Bill Moyers says that journalists have a responsibility to question those in power.
Rush Limbaugh, speaking for the economic and political elites that currently occupy positions of authority, responds by charging that Moyers is "insane."
A debate has opened regarding the role of reporting in George W. Bush's America. But this debate is about a great deal more than one president or one moment in history. At the most fundamental level, it is about whether the American experiment as imagined by the most visionary of its founders can long endure.
Moyers set the stage at the National Conference for Media Reform last week, where he delivered a call for the redemption of American journalism. Though he was appearing less than a week after it had been revealed that the Bush administration ally who chairs the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had waged a secret campaign to drive him off the air, the former host of PBS's "NOW" program was calm and collected. The winner of thirty Emmy Awards reflected upon his own work and that of his colleagues on "NOW." But his real purpose was to defend the craft of journalism against the battering it has taken from those who believe reporters should be little more than stenographers to power. At a time when too many prominent journalists have accepted the diminished standards that their critics would impose upon them, Moyers raged against the dying of the light -- not so much for himself as for the Republic that will not stand without a free, skeptical and courageous press.
"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," Moyers explained to the 2,300 journalists, academics and activists who had gathered in St. Louis.
Moyers proceeded to describe the behind-the-scenes pressure that CPB board chair Ken Tomlinson and other White House allies exerted in a campaign to get the NOW team to trim its sails. The "crime" committed by Moyers and his crew was not one of liberal bias, as became evident when the former host of the program described the ideological diversity of the guests on NOW, read a letter praising the show from conservative Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, and recalled the support it had received from the widow of a New York City firefighter who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Rather, Moyers explained, "One reason I'm in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn't play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news."
The former White House aide, newspaper publisher, author and documentary filmmaker committed the cardinal sin of the contemporary moment: he practiced the craft of journalism as the authors of the "freedom of the press" protection in the Bill of Rights intended -- without fear or favor, unbought and unbossed, and in the service of the public interest rather than the private demands of the economically and politically powerful. Such trangressions are punished as severely in George W. Bush's America as they were in the America that was ruled by another, equally regal George 230 years ago. And just as King George III had henchmen who attacked the rebels against his rule, so the contemporary King George has his Tories. Chief among them is Limbaugh, the bombastic radio personality whose microphone is always at the ready for a denunciation of those who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes.
No one polices the discourse more aggressively than Limbaugh.
So when word got out that Moyers was telling the American people that they should expect more from their media than a slurry of celebrity gossip and propaganda, there was hell to pay.
Typically, Limbaugh did not attack the substance of Moyers's remarks. Rather, the viscount of viciousness devoted a substantial portion of his nationally-syndicated radio program Thursday to claiming that Moyers had come "unhinged" and that, "The things coming out of his mouth today are literally insane." The most self-absorbed personality in America media -- who regularly declares that he's got "talent on loan from God" and says, "I'm doing what I was born to do. That's host. You're doing what you were born to do. That's listen." -- even went so far as to suggest that Moyers had a messiah complex.
So agitated was Limbaugh that he attacked another speaker at the media-reform conference, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley -- in Limbaugh parlance, "this Linda Foley babe" -- for expressing concern about the killing of journalists in Iraq. And, for good measure, he closed off his rant by claiming that the millions of Americans who are demanding a more civic and democratic media are "off their rockers" and dismissing the notion of reforming the media as "an oxymoron."
It would be easy to counter Limbaugh by climbing down into the gutter of character assassination and recycled Washington spin with the nation's No. 1 peddler of those commodities. Whole books been written regarding Limbaugh's personal and professional foibles.
But this is not about Limbaugh. After all, it's not as if he speaks for himself. When the economic and political elites of the nation says "Jump!" Limbaugh response has always been an enthusiastic, "How high?" And never does he jump higher or quicker than when he is going for the throat of someone who has committed the sin of telling the American people that there is more to a broadcast than talking points and cheerleading for those who refuse to play fair. Of course, Limbaugh thought Moyers was nuts. Limbaugh has been bending the facts for so long that he, undoubtedly, believes that trying to get them straight is madness.
This places him very much at odds with Moyers, who wants the American people to know that there is a reason why they get so little useful information from their radio programs and the nightly reports on network television.
Thus, the best counter to Limbaugh is not an attack on the radio babbler, but rather a return to the high ground with Moyers.
Let Limbaugh bellow, like the Wizard of Oz when he was trying to keep his machinery hidden. Moyers is pulling the curtain away and telling the American people what is wrong with the "rules of the game" by which so much of today's so-called "journalism" is practiced.
"These 'rules of the game' permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin, invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading," Moyers explained last week.
"I decided long ago that this wasn't healthy for democracy. I came to see that 'news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.' In my documentaries -- whether on the Watergate scandals 30 years ago or the Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill Clinton's fundraising scandals 10 years ago or, five years ago, the chemical industry's long and despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products from its workers -- I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference. I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the people in power. In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence. This is always hard to do, but it has never been harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell's 1984. They give us a program vowing 'No Child Left Behind,' while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation cheerily calling for 'Clear Skies' and 'Healthy Forests' that give us neither. And that's just for starters."
The difference between Limbaugh and Moyers is as profound as the difference between FOX and PBS. One man plays by the "rules of the game," the other sticks to principle. One man defends a corrupt status quo, the other seeks to expose it. One is a master propagandist, the other wants to break the stranglehold of "The Big Lie." One fears the damage done by the practice of journalism, the other knows that great journalism is the essential element in the making of great nations. One is a Tory who serves his King George, the other is a rebel against the throne.
It is not a fair fight. On one side are Limbaugh and his Tories, with all of their economic and political might. On the other are Moyers and his media reformers, with only the truth -- and the echo of Tom Paine crying across the centuries: "O Ye that love mankind! Ye that dares oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!"
John Nichols has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is author of the book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire.
© 2005 The Nation