The One Resignation That Matters
In all the breathless coverage over cabinet resignations and the retirement of overrated network television news readers, it is more than a little disappointing that so few journalists are taking note of the upcoming retirement of one of the very best of their own. While the media whoops and hollers over knaves like Tom Ridge, discarded facades like Colin Powell, pusillanimous media moguls such as Tom Brokaw, mediocrities on the order of Ron Paige, and outright despots like John Ashcroft, the retirement of Bill Moyers from the Public Broadcasting Corporation stands out as the only resignation event of the season that will clearly diminish America and leave it poorer for his going.
As journalism professor and media critic Bernard Timberg has written:
Bill Moyers was one of the chief inheritors of the Edward R. Murrow tradition of "deep-think" journalism. Working alternately on CBS and PBS in the 1970s and early 1980s, and then almost exclusively on PBS[,] [h]is achievements were principally in the areas of investigative documentary and long-form conversations with some of the world's leading thinkers. Moyers, who had been a print journalist, ordained Baptist minister, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, and newspaper publisher before coming to television in 1970, gained public and private foundation support for producing some of television's most incisive investigative documentaries. * * * Where Edward R. Murrow had taken on Joseph McCarthy on See It Now and the agri-business industry in his famous Harvest of Shame documentary, Moyers examined the failings of constitutional democracy in his 1974 Essay on Watergate and exposed governmental illegalities and cover-up during the Iran Contra scandal. He looked at issues of race, class and gender, at the power media images held for a nation of "consumers," not citizens, and explored virtually every aspect of American political, economic and social life in his documentaries.
Equally influential were Moyers' World of Ideas series. * * * In discussions that ranged from an hour to, in the case of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, six hours on the air, Moyers brought to television what he called the "conversation of democracy." * * * Moyers engaged voices and ideas that had been seldom if ever heard on television, and transcribed versions of many of his series often became best selling books as well * * *
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In all he produced over six hundred hours of programming (filmed and videotaped conversations and documentaries) between 1971 and 1989, which comes out to 33 hours of programming a year or the equivalent of more than half an hour of programming a week for eighteen years. Moyers broadcast another one hundred and twenty-five programs between 1989 and 1992 working with a series of producers -- 27 of them on the first two World of Ideas series alone. He formed his own company, Public Affairs Television, in 1986, and distributed many of his own shows.
By the early 1990s Bill Moyers had established himself as a significant figure of television talk, his power and influence providing him access to corridors of power and policy. * * * Bill Moyers [became]one of the few broadcast journalists who might be said to approach the stature of Edward R. Murrow. If Murrow had founded broadcast journalism, Moyers had significantly extended its traditions.
The bad news is that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting pretty surely helped to push him out the door to make room in the airwaves for yet more right-wing champions of the Corporate Nation like Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot.
The good news is Moyers is not silently slinking off the public stage. In addition to available archives of his books, television documentaries, and other works, he's announced that he will be writing a new book about LBJ. And Moyers continues, as he has throughout his career, to give thoughtful interviews and speeches like this one and rational explanations of the right-wing Revivalist Movement like this one and instructive lectures. At every opportunity, he shares important insights into our nation's history and how it bears on the challenges facing democracy, education, justice, and freedom in America.
Moyers' regularly offers important insights into the connections between past and present, and the way they bear on our future. Equally important, as Brad Buckholz wrote for Cox News Service almost two weeks ago, he -
asks questions that reflect a man unburdened by ego. He's the rare journalist who's not afraid to let on when he doesn't understand. "I wonder why that is?" he'll say. Or: "What do you mean by that?" Moyers knows it's not his job to look smart — it's to interact, to further understanding.
Moyers' keen insights into the decrepit state of journalism in America are well known. Even more to be admired, though, is his knack for seeing in contemporary society links to our past that raise big, penetrating questions and call on our better selves to respond -- as when he addressed the Campaign for America's Future on the subject of The Progressive Story of America.
It is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether 'we, the people' is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality -– one nation, indivisible –- or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.
Let me make it clear that I don't harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy; I worked for Lyndon Johnson, remember? Nor do I romanticize "the people." You should read my mail – or listen to the vitriol virtually spat at my answering machine. I understand what the politician meant who said of the Texas House of Representatives, "If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents."
But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That difference can be the difference between democracy and oligarchy.
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This is what's hard to believe – hardly a century had passed since 1776 before the still-young [American] revolution was being strangled in the hard grip of a merciless ruling class. The large corporations that were called into being by modern industrialism after 1865 – the end of the Civil War – had combined into trusts capable of making minions of both politics and government. What Henry George called "an immense wedge" was being forced through American society by "the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity."
We should pause here to consider that this is Karl Rove's cherished period of American history; it was, as I read him, the seminal influence on the man who is said to be George W.'s brain. From his own public comments and my reading of the record, it is apparent that Karl Rove has modeled the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley, who was in the White House from 1897 to 1901, and modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley. Hanna had one consummate passion – to serve corporate and imperial power. It was said that he believed "without compunction, that the state of Ohio existed for property. It had no other function...Great wealth was to be gained through monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit."
Mark Hanna – Karl Rove's hero – made William McKinley governor of Ohio by shaking down the corporate interests of the day. Fortunately, McKinley had the invaluable gift of emitting sonorous platitudes as though they were recently discovered truth. Behind his benign gaze the wily intrigues of Mark Hanna saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were "ruled by business...by bankers, railroads and public utility corporations." Any who opposed the oligarchy were smeared as disturbers of the peace, socialists, anarchists, "or worse." Back then they didn't bother with hollow euphemisms like "compassionate conservatism" to disguise the raw reactionary politics that produced government "of, by, and for" the ruling corporate class. They just saw the loot and went for it.
The historian Clinton Rossiter describes this as the period of "the great train robbery of American intellectual history." Conservatives – or better, pro-corporate apologists – hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words like "progress", "opportunity", and "individualism" into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was hijacked, too, so that conservative politicians, judges, and publicists promoted, as if it were, the natural order of things, the notion that progress resulted from the elimination of the weak and the "survival of the fittest."
This "degenerate and unlovely age," as one historian calls it, exists in the mind of Karl Rove – the reputed brain of George W. Bush – as the seminal age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America today.
No wonder that what troubled our progressive forebears was not only the miasma of poverty in their nostrils, but the sour stink of a political system for sale. The United States Senate was a "millionaire's club." Money given to the political machines that controlled nominations could buy controlling influence in city halls, state houses and even courtrooms. Reforms and improvements ran into the immovable resistance of the almighty dollar. What, progressives wondered, would this do to the principles of popular government? Because all of them, whatever party they subscribed to, were inspired by the gospel of democracy. Inevitably, this swept them into the currents of politics, whether as active officeholders or persistent advocates.
Beyond the diagnosis, Moyers also has prescriptive advice to offer. It's only a little distressing to realize that much of it is addressed to how we can inspire as-yet unborn generations of better journalists and public advocates.
Then again, Moyers has always taken the long view. He knows that the struggle to rescue America's soul will hardly be won in two or four years. It's going to be a very long struggle, probably one that will last beyond his own life. Yet it is worth the effort.
What I know to be real is that we are in for the fight of our lives. I am not a romantic about democracy or journalism; the writer Andre Gide may have been right when he said that all things human, given time, go badly. But I know journalism and democracy are deeply linked in whatever chance we human beings have to redress our grievances, renew our politics, and reclaim our revolutionary ideals. Those are difficult tasks at any time, and they are even more difficult in a cynical age as this, when a deep and pervasive corruption has settled upon the republic. But too much is at stake for our spirits to flag.
The question naturally arises, 'Who will take the place of Bill Moyers?' The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no better than it was when Edward R. Murrow died. There are plenty of capable people, they just won't be given the air time or newsprint by the mass media corporations that have achieved a strangle-hold on so much of the American dialogue. The problem is less about available talent than with concentrated media ownership -- all six of them.
Still, someone has to fill Moyers' shoes, even if he or she isn't allowed the air time or ink by major media outlets. That is why, as I suspect Bill Moyers might agree, the most likely candidate for now seems to be Jon Stewart of the Comedy Channel. As Stewart told Moyers in their memorable conversation:
Of course, our show is at a disadvantage compared to the many news sources that we're competing with - at a disadvantage in several respects. For one thing, we are fake. They are not. So in terms of credibility uh uh - we are, well, oddly enough, we're about even. Doesn't seem like it should be that way, but it is.