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