Bill Moyers says that journalists have a responsibility to question those in power.
Rush Limbaugh, speaking for the economic and political elites that currently occupy positions of authority, responds by charging that Moyers is “insane.”
A debate has opened regarding the role of reporting in George W. Bush’s America. But this debate is about a great deal more than one president or one moment in history. At the most fundamental level, it is about whether the American experiment as imagined by the most visionary of its founders can long endure.
Moyers set the stage at the National Conference for Media Reform last week, where he delivered a call for the redemption of American journalism. Though he was appearing less than a week after it had been revealed that the Bush administration ally who chairs the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had waged a secret campaign to drive him off the air, the former host of PBS’s “NOW” program was calm and collected. The winner of thirty Emmy Awards reflected upon his own work and that of his colleagues on “NOW.” But his real purpose was to defend the craft of journalism against the battering it has taken from those who believe reporters should be little more than stenographers to power. At a time when too many prominent journalists have accepted the diminished standards that their critics would impose upon them, Moyers raged against the dying of the light — not so much for himself as for the Republic that will not stand without a free, skeptical and courageous press.
“We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable,” Moyers explained to the 2,300 journalists, academics and activists who had gathered in St. Louis.
Moyers proceeded to describe the behind-the-scenes pressure that CPB board chair Ken Tomlinson and other White House allies exerted in a campaign to get the NOW team to trim its sails. The “crime” committed by Moyers and his crew was not one of liberal bias, as became evident when the former host of the program described the ideological diversity of the guests on NOW, read a letter praising the show from conservative Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, and recalled the support it had received from the widow of a New York City firefighter who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Rather, Moyers explained, “One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.”
The former White House aide, newspaper publisher, author and documentary filmmaker committed the cardinal sin of the contemporary moment: he practiced the craft of journalism as the authors of the “freedom of the press” protection in the Bill of Rights intended — without fear or favor, unbought and unbossed, and in the service of the public interest rather than the private demands of the economically and politically powerful. Such trangressions are punished as severely in George W. Bush’s America as they were in the America that was ruled by another, equally regal George 230 years ago. And just as King George III had henchmen who attacked the rebels against his rule, so the contemporary King George has his Tories. Chief among them is Limbaugh, the bombastic radio personality whose microphone is always at the ready for a denunciation of those who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes.