After more than 40 years on the air, Bill Moyers has turned off his microphone. While the longtime face of public broadcasting had threatened to retire in the past, this time he has assured us that we have heard his final farewell. His voice and regular presence will be deeply missed, but his legacy, and his impact on public life will surely live on.
During his storied career, the former White House press secretary and newspaper publisher produced groundbreaking reports on subjects ranging from the Iran-Contra scandal and the Iraq war to economic inequality and the corrosive influence of money in politics. His relentless commitment to the truth made Moyers the target of vicious attacks from Republicans, who for decades have sought to dismantle the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but he never backed down. Always fearlessly independent, Moyers provided an invaluable counterpoint to Washington’s conventional wisdom. Yet his true legacy is far greater than the stories he covered or the politics he espoused. Indeed, Moyers constantly reminded us of journalism’s indispensable role in our democracy.
Moyers distinguished himself as a journalist by refusing to be a stenographer for the powerful. Instead of providing yet another venue for the predictable preening of establishment leaders, Moyers gave a platform to dissenting voices from both the left and the right. Instead of covering the news from the narrow perspective of the political and corporate elite, Moyers gave voice to the powerless and the issues that affect them. “We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news,” he once said at an event hosted by The Nation Institute in Washington, D.C. “But our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.”
As politics became a spectator sport, Moyers, guided by his abiding belief in journalists as truth-tellers, refused to play along. “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,” he explained in 2005. “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.”
And when the media failed to report the truth — most notably as the Bush administration built the case for the war in Iraq — Moyers demanded to know what had gone wrong. In 2007, Moyers produced “Buying the War,” an extraordinary documentary that explored the role of the press in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and featured tough interviews with prominent media figures, including Tim Russert and Dan Rather, about the mistakes they made. “How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored,” he said at the time. “How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?”
Moyers understood that one of the most pernicious threats to journalism, and indeed democracy, is a media dominated by corporations that prioritize profits over the public interest. He was a longtime modern-day Tom Paine, warning against the perils of media consolidation — in print, on radio and television, and online — which he said “can take the oxygen out of democracy.” And he inspired and encouraged a movement of media reformers to fight for a free and independent press, including those of us at The Nation, where he was a regular contributor.
Above all else, Moyers treated his audience, in the words of The Nation columnist Eric Alterman, “as adult citizens of a republic, who bear collective responsibility for the society we share” — a reflection of his deep and humane thinking about the roles of media and government. “I don’t harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy. Remember, I worked for Lyndon Johnson. Nor do I romanticize ‘the people,’ ” he said. “But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens (something otherwise known as social justice) and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud.”
Upon receiving the Freedom of Speech award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in 2007, Moyers recalled FDR’s influence on his childhood. “I don’t know quite how to explain it, except that my father knew who was on his side and who wasn’t, and for 12 years he had no doubt where FDR stood,” Moyers said. “The first time I remember him with tears in his eyes was when Roosevelt died. He had lost his friend.” For anyone who tuned in to his programs over the past four decades, there was no doubt where Bill Moyers stood. We knew he was on our side. He was our friend.