For my 14th birthday, my friends gave me a shoe box. They’d covered it in pink and green construction paper and pasted over that colored printouts of tweenage-dom: shoes, ice cream, picture of the gang at the beach… and headshots of Bill Moyers.
At the height of my Moyers obsession, I planned my Fridays around his show, “Now with Bill Moyers.” Moyers, then 67, was already into his 35th year as a journalist. He was probably past his prime, but for me, he was a revelation. His hour-long programs introduced me to topics that received only cursory coverage from the commercial networks, topics like the Federal Communications Commission and the Clean Water Act.
Over the years, I mostly got over my obsession with Bill Moyers. I still watched his shows but there were other things to do, other things to watch. The same traits that have separated Moyers from the pack, his soft-spoken demeanor and abhorrence of sensationalism, could make him easy to ignore. He was the person I always put onto the list of things to watch but rarely ever got around to. He could also be too soft in his treatment of guests he was predisposed to admire. His interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright was a low point. But for all that, I never thought that Bill Moyers would retire. He, like the Keith Richards and Larry King, seemed destined to linger forever.
But Bill Moyers did retire. Last Friday, he appeared one last time on Bill Moyers Journal and signed off saying simply: “It’s time to go.” After 40 years in journalism, Bill Moyers will no longer be a regular presence on the airwaves. As that fact is settling in, I am reminded of all the reasons why this country will be poorer for his absence.
Bill Moyers was television’s moral voice. A fierce and vigilant critic of the establishment, Moyers was never afraid to hold truth to power, even when the power in question was the media in which he worked. In the aftermath of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he eviscerated industry for its complicity in that debacle. His program “Buying the War” sticks in my mind as what news could be if it had the tenacity and courage to pursue the truth.
He was never too cynical to expect our public officials to act with honor. Jon Stewart may do a good job of exposing the foibles of the powerful, but Stewart, like most of today’s media, expects nothing but failure from the powerful and so can never work up any real anger when they do fail. Moyers was never satisfied to just expose corruption, never content to just use the news as a punch line, and that is a big part of what set him apart from them.
During his career, the Right has often criticized Moyers for being, in the words of Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush appointee to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “Exhibit A of that very strident left-wing bias.”
These critics fundamentally misunderstood Bill Moyers and his approach to journalism. Moyers is not without flaws, but he has never pretended to be a member of the “fair and balanced brigade,” the name he gave to the media establishment that he saw as too respectful of authority and too ready to believe the official line. He wrote that the journalist’s job was not to “achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect — sometimes, alas, reverence — for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be to be.” His allegiance has always been to truth.
In a 2004 interview, Bill Moyers articulated his second guiding principle as a journalist. He said, “I think the most important thing that we can do is to continue to treat Americans as citizens, not just consumers. If you look out and see an audience of consumers, you want to sell them something. If you look out and see an audience of citizens, you want to share something with them, and there is a difference.”
As the media world around him scrambled for ratings and advertising dollars, Bill Moyers refused to change. He refused to dumb down his programs and had a genuine belief in the ability of the ordinary person to understand complex issues.
The Moyers era is now over. He’s been around a while and it’s time for new voices to take over. Bill Moyers has earned the right to a restful retirement. He leaves behind a legacy that any journalist would be proud of.