Sunday, July 04, 2004

Bill Moyers, alas

By William S. Kowinski

It's an unfortunate coincidence, if it is a coincidence. After 50 years of journalism, Bill Moyers announced this spring that he will retire from broadcasting after the November elections. Shortly after this, we started hearing rumors about the fate of NOW, his PBS Friday night hour, which is the best---and let’s face it, the only--- weekly hour of quality news and commentary on television.

Then Ken Auletta in the New Yorker detailed the right wing swing of PBS, under heavy pressure from corporate interests and the conservative members of Congress in their pockets, as well as the more obviously virulent mouths of the Rabid Right.

At the moment, NOW is facing either cancellation when Moyers leaves, or being cut back to a half hour in January with current co-host David Brancaccio. One new conservative mouth has already been added to the PBS schedule, with at least one other in the works, whether or not NOW stays on the air.

Clearly PBS is in danger of becoming the Pandering Broadcasting System, although frankly it's a miracle that it has remained as vital as it has been since the right first tried to cut it off at the knees in the Nixon era. It's half a miracle that Moyers got on in the first place, although PBS owes more to him than to any other single person for high profile successes over the years. PBS, like the cable and broadcast networks, have plenty of programs covering business, and none covering labor. This alone has skewed politics in this country for a generation. But at least PBS occasinally deals with the public sector in the same way they all deal with the corporate sector. Moyers covers them all.

But disgust at more caving into the rabid right and Power Incorporated is tempered by sadness in any case, since Moyers absence either way will mean the deterioration of NOW, and what's worse, there is no one in television to take Moyers' place. Who else can interview as well? Interview such a variety---politicians, scientists, artists, philosophers---many of them who otherwise wouldn't appear on national TV? And of course, that's only part of what Moyers does. He is an excellent reporter of a kind that's gone from TV news, and just about gone from print journalism as well. He's an excellent commentator, succinct, lively and clear about where he stands and why. He and his wife Judith, and their line producers, have put together some of the best narrative news documentary segments I've ever seen. His program on the environment that more or less began the NOW series is a textbook example.

After hosting the show alone and more recently breaking in the new kid, Moyers had just now developed NOW as an energetic front to back winner, as he and David B. worked as a team. The June 11 program was a great example. The NOW hour reported just three stories, but provided information that no other television program had, or likely would---which of course is what gets them in trouble.

Then Moyers went on vacation, and we got to see the NOW of the future. At times Brancaccio did well, at times he faltered, but there's room for growth. Then this week Moyers came back, and the contrast was sadly clear. Brancaccio conducted a terrible interview with Republican pollster Frank Luntz. D.B. was clearly overmatched, and so wedded to his list of questions that he missed obviously outrageous statements that Moyers would have jumped on, however genially.

Then Moyers interviewed philosopher Sissela Bok. Will a philosopher ever be interviewed by anyone else on a weekly TV news program? Not only was Moyers completely comfortable doing the interview, he clearly knew her work and was comfortable talking about her ideas, which deal with matters of public concern. And this interview-and Bok's concerns---were appropriate both in terms of the show's fourth of July theme (Bok's new book is an investigation of ideas about happiness, but she's also written on lying) and as another level of commentary on the previous stories and the Luntz interview.

Yes, Moyers had actually read her work---a recent series of lectures that were preliminaries to her forthcoming book, and her past work. He read it apparently way before a producer told him she would be interviewed. Contrast this with a morning show I saw recently: the regular cohost interviewed (former colleague) Craig Unger, author of HOUSE OF BUSH, HOUSE OF SAUD. Not only had the network cutie not read the book, she was unaware that it WAS a book.

That PBS is caving into the Rabid Right---just at the moment when that influence could finally be waning---is bad enough. But the most disconcerting element of all this is that there is no new Bill Moyers. There is no one on the scene who can do what he does, which is so necessary. When one familiar and respected public journalist, known for integrity as well as the views he doesn’t hide, can bring our attention to the evils of media conglomeration, the power of money and corporate interests in government, Robert Bly and the men’s movement, Joseph Campbell and the reality of myth in our lives, the earth’s environment in peril, the health link between mind and body---when he does series’ on Ideas, on religion, poetry, death and dying: he is reflecting the depth and reach of our real lives, and validating our attempts to make meaning that links these parts.

The story of electronic media and the dominance of advertising and marketing and corporate concerns and power, has been the story of the evolution of ignorance in our time. We are being dumbed down, deliberately and systematically, for the profit of a relative few. When we lose Bill Moyers, we lose the most visible counterweight to that process within media, which potentially could be a great force for learning, and sometimes is. Moyers slowed down the evolution of ignorance at least a little, and because he did so with great skill and warmth, we were delighted and inspired. Lately he has kept our eyes open to what’s happening to us as media, big corporate money and government collude to enforce the darkness, to make sure we all stay peasants, in every resonance of the word. Without him, the future of television and journalism is just plain scary.

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