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  Bill Moyers' speech to the National Conference for Media Reform

MEDIA CRITICISM:

Bill Moyers' speech to the National Conference for Media Reform

by Bill Moyers

The following is the prepared text for Bill Moyers’ speech to the National Conference for Media Reform on May 15, 2005. The event in St. Louis was organized and hosted by Free Press (freepress.net).

Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.
I CAN’T IMAGINE BETTER COMPANY ON THIS BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY MORNING IN ST. LOUIS. You’re church for me today, and there’s no congregation in the country where I would be more likely to find more kindred souls than are gathered here.

There are so many different vocations and callings in this room — so many different interests and aspirations of people who want to reform the media — that only a presiding bishop like Bob McChesney with his great ecumenical heart could bring us together for a weekend like this.

What joins us all under Bob’s embracing welcome is our commitment to public media. Pat Aufderheide got it right, I think, in the recent issue of In These Times when she wrote: “This is a moment when public media outlets can make a powerful case for themselves. Public radio, public TV, cable access, public DBS channels, media arts centers, youth media projects, nonprofit Internet news services ... low-power radio and webcasting are all part of a nearly invisible feature of today’s media map: the public media sector. They exist not to make a profit, not to push an ideology, not to serve customers, but to create a public — a group of people who can talk productively with those who don’t share their views, and defend the interests of the people who have to live with the consequences of corporate and governmental power.”

She gives examples of the possibilities. “Look at what happened,” she said, “when thousands of people who watched Stanley Nelson’s The Murder of Emmett Till on their public television channels joined a postcard campaign that re-opened the murder case after more than half a century. Look at NPR’s courageous coverage of the Iraq war, an expensive endeavor that wins no points from this administration. Look at Chicago Access Network’s Community Forum, where nonprofits throughout the region can showcase their issues and find volunteers.”

The public media, she argues, for all our flaws, are a very important resource in a noisy and polluted information environment.

You can also take wings reading Jason Miller’s May 4 article on Z Net about the mainstream media. While it is true that much of the mainstream media is corrupted by the influence of government and corporate interests, Miller writes, there are still men and women in the mainstream who practice a high degree of journalistic integrity and who do challenge us with their stories and analysis.

But the real hope “lies within the Internet with its 2 billion or more Web sites providing a wealth of information drawn from almost unlimited resources that span the globe. ... If knowledge is power, one’s capacity to increase that power increases exponentially through navigation of the Internet for news and information.”

Surely this is one issue that unites us as we leave here today. The fight to preserve the Web from corporate gatekeepers joins media, reformers, producers and educators — and it’s a fight that has only just begun.

I want to tell you about another fight we’re in today. The story I’ve come to share with you goes to the core of our belief that the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell this story because I’ve been living it. It’s been in the news this week, including reports of more attacks on a single journalist — yours truly — by the right-wing media and their allies at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As some of you know, CPB was established almost 40 years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting and to be a firewall between political influence and program content. What some on this board are now doing today — led by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson — is too important, too disturbing and yes, even too dangerous for a gathering like this not to address.

We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable.

Let me assure you that I take in stride attacks by the radical right-wingers who have not given up demonizing me although I retired over six months ago. They’ve been after me for years now, and I suspect they will be stomping on my grave to make sure I don’t come back from the dead.

I should remind them, however, that one of our boys pulled it off some 2,000 years ago — after the Pharisees, Sadducees and Caesar’s surrogates thought they had shut him up for good. Of course I won’t be expecting that kind of miracle, but I should put my detractors on notice: They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.

Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control, using the government to threaten and intimidate. I mean the people who are hollowing out middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil. I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into a slush fund and who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets. I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy.

That’s who I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.

One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules 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.

Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal. (You’ll also want to read his book, Debating War and Peace, Media Coverage of US Intervention in the Post Vietnam Era.)

Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism. The “rules of our game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up an issue ... without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator so and so hasn’t criticized postwar planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius, “then it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

Mermin also quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists not discussing the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, “the word occupation ... was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.” Washington talked about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not a war of occupation, so as a consequence, “those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.”

“In other words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about it, we don’t report it.” He concludes: “[Lehrer’s] somewhat jarring declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that their reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous occupation that has followed the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, reveals just how far the actual practice of American journalism has deviated from the First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of the government.”

Take the example (also cited by Mermin) of Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press, whose fall 2003 story on the torture of Iraqis in American prisons — before a US Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced — was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact that “it was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source.”

Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with Beltway journalists of American officials denying that such things happened. Judith Miller of the New York Times, among others, relied on the credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

These “rules of the game” permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. 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. I came to see that “news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.” In my documentaries – whether on the Watergate scandals 30 years ago or the Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill Clinton’s fundraising scandals 10 years ago or, five years ago, the chemical industry’s long and despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products from its workers, I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.

I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the people in power. In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence.

This is always hard to do, but it has never been harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell’s 1984. They give us a program vowing “No Child Left Behind,” while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation cheerily calling for “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” that give us neither. And that’s just for starters.

In Orwell’s 1984, the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society’s dictionary, explains to the protagonist Winston, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only on 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, to ask questions and be skeptical. That kind of orthodoxy can kill a democracy — or worse.

I learned about this the hard way. I grew up in the South, where the truth about slavery, race, and segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms and driven from the newsrooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and then it took another hundred years for the truth to make us free.

Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that “might makes right,” we circled the wagons, listened only to each other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.

I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They wanted us to make it different from anything else on the air — commercial or public broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a venue to people who might not otherwise be heard.

That wasn’t a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed by studies published in leading peer-reviewed scholarly journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College sociologist William Hoynes. Extensive research on the content of public television over a decade found that political discussions on our public affairs programs generally included a limited set of voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives on current issues and events.

Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates, the kind that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, this research found that public affairs programs on PBS stations were populated by the standard set of elite news sources. Whether government officials and Washington journalists (talking about political strategy) or corporate sources (talking about stock prices or the economy from the investor’s viewpoint), public television, unfortunately, all too often was offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television.

Who didn’t appear was also revealing. Hoynes and his team found that in contrast to the conservative mantra that public television routinely featured the voices of anti-establishment critics, “alternative perspectives were rare on public television and were effectively drowned out by the stream of government and corporate views that represented the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts.”

The so-called experts who got most of the face time came primarily from mainstream news organizations and Washington think tanks rather than diverse interests. Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted through the views of business people, investors and business journalists. Voices outside the corporate/Wall Street universe — nonprofessional workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general public were rarely heard. In sum, these two studies concluded, the economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities of most citizens became irrelevant.

All this went against the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy assistant to President Johnson, I attended my first meeting to discuss the future of public broadcasting in 1964 in the office of the Commissioner of Education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and to reflect the diversity of the American people.

This, too, was on my mind when we assembled the team for NOW. It was just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We agreed on two priorities. First, we wanted to do our part to keep the conversation of democracy going. That meant talking to a wide range of people across the spectrum — left, right and center.

It meant poets, philosophers, politicians, scientists, sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel AlIende, the novelist, and Amity Shlaes, the columnist for the Financial Times. It meant the former nun and best-selling author Karen Armstrong, and it meant the right-wing evangelical columnist Cal Thomas. It meant Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from London, David Suzuki from Canada, and Bernard Henry-Levi from Paris. It also meant two successive editors of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley and Paul Gigot, the editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and the L.A. Weekly’s John Powers.

It means liberals like Frank Wu, Ossie Davis and Gregory Nava, and conservatives like Frank Gaffney, Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie. It meant Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Bishops conference in this country. It meant the conservative Christian activist and lobbyist, Ralph Reed, and the dissident Catholic Sister Joan Chittister. We threw the conversation of democracy open to all comers.

Most of those who came responded the same way that Ron Paul, the Republican and Libertarian congressman from Texas, did when he wrote me after his appearance, “I have received hundreds of positive e-mails from your viewers. I appreciate the format of your program, which allows time for a full discussion of ideas. ... I’m tired of political shows featuring two guests shouting over each other and offering the same arguments. ... NOW was truly refreshing.”

Hold your applause because that’s not the point of the story. We had a second priority. We intended to do strong, honest and accurate reporting, telling stories we knew people in high places wouldn’t like.

I told our producers and correspondents that in our field reporting our job was to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth. This was all the more imperative in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. America could be entering a long war against an elusive and stateless enemy with no definable measure of victory and no limit to its duration, cost or foreboding fear. The rise of a homeland security state meant government could justify extraordinary measures in exchange for protecting citizens against unnamed, even unproven, threats.

Furthermore, increased spending during a national emergency can produce a spectacle of corruption behind a smokescreen of secrecy. I reminded our team of the words of the news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play who said, “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse when everyone is kept in the dark.”

I also reminded them of how the correspondent and historian Richard Reeves answered a student who asked him to define real news. “Real news,” Reeves responded, “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.”

For these reasons and in that spirit, we went about reporting on Washington as no one else in broadcasting — except occasionally 60 Minutes — was doing. We reported on the expansion of the Justice Department’s power of surveillance. We reported on the escalating Pentagon budget and expensive weapons that didn’t work. We reported on how campaign contributions influenced legislation and policy to skew resources to the comfortable and well-connected while our troops were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq with inadequate training and armor. We reported on how the Bush administration was shredding the Freedom of Information Act. We went around the country to report on how closed-door, backroom deals in Washington were costing ordinary workers and tax payers their livelihood and security. We reported on offshore tax havens that enable wealthy and powerful Americans to avoid their fair share of national security and the social contract.

And always — because what people know depends on who owns the press — we kept coming back to the media business itself, to how mega media corporations were pushing journalism further and further down the hierarchy of values, how giant radio cartels were silencing critics while shutting communities off from essential information, and how the mega media companies were lobbying the FCC for the right to grow ever more powerful.

The broadcast caught on. Our ratings grew every year. There was even a spell when we were the only public affairs broadcast on PBS whose audience was going up instead of down.

Our journalistic peers took notice. The Los Angeles Times said, “NOW’s team of reporters has regularly put the rest of the media to shame, pursuing stories few others bother to touch.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer said our segments on the sciences, the arts, politics and the economy were “provocative public television at its best.”

The Austin American-Statesman called NOW, “the perfect antidote to today’s high pitched decibel level, a smart, calm, timely news program.”

Frazier Moore of the Associated Press said we were hard-edged when appropriate but never "Hardball. " “Don’t expect combat. Civility reigns.”

And the Baton Rouge Advocate said, “NOW invites viewers to consider the deeper implication of the daily headlines,” drawing on “a wide range of viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of the political left or right.”

Let me repeat that: NOW draws on “a wide range of viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of the political left or right.”

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had been prophetic. Open public television to the American people — offer diverse interests, ideas and voices ... be fearless in your belief in democracy — and they will come.

Hold your applause — that’s not the point of the story.

[[ Continue to Part 2 ]]


Copyright © 2005 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on May 18, 2005.

 
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