Monday, May 16, 2005

Bill Moyers Fights Back
Bill Moyers Fights Back
John Nichols

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.

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 CPB chair Kenneth 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 U.S. 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.

"Gee, Ken, for $2 a week you can pick up a copy of TV Guide," he joked, before suggesting that the CPB chair could have "watched the show."

"Hell, Ken," Moyers finally said. "you could have called me collect and I would have told you."

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 30 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," Moyers spoke of the investigative reporting NOW did on everything from the war in Iraq to offshore tax havens and ownership of the media and said, "Our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the party line."

In short, Moyers said, "We were getting it right, but not right wing." And that, he explained, was too much for Trent Lott, Ann Coulter and other ideologues who he said want media to feed the American people "the junk food of propaganda."

Moyers 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."