Moyers Leaves Public Affairs
By David Carr, December 17, 2004
Bill Moyers, a preacher turned journalist who accrued 30 Emmys, has veered back to the pulpit in announcing his retirement from “Now With Bill Moyers,” a PBS weekly newsmagazine for which he has been the host for three years. His final broadcast tonight marks a 33-year run on public television that has brought awards, attacks and almost uncountable stories. The gospel of Mr. Moyers – an unreconstructed progressive – warns against the danger of media consolidation, the growing links between conservative government and conservative media and the threat of information control by government. Anybody who has paid attention to Mr. Moyer’s 54-year career in journalism would not be surprised by his jeremiad. He is a rigorous journalist, one whose documentaries and television news reports always point to the facts, but when he makes up his mind, he lands hard on his conclusions. And among other epiphanies, Mr. Moyers has decided that the current administration in the White House represents a threat to free and unfettered discourse.
“The first thing that President Bush did when he came into office was to try and deny access to his father’s presidential papers,” Mr. Moyers, 70, said in a telephone interview earlier this week from his Manhattan office. “The attacks of 9/11 have given them a cover and a rationale to accelerate what has been an ambitious plan to keep the workings of government secret. They make Lyndon Johnson seem like a piker.” A graduate of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Mr. Moyers is something of an expert on Johnson, having served as his special assistant and press secretary, after stints as a minister, a journalist and the deputy director of the Peace Corps. The two had a falling out, and Mr. Moyers went on to become publisher of Newsday. (No one has fully explained why they had a falling out, but the book about Johnson that Mr. Moyers said he hoped to write once he retired from “Now” should provide some reasons.) Mr. Moyers left Newsday in 1970 after that newspaper was acquired by the Times Mirror Company and then went to PBS, where he has become a ubiquitous presence.
In an age of television shouters, Mr. Moyers is an anomaly. His delivery is measured and the rhetoric temperate. Yet he used the tools of the documentarian to wield a velvet sledgehammer, bludgeoning corporate polluters and government ne’er-do-wells with precision and grace. His tendentiousness in choice of targets has earned him the fealty of public-television audiences and the enmity of conservative observers. FrontPageMagazine.com, a conservative Web site, published a detailed retrospective earlier this month on Mr. Moyers, describing him as a “sweater-wearing pundit who delivered socialist and neo-Marxist propaganda with a soft Texas accent.” And Mr. Moyers has done nothing to endear himself further as he heads for the exit, telling anyone who will listen that “the conservative press is a propaganda wing of the current administration and the mainstream press thinks only of the bottom line.”
For all his political fervor, Mr. Moyers never confined his reportorial inquiries to hard news. He is primarily responsible for introducing Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell to the American public; he strolled through the history of the 20th century in a long series; and he explored the healing power of the mind. Much of that work was done with Judith Davidson Moyers, his wife of 50 years and the president of Public Affairs Television, their documentary production company. She sees his victory lap on behalf of causes he cares deeply about as consistent with the rest of his career. “He has a lot of indignation about what is happening to regular people,” she said in a telephone interview. “We both care a great deal about who is being left out and left behind.” Mr. Moyers has done more than preach, teach and write stories. He has been president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that provides grants to promote education and environmental causes, along with financial support for media projects.
To many people with allegiances to liberal causes, he has been a kind of patron saint, a journalist-activist who never let notions of objectivity get in the way of taking a stand. Meryl Streep, who introduced Mr. Moyers when he accepted the 2004 Global Environmental Citizen Award from Harvard Medical School earlier this month, suggested that his retirement was a calamity. “I took it as a natural disaster of the first order, an act of God of the magnitude 8.1 on the Richter scale, when I heard Bill Moyers was retiring from ‘Now’ on PBS after this year,” she said in her presentation. “Many people like me have counted on Bill for what often seemed his voice crying in the wilderness – on behalf of the wilderness – for decades.” But people who do not share his political views see his body of work, however celebrated, as agitprop. And his departing sermons are not making any new friends, including L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media monitoring group.
“I think that if Bill Moyers is trying to go out as the Michael Moore of television, he ought to be congratulated, because he has succeeded,” he said. “I think he has gone off the deep end.” Mr. Moyers sounded as if he might have regrets about leaving public television, however well received his departure would be in some quarters. “I think this will be a golden age of investigative journalism,” he said. “When you marry the power of the state with the power of business, as is the case with the current administration, you are creating a spectacle of corruption that will create a heyday for muckrakers, as long as there are enough of them left.” Although Mr. Moyers is nominally retiring – he and Ms. Moyers will continue to produce documentaries – it is doubtful he will go silent. A day after the telephone interview from his Manhattan production studio, he sent a draft by e-mail of his final remarks on “Now.”
(The program’s new host will be David Brancaccio, its current co-host, a former host of “Marketplace” on public radio and a man with a modern irony that Mr. Moyers never managed to master.) In the note that accompanied the draft, Mr. Moyers continued to circle like a warplane, pumping round after round into its intended targets. “I learned the hard way an old lesson that the greatest moments in the history of the press came not when journalists made common cause with the state but when they stood fearlessly independent of it,” he said. “Now we have those megamedia companies that won’t speak truth to power and an ideological media that willingly lies for power. Scary!” In the uninflected medium of e-mail Mr. Moyers’ departing exclamation, not couched in his just-us-folks Texas delivery, comes through loud and clear.