I had the opportunity to interview author and broadcaster Bill Moyers last year, just before his latest TV show launched. Then, we were a full year ahead of the presidential election. Now, as we head into the cable-news crush called convention season, I watched our conversation again. It’s even more pointed now. Says Moyers: “The scandal, one part of the scandal, is local television stations make enormous sums of money from all of the campaigning that goes on every two or fours years…and they give back nothing for that.… Nothing. They should be giving “free time” to the candidates that have real debate with citizens and answer questions. Instead, they write carefully manufactured commercials that are exploitive and misleading and demeaning.”
Read Moyers, and then read this speech from Newton Minow, then chair of the Federal Communication Commission. Minnow said it best, when he said it 1961: “In a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.”
Today, cable news has turned our elections themselves into unbalanced action adventures or worse, situation comedies. And public television, barring shows like Moyers’s own, is barely keeping afloat—or keeping anyone awake. Given our situation as a nation, maybe the last word should be “tragedies.”
Moyers did not laugh. Nor would Minnow. Watch part one of our May 2011 conversation here.
Laura Flanders: I’m here with Bill Moyers, veteran of public broadcasting and so much more. He has a new book out, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues. I want you to talk about media. You were in Washington in the Johnson administration or moving that way in the early sixties when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, its mission was still kind of being hammered out and articulated. What did you understand it to be?
Bill Moyers: Well there were only three networks at that time, believe it or not: CBS, ABC and NBC, and ABC was half a network actually. It didn’t even have a news division. President Johnson and the Carnegie Foundation and people like Newt Minnow of the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] believed that there should be just one channel free of commercials, free of commercial values, so that you could honor on that channel the spirit of creativity, the artist, good conversation, independent, unfettered journalism. There should be one place that was an alternative to the corporate world of media, which always has its own vested interest to serve. So that’s what public broadcasting was to be. And over the last forty-some-odd years, on the whole, public television and public radio enriched our culture enriched our politics, enriched our lives by honoring people who may have something to say and something to offer that has no commercial price attached to it.
Now Newton Minnow, the FCC chair in the early sixties, gave a famous speech in 1961—fifty years ago this year—where he talked about television having become a vast wasteland. He’s said that’s not the part of the speech he wanted remembered.… He said it was the public service part that he wanted people to remember, but that went by the by and no changes happened. Why?
[From Minnow’s 1961 speech. Read the full text here.]