NEW YORK -- A zeal for secrecy pulsates through government at every level, said journalism icon Bill Moyers.
Moyers, who will retire in three months from PBS, addressed journalists who filled a hotel ballroom last week at the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Moyers’ award-winning career put him on the air at CBS, placed him in the White House as press secretary to President Lyndon Baines Johnson and posted him as publisher of Newsday. He described himself as a “vagrant journalistic” soul.
| Journalism Under Fire
by Bill Moyers
Address to the Society of Professional Journalists
September 11, 2004
New York City
He learned, Moyers said, “that what’s important for the journalist is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality.”
His speech covered a broad range of topics illustrated by examples of stories and experiences from his lengthy career. He had particularly strong words about government secrecy.
News organizations from across Ohio discovered this past spring that officials in all the state’s 88 counties were just as likely to keep public records secret as they were to release them as required by law.
Promises have been made to improve the process. Legislation is being drafted, and seminars for officials and the public are being sponsored by Ohio’s attorney general and auditor. But secrecy, Moyers said, is “virtually impenetrable. We are witnessing new barriers imposed to public access to information and a rapid mutation of America’s political culture in favor of the secret rule of government.”
Moyers aimed much of his criticism at the Bush administration. “Never has there been an administration like the one in power today — so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in Congress,” he said. “The litany is long.”
A report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors suggests that we are witnessing the “single greatest rollback of the Freedom of Information Act in history.” Moyers was Johnson’s press secretary when the president signed the act into law on July 4, 1966. Though he took credit for it, Johnson vehemently opposed the act. “He hated the very idea,” Moyers said, “hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official review of reality.”
Moyers called secrecy “contagious, scandalous and toxic.” He offered these examples, among others:
- President Bush’s chief of staff ordered a review that lead to 6,000 documents being pulled from government Web sites.
- The Department of Defense banned photos of military caskets being returned to the United States.
- Vice President Dick Cheney kept his energy task force records secret “to hide the influence of Kenneth Lay, Enron and other energy moguls.”
- The CIA asks a new question during its standard employer polygraph exam: “Do you have friends in the media?”
- “There have been more than 1,200 presumably terrorist-related arrests,” Moyers said, “and 750 people deported, and no one outside the government knows their names or how many court docket entries have been erased or never entered.”
- Secret federal court hearings have been held without any public record of when or where, or who was tried.
- When the American Civil Liberties Union challenged provisions of the Patriot Act, it was prohibited from telling anyone about it.
- The Washington Post reported that in recent years, judicial committees acting in secret stripped information nearly 600 times from reports intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving federal judges.
Moyers said the zeal for secrecy “adds up to a victory for the terrorists.” Those who planned and carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks “aimed their atrocity at possessing our psyche in order to deprive us of the trust and confidence required for democracy to work.
“By pillaging and plundering our peace of mind, they hoped to panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of the press — that constitute the ability of democracy to self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.” The greatest moments in the history of the press, Moyers said, “came not when journalists made common cause with the state, but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.”
In Ohio, the access seminars and promises of legislation have not corrected the state’s course. The iceberg lies dead ahead.
© Copyright 2004 The Repository