Bill Moyers gave an historic speech last Sunday in St. Louis, a clarion defense of quality journalism and public broadcasting from the partisan attacks of the White House and its minions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
“CPB was established almost 40 years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting and to be a firewall between political influence and program content,” Moyers told a packed house at the National Conference for Media Reform, lambasting CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s personal crusade against “liberal advocacy” journalism at PBS. “We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable.”
The speech is ricocheting around the Internet and has been broadcast nationwide on TV and radio. The right-wing responded by going into attack mode. On Thursday, Rush Limbaugh went apoplectic, unleashing an on-air tirade against Moyers. Limbaugh had taken a break from his golf game to watch a few minutes of the hour-long speech on C-SPAN2 because he’d heard “my name was taken in vain so often.” (And Limbaugh accuses Moyers of having a God complex.)
Moyers’ speech didn’t mention Limbaugh once. But Rush may have recognized himself in a few of Moyers’ pronouncements. For instance: “The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets. That’s because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned as a liberal is to tell the truth.”
Unable to impugn Moyers credentials -- after all, he’s a former White House staffer with three decades in the television news business and countless Emmy awards -- Rush questioned his sanity. In less than 30 seconds, he dismissed media reformers and Moyers as “unhinged,” “literally insane” and “off their rockers.”
Incapable of winning this debate based on the facts, the best the right-wing media can do is trot out their A-list cast of bloviators, engage in fact-challenged character assassination, and hope that’s enough to fire up the right-wing echo chamber. (They’re using the same tactics to try to take down Newspaper Guild chief Linda Foley for daring to question why so many journalists are being killed by U.S. forces in Iraq.) When reason fails, they always have volume.
Over at the CPB, Tomlinson relies on the same tactics of innuendo. But when it comes to the facts, he’s far less forthcoming. He paid a consultant $10,000 to monitor Moyers’ program for signs of “liberal bias.” (Moyers left “NOW” at the end of last year.) The guest list of Moyers program includes characters from across the political spectrum, including conservative movement leaders Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and Richard Viquerie. This wasn’t good enough for Tomlinson. His decision to pay someone to monitor “liberal bias” at “NOW” has prompted Reps. John Dingell (D-MICH.) and David Obey (D-WIS.) to request an investigation by the CPB's inspector general into charges “of political interference into public broadcasting.”
Tomlinson refuses to release the results of this spying, claiming that they might “damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy.”
But it seems far more likely that he just didn’t like the conclusions.
After all, this is the CPB chairman who buried a survey commissioned by his own agency when its results confirmed that “the majority of the U.S. adult population does not believe that the news and information programming on public broadcasting is biased.” In that same survey, 80 percent of Americans agreed that PBS is “fair and balanced,” and more than 50 percent found PBS news programming to be more trustworthy than network television or the cable networks.
Moyers has challenged Tomlinson to join him for an hour on PBS to discuss these facts and the current controversy. Thus far, Tomlinson has declined, preferring to spend his time writing columns for the Washington Times and fielding softball questions on Fox News. (Tomlinson told Bill O’Reilly: “We love your show.”)
Even when he ventured onto NPR, Tomlinson showed he still doesn’t get it. When his description of Moyers’ show was challenged by WAMU’s Diane Rehm, he quipped: “Am I gonna have to go back and hire another consultant and demonstrate this is incorrect?"
Now, the public is telling Tomlinson what it really thinks of his efforts to remake public broadcasting as a mouthpiece for right-wing views. More than 75,000 concerned citizens already have signed a petition calling for Tomlinson’s resignation (add your name here) and supporting the creation of nationwide town hall meetings on the future of public broadcasting.
These public hearings -- which have been endorsed by Moyers -- would give average people the chance to meet face-to-face with station managers, elected officials and federal regulators to express what they want and expect from their public broadcasting system. It’s the first step in putting the public back in PBS.
We suspect public hearings will show, once and for all, that public broadcasting isn’t a left-right, liberal-or-conservative issue. Listening to the public will make it clear that millions of Americans across the political spectrum are outraged by ongoing government efforts to manipulate the media and public opinion.
Americans don’t need more shouting heads and partisan posturing. They want quality journalism, diversity of views and reliable information.
Apparently, these are ideas that make Tomlinson and Limbaugh squirm.