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Bill Moyers on His Legendary Journalism Career: “Democracy Should Be a Brake on Unbridled Greed and Power”

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In a Democracy Now! special broadcast, we are joined by legendary journalist Bill Moyers, a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, and senior correspondent for CBS News. Public television is where he has made his home, producing many groundbreaking shows and winning more than 30 Emmy Awards. Moyers has just published a new book, “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues,” a collection of interviews from his popular PBS show that aired from 2007 to 2010. “The greatest change in politics in my time has been the transformation of democracy, America, from a citizens’ society, the moral agency of all those people in the civil rights movement who stood up against the weight of authority and against persecution and acted as agents of change—the change from a citizens’ society to a consumer society, where most of us are caught up on that treadmill, trying to get more,” Moyers says. In a wide-ranging interview, he also discusses the state of the public media infrastructure he helped to establish as part of the Johnson administration. “Public broadcasting, which remains a place that treats you as a citizen and not a consumer, is also threatened. We must defend it. We must call it back to its heights. We must continue to support it, because without it, we’re at the mercy, totally, of corporate power.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with legendary journalist Bill Moyers. He was a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News. But public television is where he has made his home for decades, producing many groundbreaking shows. He has won more than 30 Emmy Awards. Bill Moyers has just published a new book called Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.

Juan Gonzalez and I sat down with him for the hour. I started by asking Bill about his book, a collection of interviews from his popular PBS show, Bill Moyers Journal, that aired from 2007 to 2010.

BILL MOYERS: Well, it reflects not just my work, but the work, as you know, of a team on whose shoulders I stand, who, between 2007 and last year, put together an eclectic, cacophonous, energetic, vibrant profile of America in a variety of interviews, from Jon Stewart, as you said, the first interview in here, to Barry Lopez, the writer, the last interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose Jon Stewart as the first guest on the first Bill Moyers show when you came back in 2007?

BILL MOYERS: I couldn’t get Mark Twain. And Jon Stewart is a remarkable satirist and parodist in the vein of Mark Twain, because Jon Stewart understands what Mark Twain knew, which is that the truth goes down more easily in a democracy when it’s marinated in humor.

JON STEWART: So there it was today, the big fight, Gonzales v. Senate. Are you ready to bumble?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Whose idea was this?

ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I don’t recall specifically. I don’t recall the content. Sir, I have no recollection. I don’t have any recollection. I have searched my memory. I don’t recall remembering. I can only testify as to what I recall. Senator, I don’t recall. I don’t recall. I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred.

JON STEWART: After weeks of mock testimony, there you have it: Alberto Gonzales doesn’t know what happened. But he assures you what he doesn’t remember was handled properly.

And by the way, that was all just — that was a game. And he knew it, and the guys on the committee knew it. And for the President to come out after that and say, “Everything I saw there gave me more confidence in him,” that solidified my notion that, oh, it’s because what he expected of Gonzales was — it’s sort of like, remember in Good Fellas when Henry Hill got arrested for the first time, and Robert De Niro met him at the courthouse, and Henry Hill was really upset because he thought Robert De Niro would be really mad at him. And De Niro comes up to him and he gives him $100, and he goes, “You got pinched. We all get pinched. But you did it right. You didn’t say nothin’.”

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that the Washington press corps, by and large, particularly the Sunday shows, join the game with them? I mean, you watch those shows —

JON STEWART: They don’t all. I mean —

BILL MOYERS: No, not all of them do, but there’s a kind of “wink, wink” questioning going on there. You know, I’ll ask the devil’s advocate —

JON STEWART: Well, because it’s the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. They’re the only teams playing, and they know they’ve got to play each other every week. And they all sort of have assumed their role. And, I mean, at this point, the government is just, you know, blowing the doors off the media.

BILL MOYERS: He has a way of taking us closer to the truth than a lot of journalists who get stuck on “just the facts, ma’am.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve also had quite a few poets in that group. And in the wasteland of television, where poetry is the last thing you would expect, you have always insisted on hearing the voices and the thoughts of the poets of America.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve survived these 40 years in journalism because I have refused to be obsessed exclusively with politics, economics and all the serious issues, and I have to take respites and find succor and find sanctuary in the power of the word, “The Language of Life,” as we called one of the series we did about poetry. My colleague Michael Winship, who was the senior writer on Bill Moyers Journal and who is my co-editor in this book, says that you have to celebrate — in a democracy, you have to celebrate what’s good about ourselves. And where do we find what’s good about ourselves, our spiritual souls, our values, more appropriately than in poetry? I mean, you’ve got Nikki Giovanni in this book. You’ve got Robert Bly, one of my favorites in this book. You’ve got John Lithgow, the actor, who is a consummate reader of poetry. And to hear him read Shakespeare or Browning — ”How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” — is just to take your soul somewhere else than Congress and the White House. And if we didn’t have that, we’d perish.

JOHN LITHGOW: This is “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which you will certainly recognize.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most controversial interviews you did, which really had a tremendous effect in this country, was your interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

BILL MOYERS: What does the church service on Sunday morning mean, in general, to the black community?

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: It means many things. I think one of the things the church service means is hope, that — tell me that there is hope in this life, almost like Psalm 27, when David said, “I would have fainted unless I had lived to see the goodness of the land” — in this life. Don’t tell me about heaven. What about in this life, that there is a better way, that this is not in vain, that it is not Edward Albee or Camus’s absurd, the theater of the absurd, it is not Shakespeare — “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — that life has meaning and that God is still in control, and that God can, and God will, so people of goodwill, working hard, do something about the situation? We can change.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the moment.

BILL MOYERS: I had never met Jeremiah Wright. I knew of him, of course, only because of the controversy that grew up when the sound bites from some of his sermons were taken by news broadcasters and right-wing press, in particular, and looped over and over again, so you got these seven-second inflammatory broadcasts that sounded like he was blaming America for 9/11, sounds like he was — you know, he was an enemy of America. But I knew him from friends of mine who are ministers. My pastor at Riverside, the historic Riverside Church here in New York City, Reverend James Forbes — I think you’ve had him on your show — he called me up one day, said, “Bill, this is not the Jeremiah Wright I know, who’s being caricatured in the media. You should do an interview with him.” I said, “Jim, arrange it.” He came.

I wanted to — and we had a marvelous time in the green room, and then I wanted to do this exploratory interview in which I learned about his beliefs, his values, the context of the man. We had been getting the text of his sermons, short sound bites, but not the context of the man. He was gentle. He was thoughtful. He’s a grounded man. He could have — he was very well educated. He could have gone to a — pastor of a huge church, instead chose a church in South Chicago, of poor people, 87 members, built it into a powerful citadel of black liberation theology, which is just simply a way of looking at Christianity through the eyes of black people. We’ve been a white Christianity in this country, or Protestant Christianity. He was trying to show people that there’s power in their story, and he wrapped it inside the Christian narrative. So I discovered that this was a really intellectual, intelligent, moral man. We had a great interview, ended too soon because his daughter came in. She was handling his PR and said, “We have to go.”

He went from there on Friday night to Washington on Monday, where he made — he was before a congregation he had no experience with: the national press corps. And their adversarial questions, their questions out of context, simply caused him — he was a stranger in that crowd, and he melted down. The Jeremiah Wright I saw on the news that evening was not the Jeremiah Wright I had been with on Friday. And he just came apart — a mystery to me, except that that’s what the media can do in this country. It can so deconstruct you, it can so decompose you, that you lose a sense of who you are.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary journalist Bill Moyers. The conversation continues in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Bill Moyers. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Were you surprised, then, in the enormous change of candidate Obama, from at first an eloquent speech trying to explain to the nation the historical basis of how Reverend Wright had developed and how his views had been shaped and his importance to then disowning him, in effect, only weeks later?

BILL MOYERS: Yes, you know, I saw that — this happens often in politics. I saw it in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson’s closest adviser, the man who had helped make Lyndon Johnson who he was, was arrested in a moment of despair and melancholy and depression in a men’s room in Washington. No one was closer to Lyndon Johnson than this man Walter Jenkins, and yet Lyndon Johnson, from the Waldorf Astoria here in New York, had to go on television and disown him. He had to let him go. When certain causes become prairie fires, politicians make difficult choices, and often at the expense of someone like Jeremiah Wright and Walter Jenkins. That’s the cruel nature of American politics, where the end becomes the consummate objective, and sometimes the means to get there come at a great price.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But ironically, that distancing of Johnson from Jenkins then ended up with you assuming a bigger role in the White House, weren’t you? Then you became the press secretary?

BILL MOYERS: You were in kindergarten then. How do you know that?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I wasn’t quite in kindergarten.

BILL MOYERS: No, that’s right. Without asking me, without even telling me, from the Waldorf here, Lyndon Johnson announced Walter Jenkins’ resignation and announced that I, 29 or 30 years old — I forget how old then — was going to become chief of staff at the White House.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you’ve given me the segue that I wanted, which is to go back now, turn the tables on you a little bit, to talk about your life and the things that shaped you, and clearly, your relationship with Lyndon Johnson, your involvement first in the Peace Corps under the Kennedy administration, but more importantly, then the role you assumed in the White House. Some people say that you were really the behind-the-scenes architect of the Great Society, that you were chairing all the task forces that ended up developing the legislation that made the Great Society possible.

BILL MOYERS: Well, as is the case with television, I’m the front man, I’m the man on camera, but there’s a whole team beyond me. And that was true with the Johnson administration. I was there by circumstance. I had never intended to do what I was doing there. And yes, I was assigned by him really in the way that you hand the glass off to somebody who’s passing by when you’re at a party, and they take it to the table. I was handed the job of orchestrating the Great Society legislation, the civil rights legislation, the environmental legislation, beautification of nature, all of that. But it was nothing I was prepared for. It came by happenstance. In fact, so much of life, as you know, Juan, is serendipitous. That’s why you better be prepared at any time for anything, because it may happen to you. And I was, for 24 months, 36 months, sort of Lyndon Johnson’s right-hand facilitator. I was not a public — I was not a thinker. I was a doer. I was the man who got things done for him. He used to say, “I want the wisdom of gray hairs and the energy of young hairs,” you know? And that’s what he got from me. But we became very close for the first third of his administration.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you know him? How did he end up choosing you?

BILL MOYERS: In 1954, when I was at North Texas State College in Texas, I wrote a — sat down one Saturday afternoon and wrote a letter to a man I had never met, named Lyndon Johnson, who was the senior senator from Texas and the — recently elected the Senate Democratic leader in the Senate. And I wanted to be a journalist. And I had just — I had worked on a newspaper since I was 16 and decided I wanted to be a political journalist. So I wrote him a letter, presumptuous letter — the kind of letter, he later said to me, he would have written at that age. I was 19. And I said, “I can teach you something about young people in Texas, if you can teach me something about politics.” So the letter got to his job. To this day, if you want to get my attention, write a letter, because that’s the way you got Lyndon Johnson’s attention. If you wrote a letter — he always said a letter told you more about yourself — told him more about who you really were, the nature of composition, what — the choice of words, anything. That’s the way you reach me today. So, the letter came to his desk. He gave me a job.

I went up thinking I was going to revolutionize democracy, save the nation, redeem the republic. Got there at 4:00 on a Braniff airline, went to Capitol Hill, met him. He took me down into the basement, a long corridor, to a room shaped like a shoe box. And he said, “I want you to address all these letters.” And there were 256,000 envelopes and letters to be addressed on a sewing machine-like robo type, where you’d hit the treadle, and then a metal plate would fall on the envelope. I worked from 7:30 that night until 7:30 the next morning. And you know what he was trying to say to me? Politics is about spit and stamps and envelopes and doing this kind of work. So we bonded. He brought me over to his correspondent — outside of his office. I wrote all of his letters to Eisenhower and others. And I was — you know, just turned 20 that summer. And we bonded. I went off, went to graduate school, got my master’s in divinity. Got a call one day — I was going to do my Ph.D. — and it was Lyndon Johnson, Majority Leader Johnson. He said, “I’m going to run for the president. Don’t think I’ll make it, but I need a right hand. I need a facilitator.” So I went to work for him.

He didn’t get the nomination, became vice president. We ran on the ticket with John F. Kennedy. And I knew that I wanted to go to the Peace Corps. When John F. Kennedy stood in that winter day, January 1961 — “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I said, “I want to go to the Peace Corps.” I finagled my way to the Peace Corps, became an organizer of it, became his first deputy director, and was doing that happily, when John F. Kennedy called me one day and said, “I’m going to Texas to raise money, and I want you to go down. And I’ve got some advanced men who’ve messed things up. They don’t know Texas. You know Texas. Go down there.” And I was in Dallas, in Texas, on the day of the assassination, came back with LBJ, stayed with with him for three-and-a-half years. I mean, who would have planned that? Who would have scripted that? Who would have made that happen? It just all came from — you know, from serendipitous events.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the great success of the — and the enormous impact of the Great Society was then almost cut short by Vietnam. And you were there as Johnson is grappling with the escalation of the war, and you become one of the doves in the White House. Talk about that and how he was dealing with it, how you were dealing with the fact that you were going in — you were coming into great contradiction with the policy of your president.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I wish I could say I had been a moral hero and blew the whistle, but one of my great regrets is that I didn’t see soon enough the futility of the war. My portfolio, the first 24 months, was domestic policy: the campaign of ’64, the environment, civil rights and all of that. I had little to do with foreign policy, until he made me, against my will, his press secretary. Then he made sure I saw everything he saw. And it crept up on us.

You know, Juan, this is — there’s a recurring cycle in American life. One of the greatest progressive presidents we’ve ever had, Woodrow Wilson, 1914 to 1916, was accomplishing so much for working people, for others in our society, and all of it, and then he went to war. He took us to war in Europe. Franklin Roosevelt, “Dr. New Deal,” became “Dr. Win the War.” Harry Truman was really as progressive, in some respects, as Woodrow Wilson, more progressive in some respects than Franklin Roosevelt. Korea — after Truman’s legislative progressive agenda was beginning to be enacted, Korea. Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, the environment, civil rights and all of that, Vietnam. He was a conflicted man. I’ve never seen a human being more conflicted than as he escalated the war, knowing, as you can tell from the tapes, which you listen to — can listen to on the the tapes, he was sundered, torn by this decision. And yet he kept doing it. Presidents are afraid to lose wars. They’re afraid to be outflanked on the right by the militarists. They don’t want to be seen as soft on either communism or soft on terrorism or whatever. So presidents are constantly tugged away from their domestic commitments to foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers, you gave a speech recently for the 40th anniversary of Common Cause. And you were doing a tribute to the founder, to John Gardner. And you, there, talked about John Gardner — I think he was the secretary of health, education and welfare.

BILL MOYERS: Republican, brought down by Kennedy, first, to start public broadcasting, and then became, under Johnson, secretary of HEW.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about him going to meet with Johnson, when he finally quits over the war.

BILL MOYERS: And he says, “Mr. President, I can’t oppose you publicly, but I can’t support what I don’t believe in and what is siphoning off everything we care about domestically. And I can’t go in to campaign for your reelection in 1968 feeling the way I do about your inability to lead the country while you’re taking us to war.” And he quit.

AMY GOODMAN: What about you, you making that split with Johnson? When did you do it? How long did it take?

BILL MOYERS: I left the White House in January of 1967, which was almost two years before his term was up. And there were many factors, one of which is that I had been working on the Great Society, the domestic legislation, and all of our budget — most of our budget, all of his energy, all of our time, was slowly beginning to be consumed by the Moloch, by the war, by the flames of war and the budgets of war and all of that.

I was exhausted also. I had arrived there on the night of the assassination and hadn’t stopped. I had three small children, whom I was seeing very little of. I was exhausted, actually, burned out, as you might say, and dispirited, because I could see us being, as I say, consumed by the ravenous demands of war. The thing about war is that once it’s triggered, it is unyielding in its appetite. And the more it consumes and gorges, the more it wants. And I just saw that happening.

And I had lost my influence, frankly. I had been an advocate of stopping the bombing in North Vietnam, so that I would arrive late to cabinet meetings or staff meetings, and President Johnson, for whom we still had — for whom I still had great affection, would say, “Here comes 'Ban the Bomb' Bill.” And as a result of that, my counsel on other issues, my influence on other issues, was diminished. And I came, the late fall of — early 1967, I decided that I should leave.

I had a great opportunity. The owner of Newsday, one of the largest suburban papers in the country, whom I did not know — he had only seen me on television. Be careful how you look and sound on television. But he called me up and said, “I want you to come be publisher of this newspaper.” I said no the first time. And then, after my brother’s death — he worked with me in the White House, and he died in October of 1966. I was really washed up. And I called him back and said, “I’ll do it.” So I came to New York and published a newspaper.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to ask you — a great story that’s in All the President’s Men, that Woodward and Bernstein talk about, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post telling them, in the midst of their Watergate investigation, a story about Bill Moyers, that he says, “You know, one day Bill Moyers told me that Johnson was going to get rid of J. Edgar Hoover, finally remove him from office and replace him. And I run a front-page story the next day. And then, the following day, Johnson holds a press conference announcing that he is reappointing J. Edgar Hoover for life.” And as soon as the press conference is over, he says to Bill Moyers, “Get Bradlee on the phone and tell him, '(expletive) you.'” True story?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you never knew — you never knew what — you never knew what game Lyndon Johnson was playing. Sometimes it was a very serious game, in which he had a very important strategic purpose to be gained by manipulation. Sometimes it was just being his petty self. Lyndon Johnson was 13 of the most magnanimous — 13 of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in one human personality. He could be magnanimous one day and petty the next. He was the best dancer in the White House since George Washington. Women loved to dance with Lyndon Johnson. But he could also at times be uncouth and clumsy and stubborn. And he could do the virtuous thing, and he could do the vile thing, and all in the course of a 24-hour period. Very difficult to work for. Ourselves magnified, right? We’re all capable, as Whitman said, of great contradictions. Lyndon Johnson was capable of great contradictions.

I don’t know, to this day, Juan, whether he put me to that or whether he really did intend to fire — he was afraid of J. Edgar Hoover. Every president was afraid of J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover either could, or could threaten, or could imply, that he could bring you down. And there were moments, I know, when Lyndon Johnson felt that J. Edgar Hoover was a yoke around his neck. And there were other moments when I know he realized that yoke ran to Hoover’s hand, and he could be jerked down. So I don’t know, to this day, whether he intended to appoint J. Edgar Hoover for life, and really to screw the Washington Post and Ben Bradlee, or whether he changed his mind overnight. Once, he had all set up the naming of an ambassador to India, and it leaked. Philip Potter of the Baltimore Sun somehow at the State Department found the name of the person who was going to be named ambassador. Lyndon Johnson canceled that appointment for six months. He finally came back and sent the poor guy, who had been in limbo for six months, to India. You never knew what his motives were.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about war, I wanted to take this forward. I want to return to a clip from your 2007 special. It’s when you came back to PBS, and it was a documentary called Buying the War. This part goes back to September 8th, 2002, the day the New York Times published a front-page article by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller entitled “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, hosted by, well, the late Tim Russert.

BILL MOYERS: Quoting anonymous administration officials, the Times reported that Saddam Hussein had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, using specially designed aluminum tubes. And there, on Meet the Press, that same morning, was Vice President Cheney.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There was a story in the New York Times this morning that says — and I want to attribute to the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but…

JONATHAN LANDAY: Now, ordinarily, information, like the aluminum tubes, would — wouldn’t appear. It was top-secret intelligence. And the vice president and the national security adviser would not be allowed to talk about this on the Sunday talk shows. But it appeared that morning in the New York Times, and therefore, they were able to talk about it.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring, through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.

BILL MOYERS: Using the identical language of the anonymous sources quoted in the Times, top officials were now invoking the ultimate specter of nuclear war: the smoking gun as mushroom cloud.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a nuclear weapon, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Those sorts of stories, when they appear on the front page of the so-called liberal New York Times, it absolutely comes with a stamp of approval. I mean, if the New York Times thinks Saddam is on the precipice of some mushroom clouds, then there is really no debate.

BOB SCHIEFFER: We read in the New York Times today a story that says that Saddam Hussein is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. Does he have nuclear weapons? Is there a smoking gun here?

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: “Smoking gun” is an interesting phrase.

COLIN POWELL: As we saw in reporting just this morning…

TIM RUSSERT: What specifically has he obtained that you believe would enhance his nuclear development program?

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence, in your mind, that Cheney came on your show, and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know. The New York Times is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean —

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn’t make any — didn’t leak to you that there’s going to be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean, I don’t — I don’t have a — this is, you know — on Meet the Press, people come on, and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tube story until I read it in the New York Times.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September 8th, 2002, and to your show, in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times, and then the vice president comes on your show and points to the New York Times, and it’s a circular self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and the others came out that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of Buying the War. Of course, the late Tim Russert, who was the host of Meet the Press. Bill Moyers, as you watch this, your thoughts?

BILL MOYERS: Well, the consensual seduction of the mainstream media by and with the government is one of the most dangerous toxins at work in America today. They wouldn’t see it this way, and there are exceptions, but the corruption of corporate media, corporate power and government is what makes so vital what the two of you do. I’m serious about that. You don’t have the scope of Meet the Press. I mean, look at Meet the Press. Who’s been on Meet the Press more than any other figure in Washington in the last several years? Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich, I later learned, when I was briefly at NBC as an analyst doing commentaries, controversial commentaries, actually came to the brass of NBC and GE. Newt Gingrich has had some nefarious relationship with General Electric, which is one of the huge government contractors, as well as the owner of Meet the Press. And it’s just an example of what I’m talking about. The consensual seduction of the mainstream media with power, corporate power, government power — with exceptions, I repeat — is something that, without the antidote of independent reporting and analysis that you do and others, we would be in — we would be in a dark, dark pit with no light shining on us.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary journalist Bill Moyers. His new book is Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues. If you want a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at We continue our conversation with Bill Moyers in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with legendary journalist Bill Moyers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back, since we’re talking about broadcasting, right back to the Johnson era and then jump back to here, which is about the founding of public broadcasting and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, especially for young people, to understand why it began and where it’s gone.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there were — believe it or not, I mean, nobody below 40 will believe this. You may not believe it, because both of you are much younger than I am. But when I was 20 years old, there were three networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. And ABC was only half a network — no news division, all of that. And so, we were dependent upon three corporate, advertising-driven, commercial networks for our information. And to his credit, Lyndon Johnson, who made his fortune, part of his fortune, by controlling the three — he had one station in Austin that had a monopoly over broadcasting the product, the content, of all three networks. I mean, that’s how he made his money, much of his money. But he really did believe —- he was a teacher. He had taught poor Mexican students in the little town of Cotulla, Texas. He was a populist, from a poor part of Central Texas -—


BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but he went to South Texas. He came from Central Texas, went to South Texas to teach in this Mexican school. And he really cared about the poor, and he cared about education. He felt there should be one channel that was free of commercials and free of commercial values, because he knew what commercial values will do to people who are reporting the news, producing content. The desire to amuse and entertain will cause us to compromise the truth.

So he — when the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Commission — John Gardner had been head of the Carnegie Corporation — and they did a study of what to do about educational television in this country. The report was actually delivered to my desk when I was still at the White House. The Carnegie Commission became the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And I wish we had it here, because the speech Lyndon Johnson made when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 is a great tribute to a network devoted to the life of the mind, the life of the spirit, and the diversity of American voices. He believed that only white male straight guys got on national television in those days, and he was right. And he saw the value, the changing — the changes coming in America, and he believed there should be a public media that was devoted to the diversity, the pluralism of American life, and to the highest expression of the creative and journalistic arts in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the actual act of the —- creating the Corporation for Public Television, talked about serving underserved -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — communities of America.

BILL MOYERS: And unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, that there was a report done by Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a public interest group —

AMY GOODMAN: In Reporting.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, right?


BILL MOYERS: FAIR. And they showed that even on public broadcasting today, in our mainstream broadcasts, it’s usually the official view of reality that’s represented, far more corporate spokesmen than labor or working people spokesmen, far more white, male figures of authority than people of color and marginalized people. That’s just a tendency of human beings that always has to be resisted. And public television, public radio belongs to the people. Go back and read a great document, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And when we stray from it, as we sometimes do, the public has to rise up and say, “We own you. We are your shareholders. Come back to first principles. Come back to first things.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has happened to public broadcasting right now, the onslaught? You talk about —-— you just wrote a piece about NPR and PBS, and you talk about, well, Nixon first tried to gut it, and then take it forward.

BILL MOYERS: Richard Nixon tried to — tried to — he did succeed in fragmenting our authority, because he didn’t like — I was on the air. Robert MacNeil was on the air. We were doing journalists’ work, but he called us liberals because we were trying to get at the facts. He and Pat Buchanan, his communications director, succeeded in harming, injuring public broadcasting back in the 1970s. Thanks to a great Republican who was chairman of the public television station in Dallas, we beat him off. They wanted to defund us completely, but they didn’t. Then Newt Gingrich comes — Robert Dole comes along with the right wing in the late ’80s, and he tries to defund public broadcasting. Then comes Newt Gingrich in 1994, and now — then we had George W. Bush and his team, who came after some of us on public broadcasting.

Conservatives, on principle, don’t believe that federal funds should be used to support the media. But then also, they don’t believe in allowing any alternative voices, any alternatives to the official view of reality, to be heard. So they have always been against public broadcasting.

And sometimes self-censorship occurs because you’re looking over your shoulder, and you think, well, if I do this story or that story, it will hurt public broadcasting. Public broadcasting has suffered often for my sins, reporting stories the officials don’t want reported. And today, only about seven — you know, a very small percentage of funding for NPR and PBS comes from the government. But that accounts for a concentration of pressure and self-censorship. And only when we get a trust fund, only when the public figures out how to support us independently of a federal treasury, will we flourish as an independent medium.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet you’ve managed to have an extremely successful career, not only in public broadcasting, but for a while also with the commercial networks. I think, as I recall, you were the last person to do commentaries on the NBC Evening News, you were the last person to do commentary on the CBS Evening News, and you had a string of remarkable documentaries. Even on the old networks, there were still documentaries that had a major impact on how Americans saw particular social issues. How were you able to accomplish that then, and why is it virtually impossible to do it now?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I learned from Lyndon Johnson how to be a broken-field runner. You know, I learned something about how to survive in a hostile environment. I learned some things from him about raising money. I also came — Fred Friendly, who had been Edward R. Murrow’s great executive producer — the two of them created modern broadcast journalism — he was a good friend of mine. He nutured me, a mentor to me. He taught me a lot. And I came in that — I was in the second generation of the pioneers of journalism. Edward R. Murrow, I used to listen to on radio when I was growing up in East Texas. I listened to him on CBS News. So I inherited something of that mantle. Many of us did. And those of us — I was younger than most — but those of us who came in the wake of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly and that first generation benefited from the aura that was surrounding the news as a result of their magnificent first efforts at broadcasting. And I was new to public broadcasting. Public broadcasting was new.

I was fortunate to find sympathetic kindred spirits — I mean, I look out on this audience, and there’s Barbara Fleischman, who supports Democracy Now!, who’s been a supporter of mine — individuals and foundations who believed in an independent, alternative media to corporate journalism. And I’ve been fortunate. I hope others coming along — I still believe in public media, still believe in PBS, still believe in NPR. Even with our faults and our deficiencies, we are still the alternative to the corporate media. We must resist encroachments. I mean, I saw a story the other day that, perhaps in September, PBS programs will begin to have underwriting content within the broadcast. That would be a terrible step toward the slippery slope of changing the nature of public broadcasting, and we have to resist that. But we are still the place that respects you as a citizen and doesn’t treat you as a consumer.

The greatest change in politics in my time has been the transformation of democracy, America, from a citizens’ society, the moral agency of all those people in the civil rights movement who stood up against the weight of authority and against persecution and acted as agents of change — the change from a citizens’ society to a consumer society, where most of us are caught up on that treadmill, trying to get more, trying to keep our head above water. And as a result of that, public broadcasting, which remains a place that treats you as a citizen and not a consumer, is also threatened. We must defend it. We must call it back to its heights. We must continue to support it, because without it, we’re at the mercy, totally — except for the internet — of corporate power.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by asking about your future plans. In 2007, you came out of retirement. In late March, the New York Times reported you had received preliminary approval for a major grant to return to PBS with a half-hour show, but then in April the Times reported you wouldn’t be returning to PBS, because PBS couldn’t find a time slot for your new show. So, this is what you told us in 2007, just prior to your return to the airwaves then.

BILL MOYERS: The world is still here. It’s still intriguing. Things are happening. I mean, I don’t have retirement skills. I don’t play golf. I don’t play bridge. I’m getting too creaky to lean over and play with my little grandchildren. All I know to do is work. And as long as you’re a journalist with two feet and two eyes, and a good team around you, the work is endless. So here I am.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, here you are in 2011. What are your plans now?

BILL MOYERS: This gratuitous and generous offer from the Carnegie Corporation — remember, the Carnegie Corporation presented the Carnegie Commission in 1965 to me, to turn into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. And my good, dear friend, Vartan Gregorian, the Carnegie Corporation is — he’s president of the Carnegie Corporation’s foundation.

AMY GOODMAN: Used to be head of the New York Public Library.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, head of the New York Public Library. And I interviewed him, when he was head of the New York Public Library, about teaching and learning, on my show World of Ideas. And we bonded, and I gave the commencement at his last — the speech at his last commencement at Brown before he came to be head of Carnegie. He came to see me and said, “Look, this is our centennial. Why don’t you come back with some of those conversations like you see in Bill Moyers Journal? And if you will, we’ll make a generous grant to prime the pump.” And it was March or April, and I then called my other funders, because I have a very loyal funders, some of whom are here in the audience tonight. And they said, “Sure, we will be glad to collaborate.” But when I called PBS, their fall schedule is set. I mean, they have to work ahead. Television works that way. And they said, “We don’t have any airtime now.”

That may be a blessing in disguise, because my young team and I are exploring the internet. I mean, that’s a new medium for me. I would like to live long enough to see — I mean, I started in print in a little newspaper in East Texas at the age of 16. Here I am, 77, in this whole new medium of social networking and Twitter and all of that. And we used to do Twitter: we just sent them as Valentines when I was growing up. So, maybe at 77 I will find yet another frontier that will challenge me, so that when I retire the next time, it will be for real.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Are you hopeful these days, despite the — what we discussed about the state of the media? We’re obviously seeing these enormous uprisings throughout the Arab world. On Democracy Now!, we’ve covered the — really, the democratic popular renaissance that’s occurred throughout all of Latin America in recent years, that there are parts of the world where things are hopeful. But right here at home, in the United States, things don’t always seem like they’re heading in a good direction.

BILL MOYERS: I think this country is in a very precarious state at the moment. I think, as I say, the escalating, accumulating power of organized wealth is snuffing out everything public, whether it’s public broadcasting, public schools, public unions, public parks, public highways. Everything public has been under assault since the late 1970s, the early years of the Reagan administration, because there is a philosophy that’s been extant in America for a long time that anything public is less desirable than private.

And I think we’re at a very critical moment in the equilibrium. No society, no human being, can survive without balance, without equilibrium. Nothing in excess, the ancient Greeks said. And Madison, one of the great founders, one of the great framers of our Constitution, built equilibrium into our system. We don’t have equilibrium now. The power of money trumps the power of democracy today, and I’m very worried about it. I said to — and if we don’t address this, if we don’t get a handle on what we were talking about — money in politics —- and find a way to thwart it, tame it, we’re in -— democracy should be a break on unbridled greed and power, because capitalism, capital, like a fire, can turn from a servant, a good servant, into an evil master. And democracy is the brake on my passions and my appetites and your greed and your wealth. And we have to get that equilibrium back.

I said to a friend of mine on Wall Street, “How do you feel about the market?” He said, “Well, I’m not — I’m optimistic.” And I said, “Why do you, then, look so worried?” And he said, “Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified.” And I feel that way. So I fall back on the balance we owe in a — in the Italian political scientist, Gramsci, who said that he practices the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will. By that, he meant he sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses, as I try to do as a journalist. I see what’s there. That will make you pessimistic. But then you have to exercise your will optimistically, believing that each of us singly, and all of us collectively, can be an agent of change. And I have to get up every morning and imagine a more confident future, and then try to do something that day to help bring it about.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers, thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary journalist Bill Moyers. His new book is Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.

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