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.]
I am in Washington to help broadcasting, not to harm it; to strengthen it, not weaken it; to reward it, not to punish it; to encourage it, not threaten it; and to stimulate it, not censor it. Above all, I am here to uphold and protect the public interest…. In today’s world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep, relentless pressures on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with the technological knowledge that makes it possible, as our President has said, not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world—in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.
Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.
Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the television age. And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”
Moyers: The press is always had a bias for the good, vigorous line, right? “Wasteland” is a great metaphor. I think T.S. Eliot first appropriated it, but that often happens. We can make a speech and yet the headline writer or the reporter can choose what to say. [Minnow] was right about the need for television, broadcasting to perform a public service because Thomas Jefferson was right, “It is better to have people who are informed than it is to have people who are not informed.” He was right, but at the same time I think he has acknowledged that none of us can speak for the public taste. America is so diverse, so pluralistic and our tastes run such a gamut that what you like is not necessarily what I’m going to like. What he was trying to say, which I think was true in that day, was that there was very little of the vast wasteland devoted to the life of the mind, to the life of the spirit. Free, honest, unfettered debate, and that’s what public broadcasting was chartered to fill.
[Minnow’s] other point was that the license was a license. We [the public] permit you [the broadcasters] to use the public airwaves in return for something and we should be entitled to actually assess whether you are using it well. At the time he says the broadcasters, the networks such as they were, were frightened, but it turned out they had nothing to be afraid of.
Once upon of time if you owned a local radio station, you had to meet certain, fairly rigorous standards of public service and there were broad definitions of public service, but you had to give so much time to news about religion, so much time to dissenting voices those you put on the air, so much time to children’s programming. This is the great scandal, that once you get that license now you have it in perpetuity unless you sell it for a vast fortune, which is what they [do.] 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 in this country because 80–85 percent of all the money spent on our political campaigns is spent on advertising and you watch the annual reports of television stations and they spike at every election season—primary season in the spring and fall elections in the fall. And they give back nothing for that. Nothing for that. 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.
How do we ever make change if our media are so intimately invested in our pay-to-play political system? Who’s going to do the change-making?
Change never comes—it never comes except from people. Howard Zinn, who is interviewed in my book The Conversation Continues, says this. He says you can’t expect government to make changes unless the people push the government to make changes, and he says you have to make history, and you make history by fighting for what you believe in, at the local level and with association with others. You have to become political. I don’t mean partisan, you have to think of yourself as an agent of change. You have to think that I can make a difference, but knowing that you can’t do it alone, you join with others, like Free Press, which is this wonderful, nonprofit, public interest group that advocates for more diversity, more freedom of the media, more voices in the media. You got to join more organizations like that, and participate with others because the only answer to organize power—which is what the media are all about—is organize people. So you’ve got to find like-minded, kindred spirits, associate with them, work with them, give your time and energy and aim for what you really think needs to be changed if it is the fight that your local television station or your local radio station is excluding women, excluding blacks, not covering local news, telling what’s going on with the school board, telling what’s happening at city hall. You’ve got to organize to bring pressure to bear.
Is there a crisis in public television? More and more stations seem to be breaking with the networks. Is that a good thing, a bad thing?
Well, we’ve always had the crisis of funding, which for forty years has been a real issue. Public television spends about $400 million dollars on programming every year. BBC spends about $6 billion. Why? They have an independent source of revenue, which comes from a designated tax or charge on commercial transactions on the media, and that goes into BBC, which can irritate big people, but you know it’s independent, you know it’s not playing to any corporate or privileged agenda and that’s what we need. Public television and public radio to a lesser extent, because public radio is less expensive to produce than public television; if we don’t find an independent source of funding that would guarantee the untainted, non-political pressure come into it… then I don’t think we have much of a future. Television’s changing anyway given the nature of internet, digital devices, where you will now be receiving everything that you would be getting over the air or on cable.… We can’t meet that challenge [either] unless we have adequate budgets, and that’s going to take some imaginative act of big trust-fund of foundations getting together creating an endowment for public television or a one-time trust fund created by Congress so they can get out of the business of funding public television all together. Something more imaginative than what we have now, or the screens are going to go dark.
Bill Moyers, thank you for joining us.