Bill Moyers, America’s Conscience, Retires Again—This Time for Real

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Bill Moyers, America’s Conscience, Retires Again—This Time for Real

The PBS journalist steps down from his long-time mission to document the lives of Americans and uncover waste, fraud, and abuse in corporate America and beyond.

“When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to the truth,” (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

“When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to the truth,” (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Bill Moyers has threatened to retire several times. Each time, the many fans and friends have urged the legendary PBS journalist to reconsider, and each time he did. But today, at age 83, Moyers announced his farewell, and this time it is real. 

Moyers ended his celebrated PBS interview program, Moyers and Company, in 2014. Since then, he’s hosted BillMoyers.com, with original articles by Moyers and others on political topics. The website will continue to serve as the archive of the television journalism that Moyers has produced over the past 44 years.

Moyers has been one of the most prolific and influential figures in American journalism. Not content just to diagnose and document corporate and political malpractice, Moyers regularly took his cameras and microphones to cities and towns where unions, community organizations, environmental groups, tenants rights activists, and others were waging grassroots campaigns for change. Moyers gave them a voice. He used TV as a tool to expose political and corporate wrongdoing and to tell stories about ordinary people working together for justice.

He also introduced America to great thinkers, activists, and everyday heroes typically ignored by mainstream media. He produced dozens of hard-hitting investigative documentaries uncovering corporate abuse of workers and consumers, the corrupting influence of money in politics, the dangers of the religious right, conservatives' attacks on scientists over global warming, and many other topics. A gifted storyteller, Moyers' TV shows, speeches, and magazine articles have roared with a combination of outrage and decency, exposing abuse and celebrating the country's history of activism.

Moyers spent most of his broadcast career on public television, whose audience is considerably smaller than that of the major networks. But his influence—through his documentaries, interviews, books, magazine articles, and speeches, with their ripple effects of his calls to conscience—has been great nonetheless. He received over thirty-five Emmy Awards (including a Lifetime Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University award, a George Polk Career Award (his third Polk award), induction into the Television Hall of Fame, and many other honors for his contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting.

Moyers came by his progressive class consciousness and moral outrage naturally. Neither of his parents went to high school. Dirt poor, they worked as farmers until they could not make it anymore because of bad weather and the boll weevil. When Moyers was born, the family lived in southeast Oklahoma, where his father was making $2 a day as a highway construction worker. When he got a job driving a creamery truck, they moved to Marshall, Texas.

On a 2008 program, Moyers recalled:

The Great Depression knocked him down and almost out, and he struggled on one pittance paying job after another, until finally, late in life, he had a crack at a union job. His last paycheck was the most he'd ever taken home in a week, $96 and change, and he was proud of it. I saw then how unions struggled to preserve the middle class, and can make the difference between earning a living wage and being part of the working poor.

Moyers and his older brother went to Sunday school at Central Baptist Church in Marshall.  He once noted, “We didn't have baseball cards; we had Bible cards depicting scenes from the scriptures.”

Asked what role his religious faith has played in shaping his political views and journalism, Moyers replied:

When I was growing up, I never heard anyone pray, “Give me this day my daily bread.” It was always, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That stuck. We're all in this together. I take “We, the People” seriously because I don't know how we build a civilization without reciprocity. There's a moral contract in that Preamble. And although I was brought up in a culturally and religious conservative culture, as a Baptist I was taught that no one has the right to subpoena your conscience.

On his 16th birthday, Moyers went to work for the local paper, the Marshall News Messenger. One of his first stories was the “Housewives' Rebellion,” about a group of 15 women who refused to pay Social Security taxes for their African American maids because they believed that the insurance program was unconstitutional. Their lawyer, former right-wing Congressman Martin Dies Jr, a Texas Democrat, lost the case. Moyers was thrilled when the Associated Press picked up the story. Only later did it dawn on him that that the newspaper never covered stories about Marshall’s black residents, who made up half the town's population. “For all practical purposes the staff of the paper pretended half of Marshall didn't exist,” he later wrote.

Moyers left Marshall in 1954 to attend North Texas State College (now University of North Texas). He spent a summer interning on then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson's re-election campaign. Impressed with the young Moyers, LBJ suggested that he transfer to the University of Texas in Austin where he majored in journalism and the liberal arts and worked full-time as assistant news editor for KTBC-TV for $100 a week.

Graduating in 1956, he studied theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where as the weekend pastor of two small rural churches he inflicted “amateurish wisdom on very patient and loving congregations of mostly farmers and their spouses,” as he told NPR's Terry Gross in a 1996 interview. In 1959, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Johnson and helped run LBJ's 1960 vice presidential campaign.

Moyers was a founder of the Peace Corps in 1961 and President Kennedy appointed its first deputy director. After Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ brought Moyers to the White House as a domestic policy assistant with responsibility for shepherding the task forces that led to LBJ's Great Society program.

Moyers played a key role in helping LBJ pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was with LBJ when the president met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House and tried to convince him to abandon further protests, arguing that they would harden white resistance and make it impossible for him to win over the Southern members of Congress, with whom Johnson had often successfully negotiated as Senate majority leader. King disagreed, reminding LBJ of the history of murders, lynchings, and daily humiliations, insisting that the protests were necessary to draw attention to the need for civil rights legislation.

As Moyers recalled:

LBJ listened, as intently as I ever saw him listen. He listened, and then he put his hand on Martin Luther King's shoulder, and said, in effect: “OK. You go out there Dr. King and keep doing what you're doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

TIME magazine put Moyers on its October 29, 1965 cover, under the headline: “L.B.J.'s Young Man In Charge of Everything.”

By 1966, Moyers had reluctantly agreed to be the president's press secretary, but he found it increasingly difficult to defend LBJ's escalation of the war in Vietnam. “The things I really cared about—poverty, the Great Society, civil rights—were all being drained away by the war,” he said. “The line that keeps running through my mind is the line I never spoke: ‘I can't speak for a war that I believe is immoral.’”

“When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to the truth,” he said.

Moyers resigned from the White House the following year and became the publisher of Newsday, a suburban New York daily. “When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to the truth,” he said.

But Harry Guggenheim, Newsday's conservative owner, disapproved of the liberal innovations under Moyers, particularly what he called its “left-wing” coverage of the antiwar movement. In 1968 Guggenheim signed an editorial supporting Richard Nixon's candidacy, while Moyers published one supporting Hubert Humphrey.

Moyers resigned in 1970 and began his long relationship with public television, interrupted by a decade (1976-1986) at CBS News. To maintain his journalistic independence, Moyers formed his own production company and raised all the funds for his many productions. At PBS, Moyers, a master of the long-form interview, had the freedom to craft his own programs, including Now with Bill MoyersMoyers on AmericaBill Moyers Journal, and Moyers & Company.

He interviewed important thinkers and activists rarely seen on television, including organizers like Ernesto Cortés, Sarita Gupta, Madeline Janis, Bill McKibben, Ai-jen Poo, and Stephen Lerner; historians like Howard Zinn and Harvey Kaye; scientists like René Dubos; philosophers like Joseph Campbell; theologians like Karen Armstrong; economists like Joseph Stiglitz; and provocative writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wendell Berry, Michelle Alexander, and Naomi Klein. Despite his own progressive leanings, Moyers consistently invited conservative thinkers onto his show, including Richard Viguerie, Cal Thomas, and Ron Paul. He produced investigative documentaries on a variety of topics, including the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on local communities; campaign finance; the rise of the religious right, the dumping of hazardous waste, and the inadequate funding for public schools.

In 1993, Moyers and his colleague Marty Koughan were putting the finishing touches on a Frontline documentary investigating pesticides in food when a peculiar thing happened. As he related in his book, Moyers on America—A Journalist and His Times:

The [chemical] industry somehow purloined a copy of our draft script and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our broadcast before it aired. A Washington Post columnist took a dig at the broadcast on the morning of the day it aired, without even having seen it, and later confessed to me that the dirt had been supplied by a top lobbyist for the chemical industry.

Later that year, his documentary, In Our Children's Food, won an Emmy for investigative journalism. But the experience was one more reminder to Moyers of the corrosive effect of corporate power on the common good.

Moyers's 2007 documentary Buying the War reported how most of the press corps became complicit with the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. “If the watchdog doesn't bark,” Moyers said about the program, “how do you know there's a burglar in the basement? And the press is supposed to be a watchdog.”

In a June 2008 show about America's “new Gilded Age,” Moyers noted that the nation's widening economic divide was making it harder and harder for working families to make ends meet:

Can we put aside that old canard spouted by Wall Street apologists every time someone calls for greater equity between working people and the rich? Truth is, there's been a class war waged in America for 30 years now from the top down, and the rich have won.

Moyers often uncovered the unseemly entanglement of big business and politicians:

If a baseball player stepping up to home plate were to lean over and hand the umpire a wad of bills before the pitch, we would know what that was: a bribe. But when the tobacco industry stuffs $13 million in the pockets of the merry looters in Congress and gets protection in return, we call that a campaign contribution.

In 2010, in collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy, Moyers exposed the inner workings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front-group that operates behind closed doors to promote state-level legislation deigned to increase corporate profits at public expense.

In a broadcast about the concentration of media ownership, he pointed to,

the paradox of Rush Limbaugh, ensconced in a Palm Beach mansion massaging the resentments across the country of white-knuckled wage earners, who are barely making ends meet in no small part because of the corporate and ideological forces for whom Rush has been a hero.

Moyers suggested that,

the most important thing the giant philanthropies could do—Gates, Rockefeller, Ford, Open Society Institute, and new ones emerging—would be to create a $2-to-$3 billion Trust for Independent Journalism. They wouldn’t miss the money, and democracy would still have a fighting chance because of their investment.

When I interviewed Moyers in 2014, he told me that he admired what he called the “Mount Rushmore of muckraking” journalism, including Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and I. F. Stone. But his favorite was Ambrose Bierce. He noted:

Dennis Drabelle's new book, The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad, is a thriller about how Bierce was hired by William Randolph Hearst to take a swat team of reporters and editors to Washington to stop the very rich and ruthless Collis Huntington, the railroad baron, from bribing Congress and passing on to taxpayers the big loan he had obtained from the government. They beat him just as he was about to buy the last man. Oh, for that kind of impact today!

In recent years, Moyers increasingly used the word “plutocracy” to describe the growing concentration of wealth and political influence.

“The most encouraging sign is that 71 percent of the public believe the system is profoundly corrupted by the power of money,” Moyers said.

Ninety-six percent of the people believe it's “important” that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91 percent think it's “not likely” that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what's right to do yet don't think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democracy's ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game's almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.

Asked if he sees any hopeful signs that America is ready to challenge the plutocrats and restore more democracy, Moyers said:

What today's activists—the low-wage workers fighting Walmart, the immigrant rights activists, the Moral Monday activists in North Carolina, those fast-food workers who have stirred admiration and collegiality among serfs at large, and many more—have in common is a conviction once expressed by Robert La Follette: “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” If it weren't for them, I would despair. … It's the people who are doing the nonviolent organizing at the grassroots that make me think there's still hope.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

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