Bill Moyers

There’s a reason journalism is the only occupation protected by the U.S. Constitution. To govern ourselves, we the people need the truth, not what is politically expedient.

Veteran broadcast journalist Bill Moyers.

Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis/Getty Images

This article from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of YES! Magazine.

For years, I.F. Stone was America’s premier independent journalist, bringing down on his head the sustained wrath of the high and mighty for publishing in his little four-page I.F. Stone’s Weekly the government's lies and contradictions culled from the government's own official documents. No matter how much they pummeled him, Izzy Stone said: “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.”

That’s how I felt 25 years ago when my colleague Sherry Jones and I produced the first documentary ever about the purchase of government favors by political action committees. When we unfurled across the Capitol grounds yard after yard of computer printouts listing campaign contributions to every member of Congress, there was a loud outcry, including from several politicians who had been allies just a few years earlier when I worked at the White House.

I loved it, too, when Sherry and I connected the dots behind the Iran-Contra scandal. That documentary sent the right-wing posse in Washington running indignantly to congressional supporters of public television who accused PBS of committing—horrors!—journalism right on the air.

 While everyone else was all over the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, Sherry and I took after the unbridled and illegal fundraising by Democrats in the campaign of 1996. This time it was Democrats who wanted me arrested.

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But taking on political scandal is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington.

When my colleagues and I started looking into the subject of pesticides and food for a Frontline documentary, my producer Marty Koughan learned that industry was attempting, behind closed doors, to dilute the findings of a National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticide residues on children. Before we finished the documentary, the industry somehow purloined a copy of our draft script and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our broadcast before it aired.

Television reviewers and editorial page editors were flooded in advance with pro-industry propaganda. There was a whispering campaign. 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 confessed to me that the dirt had been supplied by a top lobbyist for the chemical industry. Some public television managers across the country were so unnerved by the blitz of dis-information they received from the industry that before the documentary had even aired, they protested to PBS with letters prepared by the industry.

Others used the American Cancer Society's good name in efforts to tarnish the journalism before it aired; including right-wing front groups who railed against what they called “junk science on PBS” and demanded Congress pull the plug on public television. PBS stood firm. The documentary aired, the journalism held up, and the National Academy of Sciences felt liberated to release the study that the industry had tried to demean.

They never give up. Sherry and I spent more than a year working on another documentary called Trade Secrets, based on revelations—found in the industry's archives—that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products.

Hoping to keep us from airing those secrets, the industry hired a public relations firm in Washington noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI, and drug enforcement officers to conduct investigations for corporations. Not only was a vicious campaign directed at me personally, but once again pressure was brought to bear on PBS through industry allies in Congress. PBS stood firm, the documentary aired, and a year later the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Trade Secrets an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism.

Covering chaos

Journalism has never been easy, and it's getting harder, for more reasons than you can shake a stick at.

One is the sheer magnitude of the issues we need to report and analyze. My friend Bill McKibben enjoys a conspicuous place in my pantheon of journalistic heroes for his writing about the environment. Recently in Mother Jones, Bill described how the problems we cover—conventional, manageable problems, like budget shortfalls, pollution, crime—may be about to convert to chaotic, unpredictable situations. He puts it this way: If you don't have a job, “that's a problem, and unemployment is a problem, and they can both be managed: You learn a new skill, the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates to spur the economy. But millions of skilled, well-paying jobs disappearing to Bangalore is a situation; it's not clear what, if anything, the system can do to turn it around.”

Perhaps the most unmanageable of all problems, Bill McKibben writes, is the accelerating deterioration of the environment. While the present administration has committed a thousand acts of vandalism against our air, water, forests, and deserts, were we to change managers, Bill argues, some of that damage would abate. What won't go away, he continues, are the perils with huge momentum—the greenhouse effect, for instance. Scientists have been warning us about it since the 1980s. But now the melt of the Arctic seems to be releasing so much freshwater into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is alarmed that a weakening Gulf Stream could yield abrupt changes, the kind of climate change that threatens civilization. How do we journalists get a handle on something of that enormity?

Another reason journalism is getting harder is ideology. One of the biggest changes in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. How do we fathom the mindset of extremists who blow to smithereens hundreds of children and teachers of Middle School Number One in Beslan, Russia? Or the radical utopianism of martyrs who crash hijacked planes into the World Trade Center? How do we explain the possibility that the election in November may have turned on several million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index? That's what I said—the Rapture Index; Google it and you will understand why the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the “Left Behind” series. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative millions of people believe to be literally true.

According to this narrative, Jesus will return to Earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its “biblical lands;” when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the Messiah returns to earth. The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True believers “will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow.”

I'm not making this up. We've reported on these people for our weekly broadcast on PBS, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you that they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why they have staged confrontations at the old temple site in Jerusalem. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the ninth chapter of the Book of Revelations.

One estimate puts these people at about 15 percent of the electorate. Most are part of the core of George W. Bush's base support. He knows who they are and what they want.

Ideology and secrecy

Journalists who try to tell these stories, connect these dots, and examine these links are demeaned, disparaged, and dismissed.

For one thing, you'll get in trouble with the public. The Chicago Tribune

recently conducted a national poll in which about half of those surveyed said there should be some kind of restraint on reporting about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq; I suggest those people don't want the facts to disturb their belief system about American exceptionalism.

The poll also found that five or six of every 10 Americans “would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it is found unpatriotic.” No wonder scoundrels find refuge in patriotism; it offers them immunity from criticism.

If raging ideologies are difficult to penetrate, so is secrecy. Secrecy is hardly new. But never has there been an administration like the one in power today—so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in Congress. The litany is long:

  • The president's chief of staff orders a review that leads to at least 6,000 documents being pulled from government websites.
  • The Defense Department bans photos of military caskets being returned to the U.S.
  • To hide the influence of Kenneth Lay, Enron, and other energy moguls, the vice president stonewalls his energy task force records.
  • The CIA adds a new question to its standard employee polygraph exam, asking, “Do you have friends in the media?”
  • There have been more than 1,200 presumably terrorist-related arrests and 750 people deported, and no one outside the government knows their names, or how many court docket entries have been erased or never entered.
  • Secret federal court hearings are held with no public record of when or where or who is being tried.

Secrecy is contagious. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced that “certain security information included in the reactor oversight process” will no longer be publicly available. New controls are being imposed on space surveillance data once found on NASA's web site.

Secrecy is contagious—and scandalous. The Washington Post reports that nearly 600 times in recent years, a judicial committee has stripped information from reports intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving federal judges.

This “zeal for secrecy” I am talking about—and I have barely touched the surface—adds up to a victory for the terrorists. When they plunged those hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they were out to hijack our Gross National Psychology.

By pillaging and plundering our peace of mind they could panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of the press—that constitute the ability of democracy to self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.

As deplorable as was the betrayal of their craft by Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Jim Kelly, the greater offense was the seduction of mainstream media into helping the government dupe the public to support a war to disarm a dictator who was already disarmed. Now we are buying into the very paradigm of a “war on terror” that our government—with staggering banality, soaring hubris, and stunning bravado—employs to elicit public acquiescence while offering no criterion of success or failure, no knowledge of the cost, and no measure of democratic accountability.

I am reminded of the answer the veteran journalist Richard Reeves gave when asked by a college student to define “real news.” “Real news,” said Richard Reeves “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” I am reminded of the line from the news photographer in Tom Stoppard's play “Night and Day:” “People do terrible things to each other, but it's worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

I have become a nuisance on this issue—if not a fanatic—because I grew up in the South, where, for so long, truthtellers were driven from the pulpit, the classroom, and the newsroom; it took a bloody civil war to drive home the truth of slavery, and still it took another 100 years of cruel segregation and oppression before the people freed by that war finally achieved equal rights under the law.

Not only did I grow up in the South, which paid such a high price for denial, but I served in the Johnson White House during the early escalation of the Vietnam War. We circled the wagons and grew intolerant of news that did not conform to the official view of reality, with tragic consequences for America and Vietnam.

Few days pass now that I do not remind myself that the greatest moments in press history came not when journalists made common cause with the state, but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.

Media monopoly

 That's why I have also become a nuisance, if not a fanatic, on the perils of media consolidation. My eyes were opened by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to my first documentary on the subject, called Free Speech for Sale. On our weekly broadcast we've returned to the subject more than 30 times. I was astonished when the coupling of Time Warner and AOL—the biggest corporate merger of all time—brought an avalanche of gee-whiz coverage from a media intoxicated by uncritical enthusiasm. Not many people heard the quiet voice of the cultural critic Todd Gitlin pointing out that the merger was not motivated by any impulse to improve news reporting, magazine journalism, or the quality of public discourse. Its purpose was to boost the customer base, the shareholders' stock, and the personal wealth of top executives.

Not only was this brave new combination, in Gitlin's words, “unlikely to arrest the slickening of news coverage, its pulverization into ever more streamlined and simple-minded snippets, its love affair with celebrities and show business,” the deal is likely to accelerate those trends, since the bottom line “usually abhors whatever is more demanding and complex, slower, more prone to ideas, more challenging to complacency.”

Sure enough, as merger has followed merger, journalism has been directed to other priorities than “the news we need to know to keep our freedoms.”

According to the non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers have 2,200 fewer employees than in 1990. The number of full-time radio news employees dropped by 44 percent between 1994 and 2000. And the number of television network foreign bureaus is down by half.

Journalism professor Ed Wasserman, among others, has looked closely at the impact on journalism of this growing conglomeration of ownership. Wasserman acknowledges, as I do, that there is some world-class journalism being done today, but he speaks of “a palpable sense of decline, of rot, of a loss of spine, determination, gutlessness” that pervades our craft.

Journalism and the news business, he concludes, aren't playing well together. Media owners have businesses to run, and “these media-owning corporations have enormous interests of their own that impinge on an ever-widening swath of public policy”—hugely important things, ranging from campaign finance reform (who ends up with those millions of dollars spent on advertising?) to broadcast deregulation and antitrust policy, to virtually everything related to the Internet, intellectual property, globalization and free trade, even to minimum wage, affirmative action and environmental policy.

A profound transformation is happening. The framers of our nation never imagined what could happen if big government, big publishing, and big broadcasters ever saw eye-to-eye in putting the public's need for news second to their own interests—and to the ideology of free-market economics.

Nor could they have foreseen the rise of a quasi-official partisan press serving as a mighty megaphone for the regime in power. Stretching from think tanks funded by corporations to the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch's far-flung empire of tabloid journalism to the nattering know-nothings of talk radio, a ceaseless conveyor belt—often taking its cues from daily talking points supplied by the Republican National Committee—moves mountains of the official party line into the public discourse.

Citizen journalists

I've just read We the Media, by Dan Gillmor, a national columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Gillmor argues persuasively that Big Media are losing their monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet—that “citizen journalists” of all stripes, in their independent, unfiltered reports, are transforming the news from a lecture to a conversation. He's on to something.

In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together. It took just a few hundred dollars to start a paper then. There were well over 1,000 of them by 1840. They were passionate, pugnacious and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoes, and land-grabbers.

But some called to the better angels of our nature—Tom Paine, for one, the penniless immigrant from England, who, in 1776, just before joining Washington's army, published the hard-hitting pamphlet Common Sense, with its uncompromising case for American independence. It became our first best-seller because Paine was determined to reach ordinary people—to “put into language as plain as the alphabet” the idea that they mattered and could stand up for their rights.

I look up at the pictures of my grandchildren above my desk: Henry, age 12; of Thomas, age 10; of Nancy, 7; Jassie, 3; Sara Jane, nine months. I see the future looking back at me from those photographs and I say, “Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.” And then I am stopped short by the thought: “That's not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.”

I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don't care? Because we are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice? What has happened to our moral imagination?

The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as a journalist I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free—not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk.

This article was adapted and updated from a presentation by Bill Moyers to a Society of Professional Journalists conference on Sept. 11, 2004.
Bill Moyers retired at the end of 2004 as host of the PBS program NOW With Bill Moyers.