Bill Moyers

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

VTR Date: April 14, 2000

Guest: Moyers, Bill


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this the second of two programs with an American icon I’ve pursued so persistently over the years to join me at this table that I hardly knew where to begin last week and surely don’t want to end this week. That of course, as I said last time is because 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 well as of our glories and triumphs, particularly those of the heart and of the spirit.

More than any person whose career I followed in recent years, my guest is truly a man for all seasons. So that I’ve had no difficulty picking up with him where we were last time and working on and on into the world of “what is” and “what should be”. And I think, Bill, that’s what you give us so wonderfully, the world that is and what should be because you feel so strongly.

Now, I want to pick up with a question. You dropped a hint last time, more than a hint, you used the word Fairness Doctrine. That I have not heard a professional journalist broadcasters mention favorably in years and years … want to talk about that?

MOYERS: Well the Fairness Doctrine as you know from your own days as a pioneer in this field essentially said that if you used the public airways, if the network or a broadcaster gives you time to make your point, or attacks you, you should have time to get your point across, to answer, to get your word out.

HEFFNER: Pretty elementary, isn’t it?

MOYERS: It’s very elementary. Because first it’s right for democracy, and second it seems a logical conclusion from a commodity … air time … that .. who does it belong to, it belongs to all of us theoretically. How can you take this section of air time and sell it to Mel Kamasizian at CBS, or take this amount of air time and sell it to Michael Eisner at Disney. In a sense these people who own the air lines are mere renters of public space. They are … the people are the landlords, and these people are the tenants. And so when they take this public space and they use it only for their own interests, only for their own value system, with no sense of the other, no sense of the public interest, then they’re not being fair. And the Fairness Doctrine was intended … and it worked pretty well for something that was intended, as you know, to try to keep the balance, to keep some balance in … to avoid the monopoly of opinion in this country. And, in the 1980s, under pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters and the ideological Right Wing that came to power with Ronald Reagan and under the influence of campaign contributions to member of Congress, both parties, the Fairness Doctrine disappeared. It was revoked in effect and it … the odds of getting it back are less today than I thought ten years ago. But it’s still a good notion and people should be held to it even if there’s no law requiring it.

HEFFNER: But what, what about our friend Fred Friendly who said it had a chilling effect upon the freedom of the broadcaster.

MOYERS: I don’t … I never agreed with Fred on that. I believe that it made the broadcaster wary of arrogance. I believe it made the broadcaster think twice about having only one view. I mean you can go to ABC News today. ABC News is just essentially … ABC radio is just essentially a Right Wing organ. Should free speech be determined by the fact that, that Right Wingers can get sponsors, corporate sponsors for their views when people who have dissenting opinions cannot. I don’t think that’s right. Fred never really addressed that issue. In my opinion, he never really addressed the issue beyond the fact that broadcasters would be chilled but also broadcasters could be frozen in their own ideological conformity if there weren’t some means of challenging them, of hold them to a different standard.

HEFFNER: But let’s go back to this notion … this notion that what you and I want, and we both want to see the Fairness Doctrine in place, although I suspect that you, like myself, would prefer that it be a … an FCC rule rather than a law.

MOYERS: Oh, yes. I think it’s the FCC who should take the initiative in this.

HEFFNER: Okay, now we’re both in favor of a Fairness Doctrine. But there were those who said, “look, you fellows are free speechers, you believe in free speech, you now want to make us put someone on the air, our air (and I’ll admit that they say it’s ‘our air’ and you would deny that it’s their air). You’re going to make us say something we don’t want to say. You’re going to make us speak in a way that we don’t want to speak”.

MOYERS: The Chairman of the FCC could say, the FCC could say, “well, we’re not going to make you say anything. We’re just going to require that in, in response to making so much money from renting this public property, you have to make sure that the voices that do get heard represent a wider array of opinion”. I mean, what’s wrong with that? You seem to be holding out the argument, supporting the argument that because organized money can buy the method of delivering the information they have the right to determine, exclusively, what messages get heard. I just … I can’t, I can’t accept that.

HEFFNER: Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t agree that at all. What I’m saying is that’s precisely what the broadcaster said. He said “I wanted to do this broadcast, I wanted to reveal this evil in our society. But I’m afraid to do so, the Fairness Doctrine has chilled my willingness and my ability to do that. So rather than to be an investigative reporter and have a demand made that I give time to someone else and then someone else and then someone else, in the name of fairness, I’m not going to conduct this investigation on the air at all”.

MOYERS: I wish that the journalists in that case would say it’s not even a question of fairness, it’s a question of defining the news. To define the news so that it isn’t just one side of things, you know. You get today an ideological world view in which there … most journalism, most business journalism reports the news only as stockholders and corporate executives define the news. You rarely get anything on the news about, about how this affects working people. I mean it looks to me every day like the newspapers and the broadcasters are saying the only news that counts is the news of what happens to a stock, what happens to an investor. Never the news of what happens to the worker, what happens to the family effected by down-sizing, or the person who loses health insurance. You get, you know, on Bill Clinton’s watch one million people every year have lost their health insurance until today over 43 million people don’t have it. But you almost never see in commercial television stories about those people. You get the statistics quoted in The New York Times. Why shouldn’t journalism itself hold itself to a higher standard than the government could ever require it to do.

HEFFNER: Suppose the journalist’s answer is, or at least the broadcasters answer is “Look, there is such a thing as cultural democracy. Moyers, don’t you believe in democracy. This is what the people vote for. This is what they want to see. We give the people what they want to hear and to see”.

MOYERS: A child growing up gets to eat what’s put on the table. And in our culture in which the table is set by very powerful organized economic interests whose main, whose only concern is their own well-being, they set the table to define the choices very narrowly. Now, I agree with you, it would be very hard for government to say, “put more food on the table, or put different food on the table”. But popular pressure organized consumer … I call it “citizen activity” … could try to bring changes on them, and I think ultimately that’s what it has to be. It maybe because people turn off. But it also is going to take organized political and citizen activity in order to say to these people “what’s on the table is not that ought to be there. We need a more balanced diet”.

HEFFNER: Bill, what evidence do you have that indeed most people in this country feel that way, and that most people are not saying, “Oh, Heffner, Moyers go away, don’t bother us, we don’t want to see those things that you think would be good for us. It’s not that we don’t want to see them, we’d rather see the entertainment”.
MOYERS: I don’t argue that people want television to entertain them. Look even PBS did a survey a few years ago which said that most people when they come home don’t want to be bothered with the real toils of the day that have exacted such a drain on them. They want escape. They want to be distracted from the woes and wails of the world for that, for that time. I don’t argue with that. I, myself, like entertainment. I like football on television. I like a good drama on television. I like certain sitcoms on television. I’m not saying that that ought to be mandated. I’m saying that in the nature of reality, there ought to be a wider offering to the public than what we get when human beings are defined only as consumers. If you start thinking of people as citizens as well as consumers then you provide the kind of information that helps those who take their citizenship seriously with the means of acting in a way that is informed and enables them to make better choices.

HEFFNER: But haven’t we created from the beginning a broadcast system that does have to do with consumers …


HEFFNER: … not with students. Not with citizens. But with consumers. And isn’t our basic problem that we’ve made this magnificent instrument simply and only, or I should say “simply and for the most part” an instrument for making profit.

MOYERS: Yes. Broadcasting long ago set itself firmly within the rules of the economic game, and made it’s peace with the little, although they’re not so little anymore, lies of merchandising and, and selling. And that set the course. It wasn’t intended to be that way. The 1934 Communications Act, as you know, when Herbert Hoover signed it, he extolled it as, as a force for education, as a force for civic knowledge and civic action. He didn’t want it to become a commercial property. But the nature of human beings being what it is, the broadcasting was turned into a, a commercial entity and exclusively into a commercial …

HEFFNER: Then how do we possibly make the changes that you and I feel need to be made if we look at broadcasting and continue to say it is essentially and acceptably a money making proposition.

MOYERS: I don’t think we’ll change broadcasting. Oh, there may occasionally arise although it’s hard to see who they are, some voice within the networks, some journalist who rises as Edward R. Murrow did and challenges the owners to a greater standard of stewardship. I think the most important lesson to learn from the past is not to let happen to the Internet what happened to broadcasting. As you know the fight is on right now in America to determine whether the Internet’s going to be free access or it’s going to be decided by corporate and business monopolies alone. That’s a big issue of public policy that is rarely debated because the powers-that-be don’t think it’s that important and don’t want you to know about it.
HEFFNER: Don’t you think that that has been decided already, Bill? By and large …

MOYERS: By and large, incipiently, but it’s not altogether too late. It’s not altogether too late. And I think that people … the Internet, the cliché is that the Internet has made all of us actors and players and journalists, and there’s a sense of truth in that. So that I think, I hope that people watching, people who … Libertarians and others who care about this … and Liberal, Libertarians and Liberals and Conservatives and others who care about free speech for citizens use their own control over their own instruments to send a message to the powers-that-be … that we don’t want it to go the way that commercial broadcasting has gone.

HEFFNER: You see, you said in the last program, essentially you’re an optimist, essentially you’re not down, you’re up. That’s the kind of person you are. And I had commented on seeing you on Tim Russert’s program and the sad feelings, that sadness prevailed there. And you assure me that that’s not the case. I’m not that kind of optimist and I wonder whether we don’t have to prepare ourselves for more and more and more of the same. I don’t know how we prepare ourselves for it, to protect ourselves against it. But there is no sign that I see that we’re going to reverse the consumerism that dominates American life.

MOYERS: Nor are we going to reverse the conglomeration that dominates American life. Increasingly fewer and fewer mega-corporations will own the means of commercial broadcasting, the means of commercial information … this new nation of information. But we have to constantly keep finding ways to kill the censor. That’s what democracy is all about. That theoretically, the First Amendment gives us the right to climb up on the deck of the ship and grab the pilot by the elbow and shake his …and shake him and say, “That’s an iceberg out there, that’s an iceberg out there”. Now the Titanic struck and went down. And democracy can do that, too. But you have to keep talking about his, you have to keep agitating, you have to keep doing whatever one can in ones own sphere to find ways to kill the censor. Government becomes a censor, you gotta kill that. Corporations become censors, you gotta kill that. You have to find ways to infect the system with an antibody that provides an antidote to the uniformity, the conformity and the orthodoxy that prevails any time, any given group of people have too much power in society. Whether they’re in Congress or the White House, or sitting in Black Rock at CBS here in New York, or at Yahoo or Time Warner. You’ve got to keep finding and fighting for ways to keep the system as open as possible so that if somebody rises up someday with just enough truth to kill the censor and change the public perception.

HEFFNER: I like so much that traditional American approach that you have which is one of seeking balance always of checking and balancing. And I wonder what role our friends, your colleagues, the journalists could possibly play when so many of them come to this table and say, “we don’t have any power, there’s no one in here but us chickens. Don’t impose responsibilities upon us, we’re just reporting it as it is. What are you going to do with your professionals, your fellow professionals.

MOYERS: And my friends … I admire them as friends, and as colleagues. But they do have a certain power being the anchors of the three networks. The three network even news cast … they’re are four now with Fox. They were watched by a lot of people. Relative, not as many people as used to, but still a lot of people. Ten million people let’s say watch each of those evening broadcasts. And the anchors, all of whom have titles as “Managing Editors”. They have power over those 22 minutes of turf. They can decide what signs get posted on that turf, every night between 2 seconds. Is it the signed that … of real people, out in the country doing real things. Or is it, are the signs pointing to a lead opinion, business interest, etc. You determine that agenda every night. I would say to Dan and Tom and Peter, “you determine … you have power either to say, either to say, ‘look this is my show in a sense and I’m a journalist and I want only what I want. Or to say, find somebody else to do it, and I’ll do something else”.

HEFFNER: Aha. But you’ve got to be willing to say, “or find someone else to do it. And who is going to say that without knowing … they’ll find someone else to do it.

MOYERS: Well, that’s right. They, they will and I’m not going to urge them to quite over this, that’s something each of us has to face. And I’m sure that we’re just using them as examples, but I’m sure that all of the journalists say, “well, if I don’t do it and occasionally … if I don’t stay around and occasionally put a flag on the turf that represents my value system, then somebody will come along who doesn’t share my value system.

HEFFNER: Bill Moyers is a pretty good example of that, isn’t it? In a very real sense you opted not to continue in commercial television. You opted to do the work you do in public television for the most part.

MOYERS: I couldn’t do the work on commercial television that I want to do and I couldn’t … I just didn’t want to stay around and do the work I could do. I mean I’ve got a series coming up, a six hour series that looks at end of life care, death and dying. My producers have done a marvelous job … six hours of a subject that people don’t want to discuss except they talk about it all the time. I would never have gotten that on public, commercial television. The two hour documentary we took ten years to film on the working class family was watched by something like three or four million people. Could have been seen by 12 or 13 million people if it was on commercial television. But I would never have gotten it there. So I’d settle for the three million people who watch it and who, who are now aware of what’s happening to working families in this country as opposed to the 10 million people who might have watched the tirade I could have delivered on commercial television. But that’s a personal, that’s just a choice of … that comes out of one’s nature. It’s not any kind of moral stance that says, “aha, if you’d only do it my way, you’d be a better person”. I mean this is the only way I could have done it. There are moments when I wish I could have, have stayed within the commercial system and, and nudged it in the direction of the kind of journalism I, I believe in. But I couldn’t do it. Fortunately I was able to go out and raise the funds … I raise every penny of every production we put on public broadcasting, take no money from public broadcasting to do what I do, raise it from a very good corporation Mutual of America that has been with me for 10 years and from foundations that believe in this kind of journalism. And I’m awfully glad I’ve done it. I’ve had a good life. Do I think it’s changed anything? No, I don’t know how you change things, you just keep doing what you do and hope that sooner or later …

HEFFNER: What do you mean you don’t know whether it’s changed anything?

MOYERS: Well, here we’re talking about all the things it hasn’t changed. {Laughter}

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you must believe since you’re the optimist, I’m not, you must believe that there is that potential for change.

MOYERS: I do. I believe that. This is a traditional American view. Whitman … I think it was Whitman … yes, Whitman said, “Be radical, be radical, be not too damned radical”. And by being radical he simply means try to keep the record straight, try to keep the record straight. I think in time if you do keep the record straight, you, you … somebody acts on it. I come from a part of the country that suffered miserably, as did the whole country because we, we killed the truth … we drove the truthsayers out of the pulpits, drove the truthsayers out of the editorial offices, drove the truthsayers out of the classrooms who tried to tell the truth about slavery. And as a consequence of that the South living in its official view of reality, living in its closed world of justification of slavery went to war with the rest of the nation an we’re still suffering from that failure of politics, failure of journalism, failure of the church and failure of education to deal with the truth about slavery.

I was part of an administration, the Johnson Administration, I was Press Secretary for the last two years of my stay there, that closed the wagons around ourselves in response to Vietnam. The truth didn’t get in very easily and finally, when it didn’t get in we all sort of shared the same view of world. The same view of Vietnam and as a consequence of that terrible things happened … an Administration failed. Lyndon Johnson died a tragic President and the country, and the Vietnamese went through a horrible thing. Why? Because the contrarian voices, the alternative view of reality never really penetrated to the consciousness of the decision-makers. In no small part, it’s isn’t some high moral principle that drives me to want to believe that setting the record straight is the best thing a journalist can do, it is simply the practical reality of what happens when a society, a culture, an organization, a mind, a school, a community, a wagon train, a family just lives by its own law, and lives by its own reality, not aware that there are many realities out there that have to be accommodated and addressed and acted upon if we’re going to have a healthy, human society. So it’s a very practical consequence of a Civil War that almost destroyed the nation, and of a Vietnam War that destroyed an Administration and riveted … and tore the country apart that makes me think … you have to be hopeful about this, you have to keep agitating for this, you have to be radical, be radical although in my own case, not too damn radical.

HEFFNER: Bill, I’ve never heard a more eloquent statement and you mention the magic words, just as we come to the end of the program, I haven’t gotten the sign yet, I don’t know whether we have seconds or a minute left, or what. Would you be willing to talk here some day about the Johnson Administration?

MOYERS: Sure. I mean I haven’t, I haven’t talked a great deal about the Johnson Administration because I was young when I left there and I wanted to go on with my life. I was … the day I left I received a telegram from a very powerful publisher in New York wanting me to write a book about the Johnson years. And I said “first of all, I don’t want to be the thief of his confidence. Second, I want to get on with my life, I don’t want to life forever in this short period of my life in Washington. I’ve got work to do. I was 33 when I left. And I … there are other things I wanted. So I haven’t dwelled in the past. I’m 66 now and at the end of my broadcast career, not the beginning of it and I’ve got some time to think and reflect and I am giving some serious thought to writing a modest account of the Johnson years, the LBJ years. I don’t know for sure what I think about it. I haven’t made up my mind or about him. I loved Lyndon Johnson, I was a young man in his orbit and I really loved the man. I knew what it was like having a father that you know is an alcoholic or a father whom you know is deeply flawed, but you still love him. And I knew Lyndon Johnson was a deeply flawed man and yet there was something about him that could rise to an occasion, that could do the right thing when the chips were down that, that increased both my awe and my affection for him. So I’m trying to think through, 40 years later, if I can trust my memory and rely on my judgment what I think and when I get a little closer to … when I get a little closer to knowing what I think about him, I’ll be glad to come back.

HEFFNER: Well, I hope that you will because I’ve enjoyed so much talking to you. Now, let me just ask one last question. Is that optimism, does it hold, Bill? Is it real? Do you think we’re going to make it?

MOYERS: It’s optimism based upon the necessity of acting on what you think is wrong and moving to what you hope is right. Look, I have three grandchildren, and it is true what they say about grandchildren, Richard, they are your message to the future and you really begin to think practically about the future when you have grandchildren in a way you never did before. Henry’s seven, Thomas is five and Nancy is, is three. I do not want them growing up in a society where their political and civic worth is determined by their net worth. So we have to work to change that. And if we can’t change it, then we’re in trouble. But I have to believe we can.

HEFFNER: Bill, you steal my words about my three grandsons and thank you so much, Bill Moyers, for joining me here today here on The Open Mind.

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.