Bill Moyers is not taking attacks by Bush Administration allies on public broadcasting in general and his journalism in particular sitting down.
"I should put my detractors on notice," declared the veteran journalist who stepped down in January as the host of PBS's NOW With Bill Moyers, who recently turned 70. "They might compel me out of the rocking chair and into the anchor chair."
Moyers closed the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis on Sunday with his first public response to the revelation that White House allies on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have secretly been holding PBS in general -- and his show in particular -- to a partisan litmus test.
"I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House. And that's what (CPB chair) Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing."
Recalling former President Richard Nixon's failed attempt to cut the funding for public broadcasting in the early 1970s, Moyers said, "I always knew that Nixon would be back -- again and again. I just didn't know that this time he would ask to be the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
That was a pointed reference to Tomlinson, a Republican Party stalwart, who contracted with an outside consultant to monitor Moyers's weekly news program for signs of what Tomlinson and his allies perceived to be liberal bias. Moyers ridiculed the initiative first by reading off a long list of conservatives who had appeared on NOW, then by reading a letter from conservative US Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) praising the show, and finally by noting that Tomlinson had paid a former Bush White House aide $10,000 to do the monitoring.
"He spent $10,000 of your money to hire a guy to watch NOW to find out who my guests and stories were, $10,000!" Moyers exclaimed. "Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week you can pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save you up to 62 percent! Or for that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the show! You could have made it easier with a double Jim Beam -- your favorite -- mine too! (We had some things in common.) Or you could go online where the listings are posted. Hell, Ken, you could have called me collect and I would have told you who we were having on the show!"
Moyers said he wasn't buying Tomlinson's claim that the results of the monitoring were not being released to protect PBS's image. "Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that stuff every day," said the man who came to Washington as a press aide to former President Lyndon Johnson and was present when the Public Broadcasting Act was written in the 1960s.
Moyers revealed to the crowd of 2,000 media reform activists that he had written Tomlinson on Friday, suggesting that the pair appear on a PBS program to discuss the controversy. He also revealed that he had tried three times to meet with the full CPB board but had been refused. Expressing his sense that the board had "crossed the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out," Moyers said, "I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can't."
The man who has won thirty Emmy Awards for his hosting of various PBS programs was blunt about his critics. "They've been after me for years now and I am sure they will be stomping on my grave after I'm dead," he said. As the laughter from the crowd of 2,300 media reform activists quieted, however, he added, "I should remind them that one of our boys made it out 2,000 years ago."
Moyers was even blunter about why he thought Tomlinson and other allies of the Administration were so determined to knock his groundbreaking news program off the air and to replace it with more conservative fare such as a weekly roundtable discussion featuring Wall Street Journal editorial page staffers, joking that "I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it." Speaking of the investigative reporting NOW did on everything from the war in Iraq to offshore tax havens and ownership of the media, Moyers said, "Our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the party line."
"The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets," he explained. "That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth."
The broadcasting giant was greeted with cheers when he declared that "the quality of our media and the quality of our democracy are intertwined." But the loudest applause of the day came in response to his invitation to the crowd to join him in the fight to "take public broadcasting back from threats, from interference."
"It is," Moyers said, "a worthy goal."
Moyers has endorsed a call by Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Media Access Project for town hall meetings nationwide that would allow Americans to speak directly to PBS station managers and policymakers.
That call came in the context of a broader appeal for media reforms and a fight against manipulation of the news not just by this administration but by all of the forces that would use the media to lull Americans into civic unconsciousness.
"Hear me," Moyers said, "An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight -- ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too."
Click here to read the speech in its entirety.
A video of Bill Moyer's speech is available at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/freepress-closing40515.mov
An audio recording can be downloaded at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/moyers.mp3
(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that organized the National Conference on Media Reform.)