WEDU Interview; Interview with Bill Moyers
Is. A special presentation of WTU Tampa-St. Petersburg Sarasota.
Bill Moyers has been a divinity student the presidential spokesman and an author and an award winning television producer. But he drew angry fire recently from conservatives for his public television program. Now conservatives call that left wing and some wanted Congress to cut off all funding for PBS. The man at the center of the controversy Bill Moyers. Next on WECT new interview.
Bill Moyers welcome to W. edu. My pleasure. Great to have you here. Thank you. I want to ask you about the now television program which has caused so much controversy. You started it off. You've written as trying to further the conversation of democracy. What did you mean by that.
Well when PBS asked me to take this series on right after 9/11. And they wanted a new broadcast that was not based in the beltway that would cover stories nobody else was covering and that would put on people who wouldn't be heard otherwise. So I really set out to engage what I call the conversation of democracy. We did lots of reporting and it was really the reporting that the right wingers at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting didn't like because we were reporting stories that were at odds with the official view of reality we were reporting on conflicts of interest at the Interior Department. We were reporting on the abuse of money in politics. We were reporting on Dick Cheney's private meetings with the energy industry to ask them to divvy up the subsidies that they they wanted we were reporting on troops in Iraq not getting the body armor they needed. We were doing the kind of hard hitting reporting that you expect of an investigative unit. WALLACE 60 Minutes. We were doing that for PBS.
But I was also putting out a lot of people whose views were contrary to the administrations now had lots of conservatives on Richard Viguerie the founder of mail order television for the Republican Party. Grover Norquist the Rasputin's the linen of the Republican conservative movement. Ralph Reed the head of the Christian Coalition had lots of conservatives on. But I also put on a lot of people who challenged the administration who told a different version from the official view of reality and these right wingers the right wingers at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting did not like that.
Well when when you see publications like human events or other conservative publications say that you're a liberal and you're bringing a liberal agenda to PBS and that there was no you were marching in lock step with liberalism. What do you say to that.
I don't know what marching in lockstep with liberalism is. I guess if I confess to being a liberal it's because I'm tolerant I'm open to other viewpoints exactly the opposite of Human Events which is kind of like proft you know the right talking to the right. My first book was called Listening to America 1970 a bestseller because I listened to all kinds of people and I've done that as a journalist. I mean I did serve in the Kennedy and Johnson administration. I do believe in progressive government that tries to level the playing field. But as a journalist I'm open to all viewpoints. I'm open to all voices. And the problem is the right wing has managed to persuade sufficient numbers of people today that good journalism is liberalism that if we if we report what flies in the face of their ideology or their theology they say. Liberal liberal because that's an easy cheap way. It's libel by label. It's an easy way to discredit a message that you don't want the American people to believe. You know the story that really got to Kenneth Tomlinson's goat Thomason was the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting maneuvered into office by Karl Rove President Bush's right wing strategist and it was Thomas who raised such hell secretly. And then finally publicly about our broadcast. But he was at home one night and he watched an hour report we did from a small town in Pennsylvania that had been devastated by so-called. Free trade policies in which jobs were sent overseas outsourced to Honduras and Guatemala and people who were making 17 18 19 dollars an hour now making $6 or $7 an hour. If they have a job they've lost their benefits. So we did an honest reporting from that town about how people were groping with these life wrenching changes. And it was a fair report is called a question of fairness is the American economy fair to ordinary people. What comments was watching and he said what he saw was liberal advocacy journalism. Well if reporting on what happens to ordinary people from circumstances beyond their control. And their indifference.
To the government's indifference to the liberalism Hey I plead guilty it's interesting because Lou Dobbs who's the conservative commentator has is delving into those very issues on on CNN. Let me ask you this question which ties in that is that Jim Hightower the Texas populace says that it's not really a question of left and right we shouldn't pay attention to that we should look at top and bottom that that's really the divide today in American society the gap between the richest Americans and the poorest Americans is the largest since 1929.
Now some of your viewers are old enough to remember that 1929 was the year of the stock market crash in the beginning of the Great Depression. You can't have a healthy society when you have those great disparities in living standards. We also have had a strong middle class in this country since the end of the Second World War. The middle class today in America is finding it harder and harder to send their kids to college tuition to sowing harder and harder to meet the daily cost of life to provide health insurance the middle class is being hollowed out. I think that what's happening to ordinary Americans is the biggest story of our time. It's not terrorism. It is it is it is the failure of the American dream to open to open opportunities for increasing numbers of people. I've been covering this too. Actually I've been covering the class war since nineteen fifty 1950 when I went to work at the age of 16 for a little newspaper in East Texas where 16 Housewives decided they were not going to pay the social sick their contribution to the Social Security tax for their domestic employees. These were good people I knew them they were the mothers of much of my friends. They were the wives of the business people in computer but they decided. They decided they would pay the income tax. I want to war has been covering this terrorism 16 your report. And ever since when I've had a chat. I've been covering what happens to ordinary people in America it is a great story.
But some people would hear that term class war and say well there you go liberal agenda. That's what the liberal agenda is. You know every time.
Every time we talk about class war or talk about inequality every time we talk about inequality the right wing uses the word class with the Wall Street Journal is the worst of it. The editorial page in The Wall Street Journal run by a right winger named Paul JUEGO.
Every time Democrats start saying Republican are concerned a liberal start saying our journalists say this isn't a fair society anymore we don't have a fair economy anymore. Class war they say class war. Well that's their way of trying to divert and distract attention from the merits of the case and the integrity of the reporting they try to pour syrup on it or they try to pour something else on it to make sure that the audience out there doesn't listen to the to the facts of the situation.
What do you make of this argument and you hear it a lot especially coming from Congress and elsewhere that because we've got the Discovery Channel because we've got the History Channel that public broadcasting is no longer relevant that the market has filled a need that was once filled by Public Broadcasting.
Every channel you mentioned is a commercial channel and there are some that they're driven by market forces. They are. Their purpose is to deliver as many eyeballs to an advertiser as they can at any given moment for all of our flaws in public broken and we have them if we become irrelevant it will be because we failed this opportunity not because there are so many channels out there. You surf those channels they're all doing the same thing. If you can get beyond the commercials most of what you see is redundant from some other channel. I was present at the creation of public broadcasting when Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 establishing what we now have today as PBS NPR. We believe that there should be one channel not only free of commercials.
But free of commercial values. Now what I mean by that I mean that there are some things in society that the market and capitalism don't deliver for instance public schools market doesn't give us public schools market doesn't give us public libraries market doesn't give us public parks and public square. We have to create those whom our collective common good. And that's what public broadcasting. We did not want to be driven by commercial value. There has to be one channel where that has not made its peace with the little lies and fantasies of the merchandising product. You know Rob you can tell a lot about the producer of a television program if you know that he or she in the case of Robin if you know that he or she is looking out and sees a nation of consumers or a nation of citizens. If you think of our business is serving a nation of Shuler's our community of consumers then you're going to try to sell those. But if you look around to see a nation of citizens you know there's something you want to share with them that they come to television not to be hustled not to be manipulated but to be trusted as as as as mature individuals who can make up their own minds. And you want to share an experience with it whether it's an interview or a documentary or a travel program or a children's program. This is the last channel in America. Where children are subjected. Hour by hour by hour two somebodies effort to sell them something. I don't want my three grandchildren my five grandchildren to go to television in the morning and and people trying to sell them toys or trying to sell them iPods of that sort of thing. That's what we're about now we fail that often. I'm tremble a little bit when I see what looked like commercials to me are beginning to. Appear old Public Broadcasting and we have to resist that temptation or the critics will have a case to make that we're not any different from the five hundred six hundred soon to be 1000 channels driven by commercial imperatives.
Let's talk about the direction that television is going. You've worked in television for more than 25 years a television analyst the senior analysts are. Yes. So 35 years. You've been doing it a long time you've seen the changes you know recently there was a great film about Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Could could that take place could of journalist or team of journalists on a commercial station today stand up to somebody that does what McCarthy did back in the early 1950s.
Well they could if they if they were prepared to join the unemployment line because most of these big companies that now control most of what we see read and hear there are seven companies that dominate American media today and they're big businesses they're not driven by journalistic imperatives. In fact the more concentration that has come in the media world the the lower the hierarchy of corporate values journalism has been driven.
I mean when when Disney bought ABC Michael Eisner said on public radio I don't want Disney covering ABC. Why. Because his news business.
Is at odds with journalism journalism is to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth. Michael Eisner didn't didn't like the Michael Moore film because at that very time Disney was having dealings with Governor Jeb Bush down here in Florida and he didn't want an attack on Bush through an independent film like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 which has some flaws but nonetheless it was a it was a strong document. He didn't Wopat it in interfering with his relations in Jacksonville and these big companies don't want their lobbyists in Washington where they're seeking favors from government. Relax regulation subsidies and all that. They don't want some member of Congress or some executive at the White House say wait a minute your reporter was down here asking uncomfortable questions. I mean the media companies are big businesses now. They're not interested in journalism. And they make more money by driving the entertainment fare down to the lowest common denominator than they do by doing hard hitting documentaries that get their corporate boardrooms in trouble. I say that it's getting so bad in that lowest common denominator is so common now that somebody is going to come along as an entrepreneur and make a fortune by creating a new channel that does really good quality programming for thinking men and women who are your days and CBS over you and your association with programs such as now I mean would you consider going back into PBS and producing some sort of permanent. I retired from the weekly broadcast that I had done for three years at PBS. And I did so for two reasons. One I needed a break and I mean I. I'm 70 years old and I feel young at 70 but at the same time I don't have the energy to run a staff of 100 that I used to have. But I also retired from the broadcast because I could. I realized that a right wing cabal was gradually then swiftly taking over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which is the umbrella group that oversees public broadcasting. By the way the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 to be a heat shield between. Congress from which the money comes to the stations and the producers like you and the journalists like me who were supposed to be free of political influence. But I was watching as as as as the right wing to the present president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Now that had been the co-chair of the Democratic National Committee put in as the president of CPB gets to imagine what the the other side would have done. But I saw them make encroaching. I saw them beginning to try to meddle with the program. I saw them begin to try to intimidate the journalistic producers and I figured that I would be in a better position to stand up and fight them as I did if I would not only air stories because I needed the break at 70 and I resigned so I could be more effectively independently fighting a partisan takeover of public broadcasting. I don't believe public broadcasting should reflect Democratic Party interest or republican party interest. And I I went public in order to protect the independence of public broadcasting so that your viewers know we're not doing this because you have a partisan agenda. I have a party.
Stay with us for the rest of Rob Lauri's special interview with Bill Moyers.
But right now please take a moment to calling your pledge of support for locally produced public affairs programming on W. edu.
You were trained as a divinity student. What do you think about the role of religion in politics these days in America.
I wish there were more of it. I mean I wish there were more of that kind of religion that is that is open to other views. That is humble. That recognizes that dogmatism and and creed are not a part of the democratic spirit. I mean I'm a believer. I grew up in a Christian home. I'm a seeker. I have a master have been a degree I read while in the field. I hope I come to some understanding but while I'm still on this earth of the of the of the transcendental matters that affect us human beings. But I'm also a secularist in the sense that I believe democracy is not an arena for religious forces to contend and for one faction to outvote the other. I don't want somebody telling me who God is or what God is and I don't want that person's belief being enshrined in legislation. I believe with America's greatest contribution to political science has been the notion of the separation of church and state that you are free to follow your conscience. But that government cannot enshrine your conscience into law and that. The pew and the and the preceding are separate. The haters of America of human endeavor that Pew is a theater where we try to find our relationship with the transcendental reality the precinct is where we try to solve our differences politically without putting a gun to each other's head or putting a rope around each other's neck.
But a lot of people see. Civil law and the laws passed by Congress or their state legislature as in. Is in conflict with their religious beliefs. And so they are organizing they're energized they're out there in the public sphere in the state capitals in Washington trying to get those laws to conform with what they believe is a spiritual person.
Well I believe well there's a difference between spiritual reality biblical beliefs and moral values. Some of the most moral people I know are are non-believers in a traditional religion. Their morality comes from the reality that we have to live together and figure out rules and regulations that keep us from stepping on each other all of the time. I really believe that people of faith should come into the into the into the open square and and contest for their values. I mean I was in the White House I was in Washington and the White House in the great civil rights movement when Martin Luther King and other preachers and Jewish rabbis championed the equality and dignity of all Americans and came out and argued their position in the public and we had the great civil rights boot of that time where I disagree with the people you're talking about is that I don't think I'm a Bible reading grew up a Bible believing Christian and I don't believe that the biblical right.
I can't treat the Bible as revelation for positions in politics. I may want to read it as a revelation of of of of a story about God that people have believed for a long time and that's worth my attention. But I do believe I have the right to take the Bible as revealed that reveal the revelation of God and out and argue with you and say you can't argue with me Rob because I know what God has spoken God has spoken it right.
I mean the argument that homosexuality is a sin comes on the. Reading of the tiniest sliver.
Of an old testament text that if you follow literally would mean you wouldn't do a lot of things that you do now. Homosexuality is a controversial issue but it's not something someone chooses. It is somewhat something is born with it I can't believe that a god in heaven would punish people for the way they're bored. And for you to argue with me or somebody argue with me while the Bible says that it's a sin is for me to say I'm sorry. That's not acceptable. That's not an acceptable argue but it a society it has that balance has to make its decisions own political compromise. You can't compromise with somebody if I if I know that I know God's mind on this issue. You can't compromise with me.
In recent weeks there's been a lot of talk especially in conservative religious circles that Christianity is under attack Christmas is under attack. People that are Bible believing Christians are under attack and that they are really trying to defend themselves against an onslaught that would take away their ability to practice their faith.
You know. That is such an absurd argument I took a big chart. That has the picture of every top official in Washington on it the other day in my office laid it out on the table said to my staff look at this.
Every one of these men and women is a Christian. I mean if there's a war against. Christianity. It's been lost. That mean that the secularists have lost it because the United States government is full of Christians. I. Walked down. Fifth Avenue at Christmas looked at the Christmas tree the traditional Christmas. Wow if there's a war against Christianity somebody forgot to kill that tree. I mean that's absurd. Every Christian in this country is free to run for office. You just can't come into a classroom and insist that Christianity is the version of faith that your students have to teach or that intelligent design which is a religious theory can substitute for scientific evidence. You just can't do that. But the Constitution the Bill of Rights is set up to protect all of us Christians non-Christians Jews Muslims agnostics from other people's. Beliefs.
We fought a war in Afghanistan to get rid of a really dangerous religious based government. Do you see any parallels. Or is it too much of a stretch to say that that the United States might face the same kind of danger if one brand of religion begins to control every aspect of our government.
Well I don't think that's going to happen because we're too pluralistic society. We have a great tradition of tolerance. And. America is made up of so many immigrants from so many places around the world. I don't think we're in danger of a Taliban like government or religious right government or religious left. I mean the whole genius of our society is that we keep those issues out of our voting. But I do think it's possible that people can become so angry about their religion and so and so indignant about about others who don't believe the way they do that we could have a very nasty society even if we never have a fascist or religiously sectarian government. I mean I don't believe in a pious condescending attitude toward tolerating other people's beliefs. I really believe in engaging what you believe in. Listening to you and then sharing my beliefs that neither one of us can convince each other where you get and where do you get into trouble is when you come to Congress let's say and say I'm going to cast my vote because I believe my constituents have told me this is God's mind on this issue. You can't have a Democratic debate when one side claims to be speaking for God. That's the greater danger that that will that we will face in this country.
I don't think it is from a theocracy I don't think Americans would stand for a theocracy by the way. I know a lot. I have a lot I grew up in a very conservative town. It was the conservative democratic business conservative Republican town. Lot of Christians down in Marshall Texas don't agree with the theocrats don't agree with the inanities and absurdities of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. R R R R R R. People like that. People like Robertson who get up and say 9/11 is God's punishment on America are Katrina the hurricane and the Gulf Coast was because of the abortion rate in America. I know a lot of principled conservatives who say that's bull that's bull. PBS PBS. That's right. I don't think we're in danger of a theocracy. I think we're in danger of it. Every political party becoming a theocracy migrations. Republicans have a great tradition in this country. The party of Lincoln party Teddy Roosevelt the party of progressive visions of America and the environment and public lands and all of that. The Republican Party is in danger of being governed by its theocratic minority the most militant most insatiable faction in the Democrat in the Republican coalition today is the religious right. And unless the unless the Republican Party works out a way. I mean you watch Pat Robertson the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson I think is patently a lunatic if I may say so. And yet on that show his show The 700 Club where he utters these things like let's assassinate the head of a foreign government or its 9/11 was caused by God's punishment on America. You'll see one Republican senator after another appearance there honoring and humoring him and what they ought to say is not going to come on that show because Pat Robertson does not represent the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
So in the 30 seconds that we have left for those people that might think that the pendulum has swung a little too far to the right for their tastes here in the U.S. and they're afraid about the future you're not afraid.
Oh no we. America is a lot more virtuous than the other people we're not more intelligent than other people but unlike others we had the first amendment which gives the passengers on the ship the right to climb to the deck of the ship and grab the captain by the elbow and say that's an iceberg out there. Turn course. And I believe although I worry about the apathy of Americans right now I believe that that when we get our backs up. When we really decide it's the right thing to do or that our beliefs and our and our values are threatened. By dogmatists of any kind of the new left in the 60s or the New Right now I think we've got the capacity to rebel and we need a little rebellious spirit in America right now.
That's democratic democracy in action. Yes. Bill Moyers thank you for sitting down with us.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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- An interview with Bill Moyers on the criticism he faced after launching his television program NOW (2002-2004), which covered a wide range of issues confronting the United States.
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