Journalism & Democracy
Hi. My name is Bill, and I'm a recovering Unimpeachable Source. I understand "Unimpeachable Source" is now an oxymoron in Washington, as in "McCain Republican" or "Democratic Party." But once upon a time in a far away place--Washington in the 1960s--I was one. Deep Backgrounders and Unattributable Tips were my drugs of choice. Just go to Austin and listen to me on those tapes LBJ secretly recorded. That's the sound of a young man getting high...without inhaling. I swore off thirty-four years ago last month, and I'm here to tell you, it hasn't been easy to stay clean. I can't even watch The West Wing without breaking into a sweat. A C-SPAN briefing by Ari Fleischer pushes me right to the edge. But I know one shot--just one--and I could wind up like my friend David Gergen, in and out of revolving doors and needing to go on The NewsHour for a fix between Presidents.
But I'm not here to talk about my time in the White House. I haven't talked much about it at all, though I do plan to write about it someday soon. During the past three and a half decades, I have learned that the job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. Unless you're willing to fight and refight the same battles until you go blue in the face, to drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you've got it right, and then to take hit after unfair hit accusing you of having a "bias," or these days even a point of view, there's no use even in trying. You have to love it, and I do.
I always have. Journalism is what I wanted to do since I was a kid. Fifty years ago, on my 16th birthday, I went to work at the Marshall News Messenger. The daily newspaper in a small Texas town seemed like the best place in the world to be a cub reporter. It was small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy, happy and learning something new every day. I was lucky. Some of the old-timers were out sick or on vacation and I got assigned to cover the Housewives' Rebellion. Fifteen women in Marshall refused to pay the new Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers. The rebels argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that--here's my favorite part--"requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage." They hired themselves a lawyer--Martin Dies, the ex-Congressman best known (or worst known) for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Eventually the women wound up paying the tax--while holding their noses. The stories I wrote for the News Messenger were picked up and moved on the Associated Press wire. And I was hooked.
Two years later, as a sophomore in college, I decided I wanted to become a political journalist and figured experience in Washington would show me the ropes. I wrote a man I had never met, a United States senator named Lyndon Johnson, and asked him for a summer job. Lucky again, I got it. And at summer's end LBJ and Lady Bird offered me a job on their television station in Austin for $100 a week. Looking back on all that followed--seminary, the Peace Corps, the White House, Newsday, PBS, CBS and PBS again--I often think of what Joseph Lelyveld, the executive editor of the New York Times, told some aspiring young journalists. "You can never know how a life in journalism will turn out," he said.
It took me awhile after the White House to learn that what's important in journalism is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality. Journalism took me there: to famine in Africa, war in Central America, into the complex world of inner-city families in Newark and to working-class families in Milwaukee struggling to survive the good times. My life in journalism has been a continuing course in adult education. From colleagues--from producers like Sherry Jones--I keep learning about journalism as storytelling. Sherry and I have been collaborating off and on for a quarter of a century, from the time we did the very first documentary ever about political action committees. I can still see the final scene in that film--yard after yard of computer printout listing campaign contributions unfurled like toilet paper stretching all the way across the Capitol grounds.
That one infuriated just about everyone, including friends of public television. PBS took the heat and didn't melt. When Sherry and I reported the truth behind the news of the Iran/contra scandal for a Frontline documentary called "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," the right-wing Taliban in town went running to their ayatollahs in Congress, who decried the fact that public television was committing--horrors--journalism. The Clinton White House didn't like it a bit, either, when Sherry and I reported on Washington's Other Scandal, about the Democrats' unbridled and illegal fundraising of 1996.
If PBS didn't flinch, neither did my corporate underwriter for ten years now, Mutual of America Life Insurance Company. Before Mutual of America I had lost at least three corporate underwriters, who were happy as long as we didn't make anyone else unhappy. Losing your underwriting will keep the yellow light of caution flickering in a journalist's unconscious. I found myself--and I could kick myself for this--not even proposing controversial subjects to potential underwriters because I had told myself, convinced myself: "Nah, not a chance!" Then Mutual of America came along and the yellow light flickers no more. This confluence of good fortune and good colleagues has made it possible for us to do programs that the networks dare not contemplate.