Sun, May. 15, 2005
Moyers defends PBS, takes aim at `radical right'
BY MICHAEL D. SORKIN
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS - (KRT) - Bill Moyers denounced on Sunday the right wing and top officials at the White House, saying they are trying to silence their critics by controlling the news media.
He also took aim at reporters who become little more than willing government "stenographers." And he said the public increasingly is content with just enough news to confirm its own biases.
Moyers spoke in St. Louis at a conference on media reform. His reports have appeared on the Public Broadcasting System since the 1970s. He was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson and is a former newspaper publisher.
Moyers said those in power - government officials and their allies in the media - mean to stay there by punishing journalists "who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable."
Moyers described those officials as "obsessed with control" of the media. He said they are using the government "to threaten and intimidate."
Moyers answered for the first time recent charges that public television in general and he in particular have become too liberal.
Those charges are from Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and, in effect, Moyers' boss at the network.
Tomlinson, a Republican, paid an outside consultant $10,000 to keep track of the political leanings of guests on Moyers' show, "Now." Moyers left the show last year but is back on public television as host of the series "Wide Angle."
Tomlinson, on the recommendation of administration officials, hired a senior White House aide to draw up guidelines to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts, according to a report in The New York Times on May 2. Tomlinson has denied that he was carrying out a White House mandate.
Tomlinson complained that Moyers' show was consistently critical of Republicans and the Bush administration. He said there was a "tone deafness" at PBS headquarters on issues of "tone and balance."
Moyers said he knew his broadcasts have created a backlash in Washington.
"The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party," he said.
"That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth."
Moyers' speech was interrupted by standing ovations at the Conference for Media Reform here over the weekend. More than 2,500 people attended the three-day conference.
Ernest Wilson III serves with Tomlinson on the board that oversees public broadcasting. He said PBS outranks the Fox News Channel, CNN and all the broadcast news networks in a survey that asked whom the public trusts.
"We are, by far, the most `fair and balanced,'" he said, a reference to the motto of Fox News.
Moyers complained that PBS' "liberal" label is undeserved.
"In contrast to the conservative mantra that public television routinely features the voices of establishment critics," he said, alternative voices on public television are rare and usually drowned out by government and corporate views.
Moyers said that's exactly what the right wing wants.
"They want your reporting to validate their belief system, and when it doesn't God forbid."
He said he always thought that the American eagle needed both a left wing and a right wing. "But with two right wings, or two left wings, it's no longer an eagle, and it's going to crash."
Moyers said right wingers had attacked him after he closed a broadcast by placing a flag in his lapel.
It was the first time that he had worn a flag. He said he put it on to remind himself that "not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what bin Laden did to us."
"The flag has been hijacked and turned into a logo, a trademark of a monopoly on patriotism," Moyers said.
Moyers had harsh words for reporters who simply recount what officials say, without scrutinizing what they say and do.
He said New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, among other reporters, had relied on official but unnamed sources "when she served essentially as the government's stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction."
Moyers said he has come to understand that "news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity."
He said that kind of reporting has never been tougher to do:
"Without a trace of irony, the powers that be have appropriated the news speak vernacular of George Orwell's `1984,' giving us a program, no child will be left behind, while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged children.
"They give us legislation calling for clear skies and healthy forests" while "turning over public lands to the energy industry."
He said the public shares the blame:
"An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight - ask questions and be skeptical."
Moyers compared Tomlinson and other conservatives to Richard Nixon, who he said was another president who tried to take control of public television.
"I always knew Nixon would be back," Moyers said. "I just didn't know that this time he would ask to be chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
Moyers was a last-minute addition to the conference. He finished writing his hourlong speech 20 minutes before he spoke. His ending was nearly drowned out by a blaring fire alarm that went off by mistake.
The conference ended Sunday, and some who attended said they were still unsure what reforming the media means. Others said they were energized to go home and give it a try.
"It's true that no one laid out a battle plan," said Mercedes Lynn DeUriarte, an associate journalism professor from the University of Texas at Austin. "But everybody left understanding that we're at a critical point, where we must find a way to protect a democratic press or risk democracy."
© 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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