Richard Heffner speaks with one of his favorite journalists.
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GUEST: Bill Moyers
AIR DATE: 7/9/2011
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And I suspect you’ll find it passing strange for quite such an Ancient as I am still to have heroes…to have lived so long, to have seen so many saints and sinners, to have measured the fancies and foibles of so many persons in the public eye … and still to have held steady in my admiration for one or another of them.
But I very much do, do delight in having heroes, and I’ve inveigled perhaps the liveliest one of all to join me here again for this Open Mind … and to stay with me for at least another one, as well.
Bill Moyers is still a youngster at the top of his form, to be sure — which for me preeminently means as an American “Public Intellectual” and as very much an old-time, long-time preacher and teacher, if you will.
Indeed, I prefer to identify my friend just that way, rather than as the print journalist, ordained Baptist minister, early Peace Corps executive, Presidential Press Secretary, newspaper publisher, commercial and public broadcaster, and splendid prose writer he has been over the years since he was born in Oklahoma, raised and schooled in Texas.
Most of all, my guest is a superb conversationalist — with whom I at times disagree — but whose skills on and off the air I admire … admittedly to the point of envy … and whose wonderfully readable book just published by The New Press and drawn from his most recent Public Broadcasting venture is Bill Moyers Journal – The Conversation Continues.
I trust, of course, that as we all read and re-read the book, we’ll find “the conversation” continuing on the air once again as well.
But even before I press my guest on that point, let me turn to a conversation here in “Bill Moyers Journal” that first impressed me so much when I watched it on the air, and that then led my guest to speak at Boston University in an October, 2010 celebration of the life and legacy of historian Howard Zinn who had died only weeks after his Moyers Journal conversation, one that focused so much new attention on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Bill, welcome. And, ah … welcome, too, to this wonderful book.
I turned to the Howard Zinn conversation because, you know, I sort of disagreed with it, when I watched it on the air.
But I was so impressed with the way you gave Zinn the credit for writing his wonderful book. When you went to give your remarks at the celebration of his life and legacy … you started off by saying, “I am a journalist, not a historian. The difference between a journalist and a historian is that the historian knows the difference”. What’d you mean?
MOYERS: I mean that journalists should, as some famous editor said, remember they’re only writing the first draft of history, they’re not writing the permanent record that will finally be in the archives.
The historian has a … an opportunity and an obligation to sum up. The journalist can mainly report and analyze and comment. And a reporter should never … a journalist should never confuse the, the two because history has a greater obligation, it seems to me … historians have a greater obligation to make sure that they have reflected on what they do than reporters who are often pressed against deadlines.
HEFFNER: But isn’t that the same old “getting off the hook” for the journalist … “I’m pressed by a deadline? Don’t hold me to the responsibilities of the historian?”
MOYERS: Meeting a deadline doesn’t mean being irresponsible. It just means you’re going to be very incomplete. And you should know that when you advocate for your piece or advocate for your opinion or advocate for your broadcast … you should know that, that you are providing a less than wholistic story.
Of course a historian does, too. But a historian takes the … he finishes … she finishes without regard to the deadline. It’s done when it’s done. Not because the publisher said, “We’re going to publish the 15th of, of July or not … “
The deadline is no excuse for being unaccountable. It’s not excuse for inaccuracy. It’s no excuse for, for, for hurried judgment. But it does mean you have to finish and get it into the paper or on the air. And what you do must be grounded, but it is not complete.
HEFFNER: But, of course, what happens … most of the times when I have journalists at this table and talk about history and news … they say “Don’t put that burden on me”, as if they’re trying to escape.
MOYERS: What do you … what do they mean by “the burden”? What burden?
HEFFNER: The burden that you talk of as the blessed responsibility and opportunity of the historian to put things in perspective. They consider that to be a burden.
MOYERS: Well, I’m … I, I know some who don’t. I know some who really believe … you know, you take the late Johnny Apple, you take some of the best … John Darnton, who’s brother you had on here earlier this summer. Those reporters know they’re working against a deadline, but they also know that within that context, within that incubator, within that environment, they still … their story needs … still needs to be grounded. It’s not complete, it’s not the whole story, but it is one for which they need to … and are quite willing to stand.
Of course there are irresponsible journalists. And we find more of them … you know we live in now, what, what Whitman called “the mere smoke of opinion”.
So that there are large news organizations that thrive and make huge profits by simply offering opinion. No reporting, no editing to speak of … no contextual framing of, of the stories, they’re just doing an opinionated narrative of the day’s events, as they see them.
Ah, and that’s irresponsible and that’s dangerous because we now have 24/7 … a 24/7 Wurlitzer that is pumping out all the time … music and a cacophony of sound that, that fills our ears even though we may not listen to it.
I mean you’re not protected against the toxins of the environment released by other people’s cars just because you keep your car in the garage all the time.
So you may not watch Fox News or listen to Right Wing Radio or, or MSNBC, but that … those ideas and those opinions are filtrating out into the environment which all of us breathe and affect, therefore, our culture and our environment.
HEFFNER: Okay, let’s, let’s, let’s for a minute go back to the Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues. What’s Jon Stewart doing in this book?
MOYERS: Well, Jon Stewart has a large influence, far beyond what you and I will ever achieve.
So just as if … you know, I’m not an evangelistic … I’m not a Fundamental Christian … but I’m curious as a journalist about Fundamental Christians because they are “there” and they have influence. They are present in the lives of so many people. That’s what we … we journalist get indulged … that, that license to, to explain things we don’t understand and to, to listen and talk to people we may not agree with.
Jon Stewart plays a unique role in American culture. He says he’s not a journalist … and I believe him. That he doesn’t claim to be a journalist.
But he is a satirist and he does do what Mark Twain did which is get us closer to the verifiable truth than almost anybody else in his genre. You can do that with humor. Juxtaposition is, in fact, the very nature of much humor.
And by, by, by using … brilliant … he has a brilliant research team over there … I’ve met some of them … by, by going back into the archives and finding what Bill Moyers said ten years ago, and, and, and what Bill Moyers said yesterday, he can at least ask about the contradiction … maybe it’s changed, maybe I’ve changed over the ten years.
But that ability to hold up contradictory commentary over the years is a great way of getting at … keeping us honest.
And his roll in society is larger than almost any other person on the air, I know. Because of his ability to, to, to come back to what has been said and hold us accountable for it.
He also is a phenomenon … he’s a very intelligent man, I’ve had some time with him. I had him on the show because he sees the media and sees culture from that very unique perspective of the satirist.
Look, when he went on … what was that show on CNN … Crossfire …
HEFFNER: Yeah, Crossfire.
MOYERS: … battering of each other and of irresponsible opinion. And he said, “Well, you guys are hurting this country. What are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
It reminded me … in a different way … of Joseph Welch who finally said to Joseph McCarthy, at the hearings in Washington, “Sir, have you no dignity left? Have you no shame left?”
Because Jon Stewart took a stand that pollution from that broadcast ended. You couldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have done that. Why can he do it? He has a certain power in our society … so I’m really interested in Jon Stewart.
And I think he starts … well, I had him first in the book because he was the first guest on my show when I came back on the air in 2007 … with Bill Moyers Journal. I wanted to get his take on culture … the second guest in that show was Josh Marshall, who is the founder and publisher of what I think is the best political journal website in, in cyberspace today … talkingpointsmemo.com.
I wanted the perspective of two different kinds of journalists. John … Josh Marshall is an old fashioned journalist, began in print, now has a very interesting and responsible blog … and here’s Jon Stewart who’s a creature of the new media … the, the, the comedy show as a form of exclusive inter … exclusive in the sense that some young people only get their information from Jon Stewart.
So I’m fascinated as a journalist by Jon Stewart and I also think he’s a very intelligent man. Do I approve of the language that he uses on the show … it offends my mother and it offends … it would have offended my mother and I’m offended by it, too. But I don’t have to watch, I don’t have to listen. I listen because he always is telling me something … new … that I would like to know.
HEFFNER: When he went on Crossfire and gave them the business, I applauded. I thought that was just wonderful when I heard about it, I hadn’t seen it.
But I wondered as I watched him … as I did last night, hoping I was going to see his discussion with you … but seeing instead his jokes about Weiner and wieners.
I felt that he was doing the same thing that he accused the Crossfire people of doing. Of downgrading. Because you take responsibility for your public reputation, too.
And I ask my students “Where do you get the news, your news about the world?” They don’t say “From the New York Times, they don’t say any newspaper or journal. They say, “From Jon Stewart”.
MOYERS: Do you ask them “why” … do you … do they tell you why that is so?
HEFFNER: Just for the reasons you gave … he is so attractive, he’s so smart, he’s so “with it”. He’s so vulgar. He represents so much, at least in his speech, in his humor, what gets to our younger generation. So one applauds him.
But what about the responsibility some, someone has to take … that you take for what you say, for what you do, for what you represent?
MOYERS: I make a lot of mistakes, as, as a journalist. But … judgment … Stewart asked me on the show … and I didn’t give him a very good answer … last night … it was later than the version you saw … which was a repeat.
But Stewart asked me, where does the authority of the journalist come from? And that authority is largely presumed. But it is confirmed by judgment backed up by evidence.
Our credibility, to the extent we have it. And whatever authority that credibility gives us comes because we reach conclusions that we won’t report this or say that, but we do so if we are accountable, if we are responsibility by grounding that decision and that judgment in evidence.
I still believe, Dick, in evidence driven journalism. Even when I offer my own assessment, or analysis, or commentary as you might say at the end of a broadcast … I try to do so within the context of the evidence that I have presented. So you can understand why I have reached that conclusion.
You may not agree with that conclusion, but I hope that you see I reached that conclusion … when I do … because I have marshaled the material, the evidence from which I’ve drawn it.
I never do a commentary or an analysis saying to myself what I’m going to say when I get there. I always gather the information and decide what I’m going to say.
Now whether that satisfies my critics or not, or whether it satisfies even the public at large … it satisfies me. Because I feel responsible to make sure you understand that I’m saying this because of a case that has been organized.
HEFFNER: You talk about your critics … who and what are your critics and what do they say, and what do you think the most legitimate criticism of Moyers might be?
MOYERS: Well my most consistent critics on the Right. And they have been ever since I worked in the campaign to defeat Barry Goldwater (laugh) in, in 1964.
We have a different philosophy of government, a different philosophy of America and they don’t appreciate my progressive views in the … to the, to the point … you know, I believe that we are better as a society by cooperating than competing.
I mean I, I don’t buy the mythology of the free market … we saw the mythology of the free market pay off in 2008 with the collapse of the, of thirty years of that philosophy.
But they don’t agree with my philosophy about life …for one thing they don’t agree with the fact that I worked for Kennedy and Johnson in 1967 and they don’t believe that, that I’m a … you know, I don’t see … I don’t … I do appreciate the Conservative view of the world.
I grew up among Conservatives, principled Conservatives who believed that the purpose of Conservatism was to hold institutions and people to certain standards. To offer a brake … b-r-a-k-e … on the passions and impulses of people.
Well I am a … you know I consider myself a, a, a Progressive because I believe democracy should be a brake … b-r-a-k-e on human power … on power and greed.
They don’t agree with that. They believe that government is, is an obstacle to their ideology. I don’t. I believe good government is a way of checking the power of capital …
You know capital … raw, hungry capital can, like fire, turn from a good servant into a bad master.
And if we don’t have ways to temper the ravenous appetite of capital we will keep having repetitions of what we saw in 2008 and ultimately the institutions which Conservatives should respect that provide this brake on human passion and, and excess will crumble. And we will be living in a chaos instead of a civilization.
HEFFNER: Do you see yourself essentially as a commentator?
MOYERS: No. I sometimes commentate. But I see myself primarily as a, as an, as an editor. And assignment editor with my team … I always had a sense …
You know, it’s … I, I was affected by an interview I once read with Wayne Gretzky … Wayne Gretzky was “The Great One” … he was called.
MOYERS: … of hockey … and he asked … what was, what was … what did he see as his unique skill. And he said, “Well I try to skate to where the puck is going not to where it is”.
And that’s what I try to do as an editor and as a journalist. I mean I used to report all the time. I’ve spent years in the field reporting for documentaries and, and broadcast them. And I loved it.
You reach a certain age and period when you can do that as much as you used to. So I, I’ve always thought of myself as a reporter, but more of an editor who reads … and, and by the way … somebody has said of Gretzky … he was marvelous at reading the game.
Now because I’ve been in government, because I’ve been in politics, because I’ve been … I studied religion … grew up in a religious environment … I think I can read the game with a different perspective from others.
Not a better perspective, but a different perspective. So reading the game that way … I feel obliged … from time to time, not all the time … I get criticized often for not telling you what I think about what I’ve just reported or an interview I’ve just done.
But sometimes I feel necessity. That I feel I owe you my conclusion about what I’ve just reported. And some people criticize that, some people don’t. I get stopped all the time on the street by people who say, “Why don’t you come back, I miss you essays”. And that’s where we, you know, pull the pieces together and give a shape to what I’ve seen that day or that, that week.
No journalist can ever think that he above, above criticism. And if he does think it, he’ll be reminded very quickly that he’s not.
HEFFNER: How do you feel about the contemporary media presentation of partisan opinion?
MOYERS: (Sigh) I …
HEFFNER: Including your own?
MOYERS: Well, political is not partisan. I am … I, I think the Democratic Party is …
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
MOYERS: … I, I honestly … I saw a poll the other day … 52% of the American people believe that both parties no longer reflect their interests. And I am part of that 52%. I can no more defend the Democratic Party than I can praise the Republican Party. I mean I don’t understand the weird things going on in the Republican Party. I do not understand this marriage of ideology and the language and, and, and the irrelevance, the immaturity of their political discourse, the sheer opposition that they set out to mount against Obama … that partly due …
But I do know why the Democratic Party is corrupted. They decided that they would go to the same sources of great wealth … corporations and others … and they are today in thrall to many of the same corporate and rich powers that the, the Republicans are.
We have two parties serving corporate business America and no party that serves … ideally … that serves the middle class or working people. And so I, I’m without a party, Dick. I know we always have to make some choices in election … you make a slight degree of … you’ve got to cast your vote so it’s this decision based on this differentiation.
But, as a whole, both parties are, are, are critical reasons for the crisis in our democracy.
Our democracy is dysfunctional. It isn’t working. It isn’t solving a single problem. The Senate might as well not be there.
It is … what it was a hundred years ago when David Graham Phillips, a great muckraker in the, in the vein of Upton Sinclair and Nellie Bly and others wrote a book called The Treason of the Senate. Well, the Senate has betrayed its Constitutional obligations. And so both parties today are contributing to the dysfunction of democracy.
That’s why I think we need … you know, I’m drawn … I’m not a radical, but I’m drawn to the Howard Zinns and the Ralph Naders and, and, and others because change from the outside.
It cannot come from within the two parties today. They are frozen, paralyzed, purchased. And so it’s got to come … Howard Zinn’s great message … and he was a flawed historian … he was … we know that from his life and his records. But he got this right. He said, “Do not look to your leaders to bring about change. Change comes only when people organize and fight from outside the system, when the change that they need … everybody he said … every ordinary people … every ordinary person should be a history maker”.
HEFFNER: That’s … you love that and you love the parallel quote from Margaret Mead that just a few people in a room make a difference and I understand what you’re saying and I made the mistake of using the word “partisan”.
I should ask you about a political perspective, a philosophical perspective on the air, where increasingly today that’s what we have. If you’re not in this camp, you’re in that camp or the other camp. Broadcasting as I knew it is gone. Kaput.
MOYERS: Well, I, I have a lot of respect for some in that other camp and, and you will find Ross Douthat before he was a New York Times columnist, he wrote a marvelous book on what the Republic Party, how the republic Party should revive itself.
Mickey Edwards who founded, was a co-founder the Heritage Foundation, was President of the American Constitutional … that … leading conservative group.
Started out as, as a Barry Goldwater … I’ve got Barry Goldwater’s top press aide in here. He was on the other side when I was in 1964 … he was touting and serving Goldwater and I was touting and serving Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And we had never met until I’d read two of his books and I really liked them … and so I asked him on the show.
HEFFNER: You didn’t bring him back. You didn’t bring him on the program. You didn’t put him in the book to espouse those old ideas.
MOYERS: No, I wanted … I wanted to know … you know all of us have changed. My goodness …
HEFFNER: Bill Moyers?
MOYERS: … I have changed since I was 20 … when … 1960 when I went to Washington … I was 26 years old. My faith, my politics, my philosophy, you say, keeps growing. Every experience creates a new reality. And if you live long enough those realities change you.
So Vick has changed. I mean he says in this interview that if Barry Goldwater were running today … if, if Barry Goldwater were living today. He wouldn’t run for President.
He couldn’t represent that party, you know. He was very much in favor of equality … of gay rights … of rights for all of us irrespective of our sexual orientation. He loathed the, the combining of … of politicizing religion. He was very much against encroachments on church and state.
So Vick Gold says Barry Goldwater would not run for President today. And Vick, Vick Gold says … you know, Dick Cheney who he knew … I think Vick collaborated with, with Dick Cheney’s wife in writing a novel. I’m not sure about that. But I do remember that. And he said Cheney was unrecognizable as Vice President from the man who had been his friend.
So, the reason Conservatives are in this book is because they are trying to make sense of what has happened to their party.
And I keep trying to make sense of what has happened to the Democratic Party. When I grew up, the Democratic Party … while a very racist, Southern party was also for the working people. And it was for … my father … my father voted four times (laugh) for Franklin Roosevelt. He would have voted fifth and sixth times if he’d had the chance. And he never met Roosevelt, of course. But my father felt that he had a friend in the White House.
How long has it been since the working men and women of this country have felt to have a real friend in the White House?
HEFFNER: As a pro, you know, that when I get the signal “Cut”, I cut. But you’re going to sit there and we’ll do another program. Bill Moyers thanks for joining me today.
MOYERS: It’s good to be here.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another 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.