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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 1999 /9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Econophone

Bill Moyers' other scandal

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- YOU MAY HAVE CAUGHT Bill Moyers on the tube from time to time. He keeps popping up in American journalism, politics and upward mobility -- not that there's much difference between them anymore. As his endless career keeps demonstrating:

At the White House an era or two ago, Bill Moyers was LBJ's master of spin long before the word came into common (and inflated) currency. He went on to become the boy publisher of Newsday on Long Island back when it was a paper still full of promise and expatriate Arkies who could write.

A shiny gray eminence before he was 30, Mr. Moyers has been hanging around the public trough ever since, doing programs for PBS with that combination of civic uplift and general mawkishness that has become his trademark.

There is in the arc of such quasi-political careers in journalism a certain genius for the fashionable. Of course, Bill Moyers' preferred medium has been television, the most common narcotic of the age. But watch for him to switch to the Web any time.

At this stage of his pontifications, Bill Moyers has managed to combine the unctuous delivery of Eric Sevareid with the pseudo-objectivity favored by stars of NPR. He's truly been a journalist made for his times, which may be the harshest thing one can say about any commentator.

The secret of his success has been that he always flatters his audience, never challenges or elevates it. Has there been a single liberal shibboleth, including campaignfinancereform, which is all one word now, that Bill Moyers has failed to embrace? He always seems to have an agenda of his own. And the principal subject of his interviews always turns out to be himself.

Mr. Moyers may seldom have held political office through what by now seems an eternal career, but he's always been on its fashionable fringes, just close enough to play footsie with the in-crowd. The Bill Moyers seen on television tends to position himself as anti-establishment while being very much a part of it.

Over the years, he's established himself as an intellectual for the unintellectual, the way Andy Warhol was an artist for the unartistic. Except that Bill Moyers' 15 minutes of fame has gone on approximately forever in a kind of sporadic, low-key way.

He always seems to have one more stylish cause to champion, and he does it with professional ease by now. The man can turn poetry into prose by explaining it. To death. After he's narrated a special about anything with that portentous lift in his voice, you may never want to hear another word about it.

Moyers
Maybe it's that oh-so-sincere East Texas accent, but he always brings to mind the kind of televangelist who delivers a sonorous sermon before dipping into the collection plate for personal expenses. Which, it turns out, is pretty much what he's done on this occasion.

Bill Moyers' specialty is not going into impolitic detail, and here's one detail he spared viewers of his latest production for PBS' "Frontline,'' which was titled "Washington's Other Scandal.'' It seems he's been producing programs in favor of various controls on campaign contributions -- while he himself has been collecting $200,000 a year from a foundation (the Florence and John Schumann Foundation) that plugs just such legislation. What a coincidence.

The experts he features on his programs turn out to think the same way he does about campaign finance. Innocent viewers, however, were not told, to quote Franke Greve of the Knight-Ridder newspapers, that "his broadcasts have showcased the views of organizations that track money and politics without revealing that the same groups have received sizable Schumann foundation grants.'' Another coincidence.

Those experts' views may be sound. One can certainly sympathize with anybody trying to fight soft money in American politics. But why did Bill Moyers' ignore the the basic obligation to reveal his own, sizable interest in the public controversy he was covering?

Instead, he left the impression that he was a disinterested commentator. Not very honest.

Maybe the distinguished Mr. Moyers could tackle that question in his next television production. He could devote the program to the advantages of full disclosure. But so far he has not shown the slightest discomfiture at having been found keeping this little detail from viewers.

If he were working for a respectable newspaper, Bill Moyers would be out of a job. But since he's involved in public television, he'll probably pick up an award.

Ethics in journalism long has been a work in unsteady progress, and the more it's talked about, the murkier it seems to grow. And now here is somebody like Bill Moyers, whom impressionable young journalists might confuse with a role model, and he's found taking a couple of hundred thou a year from a foundation whose views he then echoes in his broadcasts. Without bothering to reveal who pays him.

If politicians should have to reveal the sources of their campaign funds, why not someone who claims to be a journalist?

Mr. Moyers has every right to mount a campaign for electoral reform, but the public has a right to know whom he's working for when he makes his case over the Public Broadcasting Service.

It's not easy deciding from week to week which is the more false and pretentious class: our liberal elite or our conservative elite. But this latest revelation about Bill Moyers definitely gives our liberal elite a leg up in that competition. Or maybe that should be a leg down.

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