Editor’s Note: Bill Moyers delivered these remarks in Washington, DC April 3 at the fifth annual Ridenhour Prize awards ceremony, sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. Moyers received the Courage Prize; author James D. Scurlock, received the Book Prize, and former Navy JAG officer Matthew Diaz received the Prize for Truth-Telling. The text of his speech appears here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.
Thank you very much, Sissy Farenthold, for those very generous words, spoken like one Texan to another–extravagantly. Thank you for the spirit of kinship. I could swear that I sensed our good Molly Ivins standing there beside you.
I am as surprised to be here as I am grateful. I never thought of myself as courageous, and still don’t. Ron Ridenhour was courageous. To get the story out, he had to defy the whole might and power of the United States government, including its war machine. I was then publisher of Newsday, having left the White House some two years earlier. Our editor Bill McIlwain played the My Lai story big, as he should, much to the chagrin of the owner who couldn’t believe Americans were capable of such atrocities. Our readers couldn’t believe it either. Some of them picketed outside my office for days, their signs accusing the paper of being anti-American for publishing repugnant news about our troops. Some things never change.
A few years later, I gave the commencement at a nearby university, and when I finished the speech, a woman who had just been graduated came up to me and said, “Mr. Moyers, you’ve been in both government and journalism; that makes everything you say twice as hard to believe.” She was on to something.
After my government experience, it took me a while to get my footing back in journalism. I had to learn all over again that what is important for the journalist is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to reality. Over the last forty years, I would find that reality in assignment after assignment, from covering famine in Africa and war in Central America to inner-city families trapped in urban ghettos and middle-class families struggling to survive in an era of downsizing across the heartland. I also had to learn one of journalism’s basic lessons. 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. We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news, but our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.
Unless you are willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take all of the slings and arrows directed at you by the powers that be–corporate and political and sometimes journalistic–there is no use even trying. You have to love it and I do. I.F. Stone once said, after years of catching the government’s lies and contradictions, “I have so much fun, I ought to be arrested.” Journalism 101.
So it wasn’t courage I counted on; it was exhilaration and good luck. When the road forked, I somehow stumbled into the right path, thanks to mentors like Eric Sevareid, Fred Friendly, Walter Cronkite and scores of producers, researchers and editors who lifted me to see further than one can see unless one is standing on the shoulders of others.