Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers on “The Conversation of Democracy”, Part I

VTR Date: April 14, 2000

Guest: Moyers, Bill


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Bill Moyers
Title: Bill Moyers on “The Conversation of Democracy”, Part I
VTR: 4/14/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And from the very day I began this program, nearly 44 years ago, I don’t think I’ve very pursued a hoped-for Open Mind guest as persistently, or as long as I have mine today.

And that’s of course because over the years Bill Moyers has achieved so extraordinarily much as a chronicler and communicator of ideas. As a print and electronic journalist. As a commentator on and interpreter of mankind’s faults and foibles and failures, as well as of our glories and triumphs, particularly those of the heart and of the spirit.

More than any person who’s career I followed in recent years, my guest is truly a man for all seasons. And my problem today, appropriately enough is that over the years there have been so very many, many themes I’ve wanted to pursue with him, sacred and profane alike, that now I hardly know where to begin.

Best then, perhaps to start closest to hand with a very recent Bill Moyers’s comment about the love of liberty and the need, to quote him, “to reclaim it from the media giants who treat the conversation of democracy as their private property”. And I wonder just what that means?

MOYERS: A. J. Liebling, the great press …first let me thank you for those generous remarks. You have pursued me and I haven’t been here, not because I resisted you, but because my life, as a peripatetic journalist, living an unpredictable schedule makes me a totally unreliable guest on anything this predictable.

HEFFNER: But at least I’ve got you now.

MOYERS: Oh, and I’m delighted to be here because I admire you very much. A. J. Liebling, the press critic once said that free … that freedom of the press belongs to those whose own one. And with money dominating our political culture today and with the concentration of media power in fewer and fewer hands, freedom of speech is guaranteed only to those who can afford it. It is very expensive to be heard today, with the occasional exceptions of programs like yours and sometimes mine on public broadcasting … increasingly the control over who gets heard, who can speak, who can get on television, who can be heard on the radio is driven by a few … a handful of, of key executives at a small number of large corporations. And by the commercial and entertainment value that they put on their programs, their broadcasts and who gets heard. So my protest was that, you know, I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, to the First Amendment. I really believe it means what it says in very simple words. And yet, you can all the free speech you want if you don’t have a forum in which to be heard. And the forums today are increasingly determine by commercial and entertainment values that are set by a conglomeration, a growing conglomerations of media giants.

HEFFNER: What does that do then, Bill, to your fundamentalist belief in the First Amendment, in notions of free speech? What does it do to your political approach if I may, or your governmental approach to that First Amendment.

MOYERS: Well, of course I believe that the government should be a mediator between the balance … in the balance of power in this country. And that one role of all of us acting together, that’s what the government is. The government’s not some entity out there that exists apart from our process and apart from us. I believe the role of government is to protect the public interest, to make sure that, that the seesaw of power in America is, is constantly adjusted to that it doesn’t tilt altogether and permanently in one direction. So that organized economic interests, which have a legitimate right to be heard in the democratic process, don’t become so, so dominant that the seesaw doesn’t right anymore. That it’s stuck in a permanent position in which the “haves” are always dominant over those who “have not”. There have been two basic powers, two basic sources of contest in American history. One is organized power … the power of organized people … the Labor Movement, the Suffragette Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the movements of people going all the way back to the Shays Rebellion that tried to keep the interest of the “have nots”, the interest of the small people in our society on the stage and in contention with the other dominant interest in our history, which is the power of organized economic interest. And that’s seesawed back and forth. Essentially we are a society in which economic interests dominate. That makes us a very conservative society. Look it 250 years for slavery to be abolished in this country, and then it required a Civil War because the powers that be would not yield reluctantly to the evil and wrongness of slavery. After that it took 100 years to overcome the economic interests that continued to treat the liberated slaves as an economic chattel. It took 200 and some odd years for women to gain their rights of … the right to vote. The rights of equal citizenship. It took years for the Civil Rights Movement … culminating in the 1960s to accomplish what the Civil War couldn’t accomplish. Look how long it took labor unions, working people to get the right to organize.

Every time we have an advance like that, then the forces of reaction set in and try to take it away. No sooner had we made the triumph and reached the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the sixties then the profited interests, the economic interests, the organized interests begin to try to take it back, beginning with an all-out effort in the 1970s, by corporate and business interests and Conservative political forces to create a strategy that has paid off in their world view prevailing today in this country. So that, you know, wages are kept down because it’s better for profits, and racism persists because we won’t use the government to try to address it. So today it’s unbalanced, and to me the symptom of the imbalance is in the domination of the political discourse by commercial media whose main interest is their own bottom line and not the public interest.

HEFFNER: Yes, but of course now you want to rectify that injustice. You want to bring about a, a balance once again. Excuse me. And when you do that, I think there are those who accuse you and accuse me of doing violence to the very concepts of free speech that brought about the emergence of the power of unions of labor, of women, etc. in the first place. That we emphasize so free speech to give those downtrodden elements the speech, the right to speech so that they could find a place in the sun for themselves. We’re now being accused of doing violence to the free speech of those who dominate the airwaves, who dominate, through money, our American politics and how do we, and how do we face up to that challenge?

MOYERS: Well, we could reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for one thing.

HEFFNER: You’re darn tootin’ we could, but are we going to?

MOYERS: Well, no, not for a while … you say “how does this affect my political attitude”. The single most important step we need to take is to reduce the power of private money over public policy. Some call this campaign finance reform. I call it democratic renewal. Money … politics has become an arms race with money doing the work of missiles. One side escalates, the other side escalates. So that today as everyone knows, this is a cliché, it’s so obvious it banal today, most politicians go to the very, relative handful of people in this country who provide most of the money. There are only 170,000 people in this country who give above a $1,000 in an election cycle. So they really do determine the agenda for society. Bill Greider in his best selling book a few years ago, Who Will Tell The People, says, you know we’ll never really have a vital democracy again until the public gets the chance to ask the very same questions that the politicians ask in private … who gets heard, who doesn’t get heard. Who is paid, who doesn’t get paid. Whose interests are really at stake in this particular issue? So until we … until we own the politicians ourselves, until we have public funding of elections from primaries to the election we not going to solve the issue of free speech and even of a free press because it’s going to be those who pay who really play. And politicians, I believe most politicians, Richard, are honorable people who go into public life because they want to make a difference. But they wind up being beholden to those who pay for the elections. And as long as elections are paid for by private interests, then public officials who are elected in those contests are going to be obliged first and foremost to provide access to those who paid for the election.

I mean, look, when the Pakistanis want to have a meeting with Mrs. Clinton who’s running for the Senate, they have to put up $50,000 to get some of her time in Staten Island. Roger Tamaraz the oil man who was, who paid $300,000 to get a few minutes of Bill Clinton’s ear in the White House, when he was called before Senator Fred Thompson’s committee on the hearings of the excess of the 1996 campaign, he was asked by an irate, hypocritically irate United States Senator if he voted. And Tamaraz said, “why should I vote, money’s more important than voting”.

Now until we address that issue, then we cannot find access, we cannot find alternatives to the present system which is driven by monied interests.

HEFFNER: But I gather your way of addressing this question is not simply by full disclosure of who contributes, or even in terms of limiting what can be contributed, but rather public funding of our political process.

MOYERS: There’s a variety of ways we will address this. One is public funding of our public elections. The other is full disclosure. We’ve got now the means on the Internet so that when you give $100,000 to a particular candidateit goes right on, it can go right on the Internet. Instant disclosure should be, is a part of this. And yes, I believe in limitations on campaign contributions. The Supreme Court has upheld that. In a recent decision, a very important decision, based on a Missouri case the Supreme Court said that money is not speech, money is property. So that we, you know, we … if a lawyer argues before the Supreme Court, that lawyer gets only 30 minutes to make his or her case. He doesn’t have the right to go out a buy another 30 minutes of time. Even in the House of Representatives, there are five minute limits put on debate.

We limit free speech all the time in the interest of a larger objective. So speech can be limited, contributions can be limited, the courts … the Supreme Court has said its Constitutional … a thousand dollar limit is Constitutional and it could be that even lesser amounts are Constitutional.

HEFFNER: Then what are people talking about when they say that the Supreme Court has said definitely that money is speech.

MOYERS: Well the Supreme Court has a divided, schizophrenic approach to … it did in the Buckley versus Vallejo decision back in the 1970s say that money is speech. But recently it’s been saying unlimited speech is not necessarily healthy or Constitutional. So it’s begun to try to see how it can seesaw again, how it can, how it can balance the interest of free speech with the interest of the public.

HEFFNER: What chance do you think there is for us in our present political situation to get the very people who benefit from the excesses of financial contributions to politicians to vote to limit them?

MOYERS: The odds are long because while people do want campaign finance reform every poll I have seen, and there’s other evidence as well, show that that the majority of the American people want to change the system. But as you just said, the people who can change the system, the legislators, the elected officials … it’s to their benefit not to change the system. So you have in fact a real, a real revolt by the elites in this country. The political elites are in revolt against the will of the people and are using their exalted position to hold on to their power in defiance of the people … hoping to wear down the patience of the people. It’s an astonishing moment in American life. In which a handful of political elites, the leaders of both parties, the leaders of both houses in the Congress and the White House are aligned in a, in a cabal of self-interest against the interest of the public. It’s astonishing. In every state where public funding of political campaigns has been on the ballot in the last several years, in every state … sixteen states where people have had a chance to vote their … to express their opinion, public funding and campaign finance reform have succeeded. In independent Maine they passed public funding of campaigns. In liberal Massachusetts they passed public funding of state campaigns. And in conservative Arizona they passed public funding of campaigns. Senator McCain, who is from Arizona did not just reach up into the sky one day and pick a holy writ down and said, “campaign finance reform”. He watched what happened in the State of Arizona, where when it was presented to the voters of Arizona they opted for public funding of state campaigns. Now, he got the message. Now in the last years of his life, Barry Goldwater, who was not a Liberal Socialist Democrat, Barry Goldwater said the single most important issue to the health of our republic … a republic he cared a great deal about, was campaign finance reform. So every time the people have had a chance to act on this, and in every poll that is open and honest, people say “we want to change the way we finance our elections”. But the people running the political process at the top don’t want to.

HEFFNER: You know thirty years ago, a little more than that, what was then called The Twentieth Century Fund, now the 21st …

MOYERS: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … established a Commission on Money, Television and Politics. Newt Minow was its Chair, I was its Executive Director and we came up with a report called “Voters’ Times”. We weren’t concerned about the politicians, we were concerned about the voter. The voter should have time, on broadcasting to see the candidates. And Tommy Cochran who was one of the members of that Commission said to me, took me aside and said, “Young man (I was then comparatively young) …

MOYERS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … he said, “you think something’s going to happen now. Nothing is going to happen. But wait and see, if you’re lucky enough to live to be old enough, you will see … not in five years or ten years, but perhaps twenty, thirty, certainly forty years you will see public financing of American politics”. You think that’s true?
MOYERS: I said to a friend down on Wall Street one day “what do you think about the market?”. He said, “I’m optimistic”. And I said, “Well then, why do you look so worried?”. And he said, “Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified.” [Laughter] I’m not sure my … I’m an optimist at heart. I have to wake up every morning believing in a confident future and then working to bring it about. Otherwise I think I would, I would sink into cynicism. And I would just resign and go pursue my private and parochial interests. I think most of us are that way. We have to believe in an optimistic future. But I’m also a realist, and I know the forces and powers that are arrayed against what we’re talking about. I do believe in the long run it will happen. Because if it doesn’t we have lost our democracy. The rich should be free to buy as many homes as they want, as many cars as they want, as many vacations as they want, as many gizmos as they want. But the rich should not be free to buy more democracy than anyone else. And if we don’t address that principle, if we … George Will the Conservative columnist recently wrote an article which goes to the heart of the establishment thinking today. And he says, “where does this idea come from that citizens are supposed to be politically equal?”. You know he … George Will is … that’s not a Conservative position, that’s a reactionary position, that’s a Tory position. That’s the position of the propertied, economic muscular class of society. And it’s wrong. If we don’t change it, if we don’t root it out, it’s going to destroy American and make us into two nations … permanently into two nations. This issue of who owns the politicians, who owns the country is the moral equivalent of slavery and abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement and the right of people to organize. In time it has to happen or we won’t be living in the same country. How will it happen? Constantly helping people who organize, constantly getting the message out.

I run a foundation, the Schumann Foundation that several years ago decided campaign finance reform, democratic renewal was our major priority. And we set out to do so in three ways. One we fund grass roots activity to try to change the system at the local level. We fund investigative reporting because people need to know the connection, need to dot the “I”s that … and see what the pattern is and we fund legal strategies. And a lot of progress has been made. But the more progress that’s been made, the more entrenched and defiant the political elites become. But I have to believe it will happen just as the slaves had to believe they would one day be free. That women had to believe they would one day vote and be politically equal. And workers believe they could one day have a decent life with a steady income, pensions and health insurance. I just have to believe that or I would give up.

HEFFNER: You know I’m so please to hear you say that because when I watched you on Tim Russert’s program not so long on CNBC there was a kind of sadness about your presentation that, that bothered the devil out of me, and wondered “couldn’t be that Moyers is giving up. It just, just couldn’t be”. But you, you said “real sadness is that the media don’t care about people because everything is entertainment today. Journalists have bought into the philosophy of entertainment.” But then you went on in a way that made me think that perhaps they’ve gotten you down, and you’re saying now you’re not down.

MOYERS: [Laughter] There are some days I’m down. I think that’s normal. I think that’s, that’s natural. I had just finished this documentary that we had been working on, Tom Casciato and Kathy Hughes, my producers and I for ten years. We’ve been following the same two working class families in Milwaukee through their trials and tribulations of finding their place in the new economy. These are people who get up every morning against the odds and go try to find work, and try to make ends meet, try to pay the mortgage. And they get “down”. And when I watched them, when I get to know the, I get “down” with them. It’s just a natural part of being a journalist in, in the field. And there are moments, there are days when I think the powers-that-be, the economic forces, the corporate institutional forces are so, are so clever and so powerful that I don’t know where the light’s going to come and where the change is going to come. But I, but I just … I find … and then I see evidence of something that, that reverses my resignation, and buoys me up again. But I think that’s normal. Particularly if you see the world whole everyday as we journalists are supposed to do. You see the good and the bad. And if you care about political renewal you have to look for signs of hope even though the day’s news may seem bleak.

HEFFNER: Those who have and who control seem though, to me, and I go back to this point, just in the few minutes we have left … it seemed to me that I have abandoned my First Amendment enthusiasms. That I have abandoned my free speech proclivities because I now want government to play more of that balancing role that you talked about at the beginning of our discussion. They’re very clever at doing that, of hiding behind the First Amendment.

MOYERS: They’re marvelous propagandists. They are the best at … they’re far better than George Orwell’s fears of the State and the Soviet Union of ever being. These are people who believe themselves right. They succeeded, they have … they share a common ethos, and, and they just can’t understand what people like you and me say. Tim Russert is an exception because occasionally word from the hinterlands reaches his ears, and he will open himself to a Jim Hightower, the populist from Texas, or to a Bill Moyers to be on his program. But mostly, mostly the pre-eminent journalists in this country live in an echo chamber in which all they’re hearing are their own voices resonating off their own egos. And, and they think theirs is the only conversation going. They have the right to free speech. “What do you mean Tony Newman and Claude Stanley out in Milwaukee don’t get heard? We’re getting heard. Why can’t they get heard?”. I mean it’s a perversion of insight that comes when every day you look only at the same people, listen only to the same voices, and think yourself so important that all that counts is what people are saying to you. I mean most journalists begin to reflect their sources in the news that they consider important. So if you live in this echo chamber where your sources are the very people you depend upon for your story of the day, then the story of the day is going to be determined by those sources.

HEFFNER: I think you’re kinder than I would be. You see this as a kind of psychological phenomena, and you, you understand it. You look at where they live and you say “this is almost inevitable in this echo chamber”. It seems to me that everyone is bought and sold. And I put it on a much less of a psychological and much more of a greed basis.

MOYERS: I think it’s the conditioning that comes from living in the same culture all the time and of losing your “ear”, of losing your capacity to listen because you’re hearing the same din, the same sound all of the time. Oh, I’m sure their are people who are bought and sold, although most of the journalists I know are themselves … started out for honorable reasons in this industry. You don’t get bought and sold in the same way that somebody makes you an offer … “if you’ll say this, I’ll give you that”. It’s that you buy into the life style. You’re making $200,000 … $700,000 a year, $3 million, $4 million, $7 million dollars a year. I mean when an anchor who makes $7 million dollars sits down with a President in this day and world, the anchor is superior to the President because he’s achieved economic success. It’s two members of the elite talking to each other. They never … when candidates for the … George Bush, Al Gore … they spend no time really with real voters, with people who just have something to say. They spend their time raising money from like-minded, wealthy successful people. The same is try with the journalists who you see on television, who operate in Washington. All of them. They listen to each other, they’re marching in the same band, they’re all playing the same instrument, it’s no wonder you get a monochromatic sound … it’s not because they’ve said, “give me $7 million dollars and I’ll represent the economic establishment”. It’s that when you make $7 million dollars, or $1 million dollars or $500,000, you are a part of the establishment.

HEFFNER: Good-bye. Do you know that I’ve just gotten the sign that says, “Say to Moyers, good-bye”. Bill, stay where you are, we’ll do another program. Okay. Thanks.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.