Culture » May 31, 2005
The Battle for PBS
The story I’d like to share with you goes to the core of our belief that the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined. Public media is now under attack, as am I, by the right-wing media and their allies at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
CPB was established almost 40 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 not to respond to.
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 2,000 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? They are the people obsessed with control, using the government to threaten and intimidate. They are 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 Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil. They are 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. They are 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 unpatriotic heresy.
And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.
I’m in hot water 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.
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.” Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.
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.
But we also 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. I reminded our team 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 taxpayers 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 contract.
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 down.
Then 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.” 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:
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 Trent 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 Halpern, 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.
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 only a few weeks ago did we learn that Tomlinson had spent $10,000 last year to hire a contractor who would watch my show and report on political bias.
In a May 10 op-ed in The Washington Times, CPB Chairman Tomlinson tells of a phone call from an old friend complaining about my bias. He wrote: “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 different voice.
This letter came to me last year from a woman in New York, five pages of handwriting. She said, among other things, “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. … But my Charlie took off like a lightning 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 Tower. … He 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 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. 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.
This essay is adapted from a speech Bill Moyers gave on May 15 at the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis. The full text also recounts President Richard Nixon’s attempts to muzzle public broadcasting.
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Bill Moyers is the president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy and the host of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.