Bill Moyers fired back at criticism that public television carries a liberal bias, blasting the chairman of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting for allegedly bowing to criticism of the far right.
Addressing media activists last weekend in St. Louis at the National Conference on Media Reform, the veteran TV journalist gave his first public response to charges by CPB head Kenneth Tomlinson of liberal bias and revelations that Tomlinson hired a consultant to monitor the political content of Moyers’ PBS show “NOW.”
“I was naive, I guess,” said Moyers, a 40-year broadcaster who served in the Johnson White House when the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as an alternative to commercial television.
“I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying out for the White House. But that’s what Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing.”
Moyers’ comments came amid allegations that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been largely taken over by conservatives, who are influencing decisions about programming and hiring.
Tomlinson has denied making decisions for political reasons and said all he desires is balance in PBS programming. But he criticized Moyers in a Washington Times op-ed piece describing a “left-wing bias,” while Moyers was host of “NOW.”
Later Tomlinson complained in a letter that the program “does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.”
Moyers said he knew before leaving his former program that its reporting was “creating a backlash” in Washington.
“The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party,” he said. “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 the truth.”
“The problem was that we were telling stories that partisans in power didn’t want told, and we were getting it right, not rightwing,” Moyers said.
Moyers said his occasional commentaries only added to the fire. One in particular, in which he wore a pin of the American flag to symbolically “take it back” from those who “hijacked” the flag and turned it into a “trademark of a monopoly on patriotism,” he said, brought “apoplexy” to the right-wing arena.
Moyers compared the situation to 33 years ago, when President Nixon attempted a “coup” at PBS to get rid of “left-wing commentators.”
“I always knew Nixon would be back,” Moyers quipped. “I just didn’t know that this time he would ask to be Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
Moyers also criticized “Beltway journalism rules,” which he said, “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.”
He faulted one New York Times reporter for relying on official but unnamed sources and serving “essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.”
“The rules of the game permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny,” Moyers said. “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 misleading.”
“I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy,” he said. “I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity.”
Moyers said: “An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only 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, ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.”
Moyers said he didn’t know until reading a New York Times story two weeks earlier that Tomlinson had spent $10,000 to hire a contractor to monitor his TV show for political bias. “That’s right,” Moyers said. “He 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. Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week, you could pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand.”
Moyers said he wrote Tomlinson asking him to sit down for an hour on PBS and talk about the issues.
“There’s one thing in particular I would like to ask him about,” he said. “In that op-ed essay this week in The Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson talks of a phone call from an old friend complaining about Bill Moyers’ bias. The friend explained that the foundation he heads made a six-figure contribution to his local public television station for digital conversion. But he declared, and I’m quoting Tomlinson, ‘There would be no more contributions until something was done about the network’s bias.'”
“Apparently, that’s Kenneth Tomlinson’s method of governance,” Moyers said. “Money talks and buys the influence it wants.”
Moyers said he would like for Tomlinson to listen to “a different voice,” a letter sent to him last year from the widow of a New York City firefighter who died when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11, accompanying her check for $500.
“When I grow discouraged or need to remind myself that public media truly matter, I look at that check and think of the woman who wrote it and the husband who did his duty, and their belief in us,” Moyers said. “And I will take–over the big check that Ken Tomlinson could have gotten from a demanding right winger–I would take the widow’s mite any day.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.