Thursday, October 5, 2006

Q&A Bill Moyers

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

 By Harvey Blume

THE TELEPHONE ISN'T my favorite means of communicating," Bill Moyers noted, after scheduling conflicts compelled us to speak by phone. "I like to see the other person's face."

That gave me insight into the sometimes alarmingly intent expression Moyers wears in the PBS interviews he's been doing for more than 30 years: He's not merely listening, but studying his interviewee, trying to take in the whole person.

In 2004, Moyers, then 70, left public television voluntarily but amid controversy. Kenneth Tomlinson, then the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--a key source of PBS funding--had charged Moyers's show "Now" with "left-wing bias" and hired a private investigator to monitor the program. From retirement, Moyers blasted back, saying Congress created the CPB in 1967 "as a heat shield to protect public broadcasters" from "intimidation" by the likes of Tomlinson. (Moyers was working as a policy assistant to President Johnson, whom he later served as press secretary, when the idea for the CPB was first discussed.)

Tomlinson, in any case, has since resigned, and Moyers is back on PBS full throttle with three new documentaries airing this month. "Capitol Crimes," which premiered Oct. 4, disentangles the Jack Abramoff scandal. "Is God Green?" (Oct. 11) depicts the rise of Bible-based environmentalism. "The Net at Risk" (airing this Wednesday night) asks if Net neutrality--broadly defined as equal access to the Internet--will survive Congress rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (See for local listings and streaming video of all three programs.)

Moyers worries that big money is squeezing the life out of democratic processes, often citing Scripture as it does. But unlike many others with muckraking zeal, he's no enemy of organized religion: He's an ordained Baptist minister and a regular churchgoer. Moyers's passion for democratic values, combined with his respect for religion, gives him an unusually wide lens to turn on America.

IDEAS: Over the years, you've made plenty of documentaries. But it seems your most popular pieces--for example, the "Power of Myth" series with Joseph Campbell--just show "talking heads," two people talking. Why are those shows so popular?

MOYERS: I do not really understand why what you call "talking heads" seem to have an impact that survives. But the fact of the matter is that the most important communication we have is face to face.

IDEAS: What impact do you hope your reporting on the Abramoff scandal will have?

MOYERS: I grew up reading the New Testament, where it is said: You shall know the truth, the truth shall make you free. But you don't know, if you report the truth, that anything will change. You hope that at least the people who watch will know more than they did before.

IDEAS: It's discouraging, though, that "Capitol Crimes" ends with a shot of the K Street sign in Washington, D.C., and you saying "On K Street, business goes on--as usual."

MOYERS: But it's a fact. The nation hasn't spent a lot of time coming to grips with Abramoff. The Congress hasn't. The House immediately introduced placebo reforms. Once the ethics committee started getting close to Tom DeLay, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert neutered the ethics committee. This is a story a lot of people have simply yawned at.


MOYERS: Well, coverups don't make it easy to report things. We know about Abramoff because of a few people who blew the whistle, including Jeff Smith, a reporter for The Washington Post. Smith had been abroad for five years, and when he came back couldn't believe how much Washington had changed. He looked into why, discovered the K Street Project, and said to his colleagues: Why aren't you on this? They just yawned--business as usual.

IDEAS: You came back to PBS this June with a seven-part series called "Faith and Reason." "Capitol Crimes" and "Is God Green?" take up faith again, showing, in the first case, how it can disguise greed, and in the second, how it can empower people. Is there any room in your work for purely secular culture?

MOYERS: The third documentary in this trilogy, "The Net at Risk," has nothing to do with faith. It is about the fact that 10 years ago Congress carved up the media landscape in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowing increased conglomeration of ownership. Almost nothing was known about it at the time. The big media companies didn't cover it, and didn't want it covered.

Now they'll be rewriting the Telecommunications Act. If the big companies have their way, in the dark of the night behind closed doors, they will gain the power to own not only the pipes of the Internet but what goes into those pipes. Giving control of content and access to big corporations will mean that the Internet, the most revolutionary democratic phenomenon of our time, where all of us are equal, will slip through our fingers. I did this documentary to say, Hey people, pay attention. Something is about to happen that will be very hard to change.

IDEAS: Have you become more radical over the years?

MOYERS: Radical in the sense of returning to the roots of the American experience, maybe, as in Thomas Paine radical. What I find is that money has become the common denominator of politics. Both parties have become its servants. And I've seen it get worse; I've seen our democracy become paralyzed by the influence of big money. I did "Capitol Crimes" because I want people to know the magnitude it has reached.

In other ways, I'm a conservative. I've been married to the same woman for 52 years. I'm a regular at church. I am a believer.

IDEAS: Have you ever felt like you were being pushed out of PBS?

MOYERS: A friend from the Lyndon Johnson years recently reminded me that when he got on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1969, they were talking about how to get rid of Bill Moyers.

IDEAS: What does that say about PBS?

MOYERS: It's a place where if you fight you can survive, but it's not easy. The fact of the matter is that Kenneth Tomlinson had a chilling effect down the line.

IDEAS: It's been said that you have the oratorical flair of a preacher. Does your religious faith help fuel your political passion?

MOYERS: I don't see it that way. At an Emmy Awards recently, I said I want to thank the First Amendment. Faith in the First Amendment, not a theological belief system, keeps me going as a journalist.

Let me put it this way: I was press secretary in the Johnson administration when we circled the wagons and mocked reporting from Vietnam from the likes of David Halberstam--with terrible consequences for Vietnam and America. We let ideology blind us to the facts on the ground. That's the driving force in my work, to never let it happen again.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. 

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