to say that they had heard of muttered threats
that the PBS reauthorization would be held off "unless Moyers
is dealt with." The Chairman of the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to be quite agitated.
Apparently there was apoplexy in the right wing aerie when I closed
the broadcast one Friday night by putting an American flag in
my lapel and said - well, here's exactly what I said.
"I wore my flag tonight. First time.
Until now I haven't thought it necessary to display a little metallic
icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was enough to vote,
pay my taxes, perform my civic duties, speak my mind, and do my
best to raise our kids to be good Americans.
Sometimes I would offer a small prayer
of gratitude that I had been born in a country whose institutions
sustained me, whose armed forces protected me, and whose ideals
inspired me; I offered my heart's affections in return. It no
more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest than it did
to pin my mother's picture on my lapel to prove her son's love.
Mother knew where I stood; so does my country. I even tuck a valentine
in my tax returns on April 15.
So what's this doing here? Well, I put
it on to take it back. The flag's been hijacked and turned into
a logo - the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On those Sunday
morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag
as if it is the good housekeeping seal of approval. During the
State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the
flag? How come? No administration's patriotism is ever in doubt,
only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error.
When I see flags sprouting on official lapels, I think of the
time in China when I saw Mao's little red book on every official's
desk, omnipresent and unread.
But more galling than anything are all
those moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag in
their lapels while writing books and running Web sites and publishing
magazines attacking dissenters as un-American. They are people
whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to their distance
from the fighting. They're in the same league as those swarms
of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill
for tax breaks even as they call for more spending on war.
So I put this on as a modest riposte to
men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety
of Washington think tanks, or argue that sacrifice is good as
long as they don't have to make it, or approve of bribing governments
to join the coalition of the willing (after they first stash the
cash.) I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks
we should do to the people of Baghdad what Bin Laden did to us.
The flag belongs to the country, not to the government. And it
reminds me that it's not un-American to think that war - except
in self-defense - is a failure of moral imagination, political
nerve, and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your
government can mean standing up for your country."
That did it. That - and our continuing
reporting on overpricing at Halliburton, chicanery on K-Street,
and the heavy, if divinely guided, hand of Tom DeLay.
When Senator Lott protested that the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting "has not seemed willing to deal with
Bill Moyers," a new member of the board, a Republican fundraiser
named Cheryl Halperin, who had been appointed by President Bush,
agreed that CPB needed more power to do just that sort of thing.
She left no doubt about the kind of penalty she would like to
see imposed on malefactors like Moyers.
As rumors circulated about all this, I
asked to meet with the CPB board to hear for myself what was being
said. I thought it would be helpful for someone like me, who had
been present at the creation and part of the system for almost
40 years, to talk about how CPB had been intended to be a heat
shield to protect public broadcasters from exactly this kind of
intimidation. After all, I'd been there at the time of Richard
Nixon's attempted coup. In those days, public television had been
really feisty and independent, and often targeted for attacks.
A Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry Kissinger in the
Nixon administration had actually been cancelled. The White House
had been so outraged over a documentary called the "Banks
and the Poor" that PBS was driven to adopt new guidelines.
That didn't satisfy Nixon, and when public television hired two
NBC reporters -- Robert McNeil and Sander Vanocur -- to co-anchor
some new broadcasts, it was, for Nixon, the last straw. According
to White House memos at the time, he was determined to "get
the left wing commentators who are cutting us up off public television
at once -- indeed, yesterday if possible."
Nixon vetoed the authorization for CPB
with a message written in part by his sidekick Pat Buchanan who
in a private memo had castigated Vanocur, MacNeil, Washington
Week in Review, Black Journal and Bill Moyers as "unbalanced
against the administration."
It does sound familiar.
I always knew Nixon would be back. I just
didn't know this time he would be the Chairman of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.
Buchanan and Nixon succeeded in cutting
CPB funding for all public affairs programming except for Black
Journal. They knocked out multiyear funding for the National Public
Affairs Center for Television, otherwise known as NPACT. And they
voted to take away from the PBS staff the ultimate responsibility
for the production of programming.
But in those days - and this is what I
wanted to share with Kenneth Tomlinson and his colleagues on the
CPB board - there were still Republicans in America who did not
march in ideological lockstep and who stood on principle against
politicizing public television. The chairman of the public station
in Dallas was an industrialist named Ralph Rogers, a Republican
but no party hack, who saw the White House intimidation as an
assault on freedom of the press and led a nationwide effort to
stop it. The chairman of CPB was former Republican congressman
Thomas Curtis, who was also a principled man. He resigned, claiming
White House interference. Within a few months, the crisis was
over. CPB maintained its independence, PBS grew in strength, and
Richard Nixon would soon face impeachment and resign for violating
the public trust, not just public broadcasting. Paradoxically,
the very Public Affairs Center for Television that Nixon had tried
to kill - NPACT - put PBS on the map by rebroadcasting in prime
time each day's Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night
after night and establishing PBS as an ally of democracy. We should
still be doing that sort of thing.
That was 33 years ago. I thought the current
CPB board would like to hear and talk about the importance of
standing up to political interference. I was wrong. They wouldn't
meet with me. I tried three times. And it was all downhill after
I was naïve, I guess. I simply never
imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would
cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying
it out for the White House. But that's what Kenneth Tomlinson
has done. On Fox News this week he denied that he's carrying out
a White House mandate or that he's ever had any conversations
with any Bush administration official about PBS. But The New York
Times reported that he enlisted Karl Rove to help kill a proposal
that would have put on the CPB board people with experience in
local radio and television. The Times also reported that "on
the recommendation of administration officials" Tomlinson
hired a White House flack (I know the genre) named Mary Catherine
Andrews as a senior CPB staff member. While she was still reporting
to Karl Rove at the White House, Andrews set up CPB's new ombudsman's
office and had a hand in hiring the two people who will fill it,
one of whom once worked for you guessed it Kenneth Tomlinson.
I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the
benefit of the doubt, but I can't. According to a book written
about the Reader's Digest when he was its Editor-in-Chief, he
surrounded himself with other right-wingers -- a pattern he's
now following at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There
is Ms. Andrews from the White House. For Acting President he hired
Ken Ferree from the FCC, who was Michael Powell's enforcer when
Powell was deciding how to go about allowing the big media companies
to get even bigger. According to a forthcoming book, one of Ferree's
jobs was to engage in tactics designed to dismiss any serious
objection to media monopolies. And, according to Eric Alterman,
Ferree was even more contemptuous than Michael Powell of public
participation in the process of determining media ownership. Alterman
identifies Ferree as the FCC staffer who decided to issue a 'protective
order' designed to keep secret the market research on which the
Republican majority on the commission based their vote to permit
greater media consolidation.
It's not likely that with guys like this
running the CPB some public television producer is going to say,
"Hey, let's do something on how big media is affecting democracy."
Call it preventive capitulation.
As everyone knows, Mr. Tomlinson also
put up a considerable sum of money, reportedly over five million
dollars, for a new weekly broadcast featuring Paul Gigot and the
editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Gigot is a smart journalist,
a sharp editor, and a fine fellow. I had him on NOW several times
and even proposed that he become a regular contributor. The conversation
of democracy -- remember? All stripes.
But I confess to some puzzlement that
the Wall Street Journal, which in the past editorialized to cut
PBS off the public tap, is now being subsidized by American taxpayers
although its parent company, Dow Jones, had revenues in just the
first quarter of this year of 400 million dollars.
I thought public television was supposed
to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it.
But in this weird deal, you get a glimpse
of the kind of programming Mr. Tomlinson apparently seems to prefer.
Alone of the big major newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, has
no op-ed page where different opinions can compete with its right-
wing editorials. The Journal's PBS broadcast is just as homogenous
-right- wingers talking to each other. Why not $5 million to put
the editors of The Nation on PBS? Or Amy Goodman's "Democracy
Now!" You balance right-wing talk with left-wing talk.
There's more. Only two weeks ago did we
learn that Mr. Tomlinson had spent $10,000 last year to hire a
contractor who would watch my show and report on political bias.
That's right. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson spent $10,000 of your money
to hire a guy to watch NOW to find out who my guests were and
what my stories were.
Ten thousand dollars.
Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week, you could
pick up a copy of "TV Guide" on the newsstand. A subscription
is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save
you up to 62 %.
For that matter, Ken, all you had to do
was watch the show yourself. You could have made it easier with
a double Jim Bean, your favorite. Or you could have gone on line
where the listings are posted. Hell, you could have called me
-- collect -- and I would have told you what was on the broadcast
Ten thousand dollars. That would have
bought five tables at Thursday night's Conservative Salute for
Tom DeLay. Better yet, that ten grand would pay for the books
in an elementary school classroom or an upgrade of its computer
But having sent that cash, what did he
find? Only Mr. Tomlinson knows. He apparently decided not to share
the results with his staff or his board or leak it to Robert Novak.
The public paid for it - but Ken Tomlinson acts as if he owns
In a May 10th op-ed piece, in Reverend
Moon's conservative "Washington Times", Mr. Tomlinson
maintained he had not released the findings because public broadcasting
is such a delicate institution he did not want to "damage
public broadcasting's image with controversy." Where I come
from in Texas, we shovel that kind of stuff every day.
As we learned only this week, that's not
the only news Mr. Tomlinson tried to keep to himself. As reported
by Jeff Chester's Center for Digital Democracy of which I am a
supporter, there were two public opinion surveys commissioned
by CPB but not released to the media - not even to PBS and NPR!
According to a source who talked to Salon.com, "the first
results were too good and [Tomlinson] didn't believe them. After
the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of polling
and they thought they'd get worse results."
But they didn't.
The data revealed that, in reality, public
broadcasting has an 80% favorable rating and that "the majority
of the U.S. adult population does not believe that the news and
information programming on public broadcasting is biased."
In fact, more than half believed PBS provided
more in-depth and trustworthy news and information than the networks
and 55% said PBS was "fair and balanced."
I repeat: I would like to have given Mr.
Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt. But this is the man who was
running The Voice of America back in 1984 when a partisan named
Charlie Wick was politicizing the United States Information Agency
of which Voice of America was a part. It turned out there was
a blacklist of people who had been removed from the list of prominent
Americans sent abroad to lecture on behalf of America and the
USIA. What's more, it was discovered that evidence as to how those
people were chosen to be on the blacklist -- more than 700 documents
-- had been shredded. Among those on the lists of journalists,
writers, scholars and politicians were dangerous left wing subversives
like Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin, Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Ben
Bradley, Coretta Scott King and David Brinkley.
The person who took the fall for the black
list was another right-winger. He resigned. Shortly thereafter,
so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who had been one of the people in the
agency with the authority to see the lists of potential speakers
and allowed to strike people's names.
Let me be clear about this: there is no
record, apparently, of what Ken Tomlinson did. We don't know whether
he supported or protested the blacklisting of so many American
liberals. Or what he thinks of it now.
But I had hoped Bill O'Reilly would have
asked him about it when he appeared on The "O'Reilly Factor"
this week. He didn't. Instead, Tomlinson went on attacking me
with O'Reilly egging him on, and he went on denying he was carrying
out a partisan mandate despite published reports to the contrary.
The only time you could be sure he was telling the truth was at
the end of the broadcast when he said to O'Reilly, "We love
We love your show.
I wrote Kenneth Tomlinson on Friday and
asked him to sit down with me for one hour on PBS and talk about
all this. I suggested that he choose the moderator and the guidelines.
There is one other thing in particular
I would like to ask him about. In his op-ed essay this week in
The Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson tells of a phone call from
an old friend complaining about my bias. Wrote Mr. Tomlinson:
"The friend explained that the foundation he heads made a
six-figure contribution to his local television station for digital
conversion. But he declared there would be no more contributions
until something was done about the network's bias."
Apparently that's Kenneth Tomlinson's
method of governance. Money talks and buys the influence it wants.
I would like to ask him to listen to a
This letter came to me last year from
a woman in New York, five pages of handwriting. She said, among
other things, that "After the worst sneak attack in our history,
there's not been a moment to reflect, a moment to let the horror
resonate, a moment to feel the pain and regroup as humans. No,
since I lost my husband on 9/11, not only our family's world,
but the whole world seems to have gotten even worse than that
tragic day." She wanted me to know that on 9/11 her husband
was not on duty. "He was home with me having coffee. My daughter
and grandson, living only five blocks from the Towers, had to
be evacuated with masks -- terror all around my other daughter,
near the Brooklyn Bridge my son in high school. But my Charlie
took off like a lightening bolt to be with his men from the Special
Operations Command. 'Bring my gear to the plaza,' he told his
aide immediately after the first plane struck the North TowerHe
took action based on the responsibility he felt for his job and
his men and for those Towers that he loved."
In the FDNY, she continued, chain-of-
command rules extend to every captain of every fire house in the
city. "If anything happens in the firehouse -- at any time
-- even if the Captain isn't on duty or on vacation -- that Captain
is responsible for everything that goes on there 24/7." So
she asked: "Why is this Administration responsible for nothing?
All that they do is pass the blame. This is not leadership Watch
everyone pass the blame again in this recent torture case [Abu
Ghraib] of Iraqi prisons.."
She told me that she and her husband had
watched my series on "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth"
together and that now she was a faithful fan of NOW. She wrote:
"We need more programs like yours to wake America up. Such
programs must continue amidst the sea of false images and name
calling that divide America now.Such programs give us hope that
search will continue to get this imperfect human condition on
to a higher plane. So thank you and all of those who work with
you. Without public broadcasting, all we would call news would
be merely carefully controlled propaganda"
Enclosed with the letter was a check made
out to "Channel 13 -NOW" for $500.
I keep a copy of that check above my desk
to remind me of what journalism is about.
Kenneth Tomlinson has his demanding donors.
I'll take the widow's mite any day.
Someone has said recently that the great
raucous mob that is democracy is rarely heard and that it's not
just the fault of the current residents of the White House and
the capital. There's too great a chasm between those of us in
this business and those who depend on TV and radio as their window
to the world. We treat them too much as an audience and not enough
as citizens. They're invited to look through the window but too
infrequently to come through the door and to participate, to make
public broadcasting truly public.
To that end, five public interests groups
including Common Cause and Consumers Union will be holding informational
sessions around the country to "take public broadcasting
back" -- to take it back from threats, from interference,
from those who would tell us we can only think what they command
us to think.
It's a worthy goal.
We're big kids; we can handle controversy
and diversity, whether it's political or religious points of view
or two loving lesbian moms and their kids, visited by a cartoon
rabbit. We are not too fragile or insecure to see America and
the world entire for all their magnificent and sometimes violent
confusion. There used to be a thing or a commodity we put great
store by," John Steinbeck wrote. "It was called the
Journalist Bill Moyers, the author
of Moyers on America: A Journalist
and His Times and many other books, is the host most recently
of PBS's NOW With Bill Moyers.