In American journalism, the year ended with a loss. Bill Moyers, anchor of PBS' NOW, has retired.
More than a skilled reporter of the daily fare, Mr. Moyers was fascinated not only by the deeper trends in our public life but also by the larger philosophical controversies at the heart of political debate. Though clearly a journalist with leftist sympathies, he displayed an all-too-rare willingness to acknowledge the contestability of his own perspective and the cogency of his opponents.
My mentor at The Progressive, Erwin Knoll, covered the White House for Newhouse Newspapers during the Johnson administration. He once quipped that Mr. Moyers' outstanding work in public journalism represented atonement for the manipulations and evasions in which he had engaged as a press secretary for Lyndon Johnson.
Mr. Moyers has more than atoned. More important, he would be the last to set himself up as the final standard of political truth or journalistic integrity. Much of his career has been devoted to an exploration of the limits and dangers of a journalism gripped by narrow economic interests or ideological agendas. He has been one of the few voices, even in public broadcasting, willing to explore the consequences of the corporate consolidation of the media.
Just as commendably, Mr. Moyers has walked the walk in his commitment to diverse journalism. In an age when corporate agendas shape business reporting, it is remarkable how seldom even such pro-business media as CNBC and Fox News explain and explore the fundamental assumptions of market theory underlying the commitment to deregulation, free trade and social security privatization.
Among my favorite memories of NOW was a program in which a leading libertarian economist, under provocative questioning from Mr. Moyers, detailed the ways in which misguided monetary policy in the early 1930s had exacerbated the Depression. New Deal pump-priming only impeded recovery. I was not convinced, but the segment exposed the assumptions and even elements of faith inside every economic persuasion.
NOW programs devoted to critics of corporate excesses generally included substantial opportunities for those accused to respond. And these responses were not shouted down, ridiculed or demeaned. (Unfortunately, the days of Mr. Moyers - and William Buckley - are fading memories.)
More broadly, Mr. Moyers, an ordained Baptist minister, has had a long-standing interest in religious controversy and its implications for politics. But for Mr. Moyers, religion comes not only in various fundamentalist garbs but also in prophetic voices that challenge establishment verities. As liberals discuss how to respond to the religious right, Mr. Moyers subtly reminded us that Christianity hardly speaks with one voice.
One of Mr. Moyers' most provocative guests was Paul Woodruff, author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Mr. Woodruff commented: "One of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God's will. It was about their attitude toward themselves and their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike."
In the content and demeanor of his journalistic life, Mr. Moyers has consistently displayed reverence. Nonetheless, he would be the first to acknowledge that reverence is not confined to one man; it is a capacity that can be inspired in us by others and by many of life's events.
From observing David Brancaccio on PBS' Marketplace and in his early work on the hourlong NOW, he is a worthy successor to Mr. Moyers. It is a sad commentary on Mr. Moyers' values, however, that Mr. Brancaccio will be allotted only half an hour. May he make the best use of this time, and may those of us who value this journalism lend our support.
John Buell is a columnist with the Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun