The following is the prepared text for Bill
Moyers' speech to the National Conference for
Media Reform on May 15, 2005. The event in St.
Louis was organized and hosted by Free Press
Bill Moyers' speech to the National Conference for Media Reform
I was naïve, I guess. I simply never imagined
that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican,
would cross the line from resisting White House
pressure to carrying it out for the White House.
But that's what Kenneth Tomlinson has done.
I CAN'T IMAGINE BETTER COMPANY ON THIS BEAUTIFUL
SUNDAY MORNING IN ST. LOUIS. You're church for me
today, and there's no congregation in the country
where I would be more likely to find more kindred
souls than are gathered here.
There are so many different vocations and
callings in this room - so many different
interests and aspirations of people who want to
reform the media - that only a presiding bishop
like Bob McChesney with his great ecumenical
heart could bring us together for a weekend like
What joins us all under Bob's embracing welcome
is our commitment to public media. Pat
Aufderheide got it right, I think, in the recent
issue of In These Times when she wrote: "This is
a moment when public media outlets can make a
powerful case for themselves. Public radio,
public TV, cable access, public DBS channels,
media arts centers, youth media projects,
nonprofit Internet news services Š low-power
radio and webcasting are all part of a nearly
invisible feature of today's media map: the
public media sector. They exist not to make a
profit, not to push an ideology, not to serve
customers, but to create a public - a group of
people who can talk productively with those who
don't share their views, and defend the interests
of the people who have to live with the
consequences of corporate and governmental power."
She gives examples of the possibilities. "Look at
what happened," she said, "when thousands of
people who watched Stanley Nelson's The Murder of
Emmett Till on their public television channels
joined a postcard campaign that re-opened the
murder case after more than half a century. Look
at NPR's courageous coverage of the Iraq war, an
expensive endeavor that wins no points from this
administration. Look at Chicago Access Network's
Community Forum, where nonprofits throughout the
region can showcase their issues and find
The public media, she argues, for all our flaws,
are a very important resource in a noisy and
polluted information environment.
You can also take wings reading Jason Miller's
May 4 article on Z Net about the mainstream
media. While it is true that much of the
mainstream media is corrupted by the influence of
government and corporate interests, Miller
writes, there are still men and women in the
mainstream who practice a high degree of
journalistic integrity and who do challenge us
with their stories and analysis.
But the real hope "lies within the Internet with
its 2 billion or more Web sites providing a
wealth of information drawn from almost unlimited
resources that span the globe. Š If knowledge is
power, one's capacity to increase that power
increases exponentially through navigation of the
Internet for news and information."
Surely this is one issue that unites us as we
leave here today. The fight to preserve the Web
from corporate gatekeepers joins media,
reformers, producers and educators - and it's a
fight that has only just begun.
I want to tell you about another fight we're in
today. The story I've come to share with you goes
to the core of our belief that the quality of
democracy and the quality of journalism are
deeply entwined. I can tell this story because
I've been living it. It's been in the news this
week, including reports of more attacks on a
single journalist - yours truly - by the
right-wing media and their allies at the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
As some of you know, CPB was established almost
40 years ago to set broad policy for public
broadcasting and to be a firewall between
political influence and program content. What
some on this board are now doing today - led by
its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson - is too
important, too disturbing and yes, even too
dangerous for a gathering like this not to
We're seeing unfold a contemporary example of the
age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch
and punish journalists who tell the stories that
make princes and priests uncomfortable.
Let me assure you that I take in stride attacks
by the radical right-wingers who have not given
up demonizing me although I retired over six
months ago. They've been after me for years now,
and I suspect they will be stomping on my grave
to make sure I don't come back from the dead.
I should remind them, however, that one of our
boys pulled it off some 2,000 years ago - after
the Pharisees, Sadducees and Caesar's surrogates
thought they had shut him up for good. Of course
I won't be expecting that kind of miracle, but I
should put my detractors on notice: They might
just compel me out of the rocking chair and back
into the anchor chair.
Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with
control, using the government to threaten and
intimidate. I mean the people who are hollowing
out middle-class security even as they enlist the
sons and daughters of the working class in a war
to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up controlling
Iraq's oil. I mean the people who turn
faith-based initiatives into a slush fund and who
encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray
so as not to see the long arm of privilege and
power picking their pockets. I mean the people
who squelch free speech in an effort to
obliterate dissent and consolidate their
orthodoxy into the official view of reality from
which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy.
That's who I mean. And if that's editorializing,
so be it. A free press is one where it's OK to
state the conclusion you're led to by the
One reason I'm in hot water is because my
colleagues and I at NOW didn't play by the
conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those
rules divide the world into Democrats and
Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and
allow journalists to pretend they have done their
job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the
news, they merely give each side an opportunity
to spin the news.
Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent
essay in World Policy Journal. (You'll also want
to read his book Debating War and Peace, Media
Coverage of US Intervention in the Post Vietnam
Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington
Post on why the deep interests of the American
public are so poorly served by Beltway
journalism. The "rules of our game," says
Ignatius, "make it hard for us to tee up an issue
without a news peg." He offers a case in point:
the debacle of America's occupation of Iraq. "If
Senator so and so hasn't criticized postwar
planning for Iraq," says Ignatius, "then it's
hard for a reporter to write a story about that."
Mermin also quotes public television's Jim Lehreracknowledging that unless an official sayssomething is so, it isn't news. Why werejournalists not discussing the occupation ofIraq? Because, says Lehrer, "the word occupationŠ was never mentioned in the run-up to the war."Washington talked about the invasion as "a war ofliberation, not a war of occupation, so as aconsequence, "those of us in journalism nevereven looked at the issue of occupation."
"In other words," says Jonathan Mermin, "if the
government isn't talking about it, we don't
report it." He concludes: "[Lehrer's] somewhat
jarring declaration, one of many recent
admissions by journalists that their reporting
failed to prepare the public for the calamitous
occupation that has followed the 'liberation' of
Iraq, reveals just how far the actual practice of
American journalism has deviated from the First
Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of
Take the example (also cited by Mermin) of
Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press,
whose fall 2003 story on the torture of Iraqis in
American prisons - before a U.S. Army report and
photographs documenting the abuse surfaced - was
ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley
attributes this lack of interest to the fact that
"it was not an officially sanctioned story that
begins with a handout from an official source."
Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal
experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the
credibility with Beltway journalists of American
officials denying that such things happened.
Judith Miller of the New York Times, among
others, relied on the credibility of official but
unnamed sources when she served essentially as
the government stenographer for claims that Iraq
possessed weapons of mass destruction.
These "rules of the game" permit Washington
officials to set the agenda for journalism,
leaving the press all too often simply to recount
what officials say instead of subjecting their
words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of
acting as filters for readers and viewers,
sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters
and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of
the spin invariably failing to provide context,
background or any sense of which claims hold up
and which are misleading.
I decided long ago that this wasn't healthy for
democracy. I came to see that "news is what
people want to keep hidden and everything else is
publicity." In my documentaries - whether on the
Watergate scandals 30 years ago or the
Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill
Clinton's fundraising scandals 10 years ago or,
five years ago, the chemical industry's long and
despicable cover-up of its cynical and
unspeakable withholding of critical data about
its toxic products from its workers, I realized
that investigative journalism could not be a
collaboration between the journalist and the
subject. Objectivity is not satisfied by two
opposing people offering competing opinions,
leaving the viewer to split the difference.
I came to believe that objective journalism means
describing the object being reported on,
including the little fibs and fantasies as well
as the Big Lie of the people in power. In no way
does this permit journalists to make accusations
and allegations. It means, instead, making sure
that your reporting and your conclusions can be
nailed to the post with confirming evidence.
This is always hard to do, but it has never been
harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the
powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak
vernacular of George Orwell's 1984. They give us
a program vowing "No Child Left Behind," while
cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids.
They give us legislation cheerily calling for
"Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" that give us
neither. And that's just for starters.
In Orwell's 1984, the character Syme, one of the
writers of that totalitarian society's
dictionary, explains to the protagonist Winston,
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is
to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever
occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050,
at the very latest, not a single human being will
be alive who could understand such a conversation
as we are having now? The whole climate of
thought will be different. In fact there will be
no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy
means not thinking - not needing to think.
Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a
people fed only on partisan information and
opinion that confirm their own bias, a people
made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the
junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put
up a fight, to ask questions and be skeptical.
That kind of orthodoxy can kill a democracy - or
I learned about this the hard way. I grew up in
the South, where the truth about slavery, race,
and segregation had been driven from the pulpits,
driven from the classrooms and driven from the
newsrooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring
the truth home, and then it took another hundred
years for the truth to make us free.
Then I served in the Johnson administration.
Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that
"might makes right," we circled the wagons,
listened only to each other, and pursued policies
the evidence couldn't carry. The results were
devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.
I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked
me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast.
They wanted us to make it different from anything
else on the air - commercial or public
broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no
one else was reporting and to offer a venue to
people who might not otherwise be heard.
That wasn't a hard sell. I had been deeply
impressed by studies published in leading
peer-reviewed scholarly journals by a team of
researchers led by Vassar College sociologist
William Hoynes. Extensive research on the content
of public television over a decade found that
political discussions on our public affairs
programs generally included a limited set of
voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives
on current issues and events.
Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates,
the kind that might engage viewers as citizens,
not simply as audiences, this research found that
public affairs programs on PBS stations were
populated by the standard set of elite news
sources. Whether government officials and
Washington journalists (talking about political
strategy) or corporate sources (talking about
stock prices or the economy from the investor's
viewpoint), public television, unfortunately, all
too often was offering the same kind of
discussions, and a similar brand of insider
discourse, that is featured regularly on
Who didn't appear was also revealing. Hoynes and
his team found that in contrast to the
conservative mantra that public television
routinely featured the voices of
anti-establishment critics, "alternative
perspectives were rare on public television and
were effectively drowned out by the stream of
government and corporate views that represented
the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts."
The so-called experts who got most of the face
time came primarily from mainstream news
organizations and Washington think tanks rather
than diverse interests. Economic news, for
example, was almost entirely refracted through
the views of business people, investors and
business journalists. Voices outside the
corporate/Wall Street universe - nonprofessional
workers, labor representatives, consumer
advocates and the general public were rarely
heard. In sum, these two studies concluded, the
economic coverage was so narrow that the views
and the activities of most citizens became
All this went against the Public Broadcasting Act
of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young
policy assistant to President Johnson, I attended
my first meeting to discuss the future of public
broadcasting in 1964 in the office of the
Commissioner of Education. I know firsthand that
the Public Broadcasting Act was meant to provide
an alternative to commercial television and to
reflect the diversity of the American people.
This, too, was on my mind when we assembled the
team for NOW. It was just after the terrorist
attacks of 9/11. We agreed on two priorities.
First, we wanted to do our part to keep the
conversation of democracy going. That meant
talking to a wide range of people across the
spectrum - left, right and center.
It meant poets, philosophers, politicians,
scientists, sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel
AlIende, the novelist, and Amity Shlaes, the
columnist for the Financial Times. It meant the
former nun and best-selling author Karen
Armstrong, and it meant the right-wing
evangelical columnist Cal Thomas. It meant
Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from
London, David Suzuki from Canada, and Bernard
Henry-Levi from Paris. It also meant two
successive editors of the Wall Street Journal,
Robert Bartley and Paul Gigot, the editor of The
Economist, Bill Emmott, The Nation's Katrina
vanden Heuvel and the L.A. Weekly's John Powers.
It means liberals like Frank Wu, Ossie Davis and
Gregory Nava, and conservatives like Frank
Gaffney, Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie.
It meant Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop
Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Bishops conference
in this country. It meant the conservative
Christian activist and lobbyist, Ralph Reed, and
the dissident Catholic Sister Joan Chittister. We
threw the conversation of democracy open to all
Most of those who came responded the same way
that Ron Paul, the Republican and Libertarian
congressman from Texas, did when he wrote me
after his appearance, "I have received hundreds
of positive e-mails from your viewers. I
appreciate the format of your program, which
allows time for a full discussion of ideas. I'm
tired of political shows featuring two guests
shouting over each other and offering the same
arguments. NOW was truly refreshing."
Hold your applause because that's not the point
of the story. We had a second priority. We
intended to do strong, honest and accurate
reporting, telling stories we knew people in high
places wouldn't like.
I told our producers and correspondents that in
our field reporting our job was to get as close
as possible to the verifiable truth. This was all
the more imperative in the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks. America could be entering a
long war against an elusive and stateless enemy
with no definable measure of victory and no limit
to its duration, cost or foreboding fear. The
rise of a homeland security state meant
government could justify extraordinary measures
in exchange for protecting citizens against
unnamed, even unproven, threats.
Furthermore, increased spending during a national
emergency can produce a spectacle of corruption
behind a smokescreen of secrecy. I reminded our
team of the words of the news photographer in Tom
Stoppard's play who said, "People do terrible
things to each other, but it's worse when
everyone is kept in the dark."
I also reminded them of how the correspondent and
historian Richard Reeves answered a student who
asked him to define real news. "Real news,"
Reeves responded, "is the news you and I need to
keep our freedoms."
For these reasons and in that spirit, we went
about reporting on Washington as no one else in
broadcasting - except occasionally 60 Minutes -
was doing. We reported on the expansion of the
Justice Department's power of surveillance. We
reported on the escalating Pentagon budget and
expensive weapons that didn't work. We reported
on how campaign contributions influenced
legislation and policy to skew resources to the
comfortable and well-connected while our troops
were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq with
inadequate training and armor. We reported on how
the Bush administration was shredding the Freedom
of Information Act. We went around the country to
report on how closed-door, backroom deals in
Washington were costing ordinary workers and tax
payers their livelihood and security. We reported
on offshore tax havens that enable wealthy and
powerful Americans to avoid their fair share of
national security and the social contract.
And always - because what people know depends on
who owns the press - we kept coming back to the
media business itself, to how mega media
corporations were pushing journalism further and
further down the hierarchy of values, how giant
radio cartels were silencing critics while
shutting communities off from essential
information, and how the mega media companies
were lobbying the FCC for the right to grow ever
The broadcast caught on. Our ratings grew every
year. There was even a spell when we were the
only public affairs broadcast on PBS whose
audience was going up instead of down.
Our journalistic peers took notice. The Los
Angeles Times said, "NOW's team of reporters has
regularly put the rest of the media to shame,
pursuing stories few others bother to touch."
The Philadelphia Inquirer said our segments on
the sciences, the arts, politics and the economy
were "provocative public television at its best."
The Austin American-Statesman called NOW, "the
perfect antidote to today's high pitched decibel
level, a smart, calm, timely news program."
Frazier Moore of the Associated Press said we were hard-edged when appropriate but never Hardball. "Don't expect combat. Civility reigns."
And the Baton Rouge Advocate said, "NOW invites
viewers to consider the deeper implication of the
daily headlines," drawing on "a wide range of
viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of
the political left or right."
Let me repeat that: NOW draws on "a wide range of
viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of
the political left or right."
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had been
prophetic. Open public television to the American
people - offer diverse interests, ideas and
voices; be fearless in your belief in democracy
- and they will come.
Hold your applause - that's not the point of the story.
The point of the story is something only a
handful of our team, including my wife and
partner Judith Davidson Moyers, and I knew at the
time - that the success of NOW's journalism was
creating a backlash in Washington.
The more compelling our journalism, the angrier
the radical right of the Republican Party became.
That's because the one thing they loathe more
than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way
to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the
This is the point of my story: Ideologues don't
want you to go beyond the typical labels of left
and right. They embrace a world view that can't
be proven wrong because they will admit no
evidence to the contrary. They want your
reporting to validate their belief system and
when it doesn't, God forbid.
Never mind that their own stars were getting a
fair shake on NOW: Gigot, Viguerie, David Keene
of the American Conservative Union, Stephen
Moore, then with the Club for Growth, and others.
No, our reporting was giving the radical right
fits because it wasn't the party line. It wasn't
that we were getting it wrong. Only three times
in three years did we err factually, and in each
case we corrected those errors as soon as we
confirmed their inaccuracy. The problem was that
we were telling stories that partisans in power
didn't want told; we were getting it right, not
I've always thought the American eagle needed a
left wing and a right wing. The right wing would
see to it that economic interests had their
legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing
would see to it that ordinary people were
included in the bargain. Both would keep the
great bird on course. But with two right wings or
two left wings, it's no longer an eagle and it's
going to crash.
My occasional commentaries got to them as well.
Although apparently he never watched the
broadcast (I guess he couldn't take the
diversity), Sen. Trent Lott came out squealing
like a stuck pig when after the midterm elections
in 2002 I described what was likely to happen now
that all three branches of government were about
to be controlled by one party dominated by the
religious, corporate and political right.
Instead of congratulating the winners for their
election victory as some network broadcasters had
done - or celebrating their victory as Fox, the
Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, talk radio
and other partisan Republican journalists had
done - I provided a little independent analysis
of what the victory meant. And I did it the
old-fashioned way: I looked at the record, took
the winners at their word, and drew the logical
conclusion that they would use power as they
always said they would. And I set forth this
conclusion in my usual modest Texas way.
Events since then have confirmed the accuracy of
what I said, but, to repeat, being right is
exactly what the right doesn't want journalists
Strange things began to happen. Friends in
Washington called to say that they had heard of
muttered threats that the PBS reauthorization
would be held off "unless Moyers is dealt with."
The chairman of the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to be
quite agitated. Apparently there was apoplexy in
the right-wing aerie when I closed the broadcast
one Friday night by putting an American flag in
my lapel and said - well, here's exactly what I
"I wore my flag tonight. First time. Until now I
haven't thought it necessary to display a little
metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see.
It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my
civic duties, speak my mind, and do my best to
raise our kids to be good Americans.
"Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of
gratitude that I had been born in a country whose
institutions sustained me, whose armed forces
protected me, and whose ideals inspired me; I
offered my heart's affections in return. It no
more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my
chest than it did to pin my mother's picture on
my lapel to prove her son's love. Mother knew
where I stood; so does my country. I even tuck a
valentine in my tax returns on April 15.
"So what's this doing here? Well, I put it on to
take it back. The flag's been hijacked and turned
into a logo - the trademark of a monopoly on
patriotism. On those Sunday morning talk shows,
official chests appear adorned with the flag as
if it is the good housekeeping seal of approval.
During the State of the Union, did you notice
Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No
administration's patriotism is ever in doubt,
only its policies. And the flag bestows no
immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting
on official lapels, I think of the time in China
when I saw Mao's little red book on every
official's desk, omnipresent and unread.
"But more galling than anything are all those
moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the
flag in their lapels while writing books and
running Web sites and publishing magazines
attacking dissenters as un-American. They are
people whose ardor for war grows
disproportionately to their distance from the
fighting. They're in the same league as those
swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and
prowling Capitol Hill for tax breaks even as they
call for more spending on war.
"So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with
flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the
safety of Washington think tanks, or argue that
sacrifice is good as long as they don't have to
make it, or approve of bribing governments to
join the coalition of the willing (after they
first stash the cash). I put it on to remind
myself that not every patriot thinks we should do
to the people of Baghdad what Bin Laden did to
us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the
government. And it reminds me that it's not
un-American to think that war - except in
self-defense - is a failure of moral imagination,
political nerve, and diplomacy. Come to think of
it, standing up to your government can mean
standing up for your country."
That did it. That - and our continuing reporting
on overpricing at Haliburton, chicanery on K
Street, and the heavy, if divinely guided hand,
of Tom DeLay.
When Senator Lott protested that the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting "has not seemed willing
to deal with Bill Moyers," a new member of the
board, a Republican fundraiser named Cheryl
Halperin, who had been appointed by President
Bush, agreed that CPB needed more power to do
just that sort of thing. She left no doubt about
the kind of penalty she would like to see imposed
on malefactors like Moyers.
As rumors circulated about all this, I asked to
meet with the CPB board to hear for myself what
was being said. I thought it would be helpful for
someone like me, who had been present at the
creation and part of the system for almost 40
years, to talk about how CPB had been intended to
be a heat shield to protect public broadcasters
from exactly this kind of intimidation.
After all, I'd been there at the time of Richard
Nixon's attempted coup. In those days, public
television had been really feisty and
independent, and often targeted for attacks. A
Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry
Kissinger in the Nixon administration had
actually been cancelled. The White House had been
so outraged over a documentary called the "Banks
and the Poor" that PBS was driven to adopt new
guidelines. That didn't satisfy Nixon, and when
public television hired two NBC reporters -
Robert McNeil and Sander Vanoucur to co-anchor
some new broadcasts, it was, for Nixon, the last
straw. According to White House memos at the
time, he was determined to "get the left-wing
commentators who are cutting us up off public
television at once - indeed, yesterday if
Nixon vetoed the authorization for CPB with a
message written in part by his sidekick Pat
Buchanan, who in a private memo had castigated
Vanocur, MacNeil, Washington Week in Review,
Black Journal and Bill Moyers as "unbalanced
against the administration."
It does sound familiar.
I always knew Nixon would be back. I just didn't
know this time he would be the chairman of the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Buchanan and Nixon succeeded in cutting CPB
funding for all public affairs programming except
for Black Journal. They knocked out multiyear
funding for the National Public Affairs Center
for Television, otherwise known as NPACT. And
they voted to take away from the PBS staff the
ultimate responsibility for the production of
But in those days - and this is what I wanted to
share with Kenneth Tomlinson and his colleagues
on the CPB board - there were still Republicans
in America who did not march in ideological
lockstep and who stood on principle against
politicizing public television. The chairman of
the public station in Dallas was an industrialist
named Ralph Rogers, a Republican but no party
hack, who saw the White House intimidation as an
assault on freedom of the press and led a
nationwide effort to stop it.
The chairman of CPB was former Republican
Congressman Thomas Curtis, who was also a
principled man. He resigned, claiming White House
interference. Within a few months, the crisis was
over. CPB maintained its independence, PBS grew
in strength, and Richard Nixon would soon face
impeachment and resign for violating the public
trust, not just public broadcasting.
Paradoxically, the very National Public Affairs
Center for Television that Nixon had tried to
kill - NPACT - put PBS on the map by
rebroadcasting in primetime each day's Watergate
hearings, drawing huge ratings night after night
and establishing PBS as an ally of democracy. We
should still be doing that sort of thing.
That was 33 years ago. I thought the current CPB
board would like to hear and talk about the
importance of standing up to political
interference. I was wrong. They wouldn't meet
with me. I tried three times. And it was all
downhill after that.
I was na've, I guess. I simply never imagined
that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican,
would cross the line from resisting White House
pressure to carrying it out for the White House.
But that's what Kenneth Tomlinson has done.
On Fox News this week he denied that he's
carrying out a White House mandate or that he's
ever had any conversations with any Bush
administration official about PBS. But the New
York Times reported that he enlisted Karl Rove to
help kill a proposal that would have put on the
CPB board people with experience in local radio
and television. The Times also reported that "on
the recommendation of administration officials"
Tomlinson hired a White House flack (I know the
genre) named Mary Catherine Andrews as a senior
CPB staff member. While she was still reporting
to Karl Rove at the White House, Andrews set up
CPB's new ombudsman's office and had a hand in
hiring the two people who will fill it, one of
whom once worked for Š you guessed it Š Kenneth
I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of
the doubt, but I can't. According to a book
written about the Reader's Digest when he was its
Editor-in-Chief, he surrounded himself with other
right-wingers - a pattern he's now following at
the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
There is Ms. Andrews from the White House. For
acting president, he hired Ken Ferree from the
FCC, who was Michael Powell's enforcer when
Powell was deciding how to go about allowing the
big media companies to get even bigger. According
to a forthcoming book, one of Ferree's jobs was
to engage in tactics designed to dismiss any
serious objection to media monopolies. And,
according to Eric Alterman, Ferree was even more
contemptuous than Michael Powell of public
participation in the process of determining media
ownership. Alterman identifies Ferree as the FCC
staffer who decided to issue a "protective order"
designed to keep secret the market research on
which the Republican majority on the commission
based their vote to permit greater media
It's not likely that with guys like this running
the CPB some public television producer is going
to say, "Hey, let's do something on how big media
is affecting democracy."
Call it preventive capitulation.
As everyone knows, Mr. Tomlinson also put up a
considerable sum of money, reportedly over $5
million, for a new weekly broadcast featuring
Paul Gigot and the editorial board of the Wall
Street Journal. Gigot is a smart journalist, a
sharp editor, and a fine fellow. I had him on NOW
several times and even proposed that he become a
regular contributor. The conversation of
democracy - remember? All stripes.
But I confess to some puzzlement that the Wall
Street Journal, which in the past editorialized
to cut PBS off the public tap, is now being
subsidized by American taxpayers although its
parent company, Dow Jones, had revenues in just
the first quarter of this year of $400 million. I
thought public television was supposed to be an
alternative to commercial media, not a funder of
But in this weird deal, you get a glimpse of the
kind of programming Mr. Tomlinson apparently
seems to prefer. Alone of the big major
newspapers, the Wall Street Journal has no op-ed
page where different opinions can compete with
its right-wing editorials. The Journal's PBS
broadcast is just as homogenous -- right- wingers
talking to each other. Why not $5 million to put
the editors of The Nation on PBS? Or Amy
Goodman's Democracy Now! You balance right-wing
talk with left-wing talk.
There's more. Only two weeks ago did we learn
that Mr. Tomlinson had spent $10,000 last year to
hire a contractor who would watch my show and
report on political bias. That's right. Kenneth
Y. Tomlinson spent $10,000 of your money to hire
a guy to watch NOW to find out who my guests were
and what my stories were. Ten thousand dollars.
Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week, you could pick up a
copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription
is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a
coupon that can save you up to 62 percent.
For that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch
the show yourself. You could have made it easier
with a double Jim Beam, your favorite. Or you
could have gone online where the listings are
posted. Hell, you could have called me - collect
- and I would have told you.
Ten thousand dollars. That would have bought five
tables at Thursday night's "Conservative Salute
for Tom DeLay." Better yet, that ten grand would
pay for the books in an elementary school
classroom or an upgrade of its computer lab.
But having sent that cash, what did he find? Only
Mr. Tomlinson knows. He's apparently decided not
to share the results with his staff, or his board
or leak it to Robert Novak. The public paid for
it - but Ken Tomlinson acts as if he owns it.
In a May 10 op-ed piece, in Reverend Moon's
conservative Washington Times, Tomlinson
maintained he had not released the findings
because public broadcasting is such a delicate
institution that he did not want to "damage
public broadcasting's image with controversy."
Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that kind
of stuff every day.
As we learned only this week, that's not the only
news Mr. Tomlinson tried to keep to himself. As
reported by Jeff Chester's Center for Digital
Democracy (of which I am a supporter), there were
two public opinion surveys commissioned by CPB
but not released to the media - not even to PBS
and NPR. According to a source who talked to
Salon.com, "The first results were too good and
[Tomlinson] didn't believe them. After the Iraq
War, the board commissioned another round of
polling, and they thought they'd get worse
But they didn't. The data revealed that, in
reality, public broadcasting has an 80 percent
favorable rating and that "the majority of the
U.S. adult population does not believe that the
news and information programming on public
broadcasting is biased." In fact, more than half
believed PBS provided more in-depth and
trustworthy news and information than the
networks and 55 percent said PBS was "fair and
Tomlinson is the man, by the way, who was running
The Voice of America back in 1984 when a partisan
named Charlie Wick was politicizing the United
States Information Agency of which Voice of
America was a part. It turned out there was a
blacklist of people who had been removed from the
list of prominent Americans sent abroad to
lecture on behalf of America and the USIA. What's
more, it was discovered that evidence as to how
those people were chosen to be on the blacklist,
more than 700 documents had been shredded. Among
those on the blacklists of journalists, writers,
scholars and politicians were dangerous left-wing
subversives like Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin,
Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Ben Bradlee, Coretta
Scott King and David Brinkley.
The person who took the fall for the blacklist
was another right-winger. He resigned. Shortly
thereafter, so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who had
been one of the people in the agency with the
authority to see the lists of potential speakers
and allowed to strike people's names. Let me be
clear about this: There is no record, apparently,
of what Ken Tomlinson did. We don't know whether
he supported or protested the blacklisting of so
many American liberals. Or what he thinks of it
But I had hoped Bill O'Reilly would have asked
him about it when he appeared on The O'Reilly
Factor this week. He didn't. Instead, Tomlinson
went on attacking me with O'Reilly egging him on,
and he went on denying he was carrying out a
partisan mandate despite published reports to the
contrary. The only time you could be sure he was
telling the truth was at the end of the broadcast
when he said to O'Reilly, "We love your show."
We love your show.
I wrote Kenneth Tomlinson on Friday and asked him
to sit down with me for one hour on PBS and talk
about all this. I suggested that he choose the
moderator and the guidelines.
There is one other thing in particular I would
like to ask him about. In his op-ed essay this
week in Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson tells of
a phone call from an old friend complaining about
my bias. Wrote Mr. Tomlinson: "The friend
explained that the foundation he heads made a
six-figure contribution to his local television
station for digital conversion. But he declared
there would be no more contributions until
something was done about the network's bias."
Apparently that's Kenneth Tomlinson's method of
governance. Money talks and buys the influence it
I would like to ask him to listen to a different voice.
This letter came to me last year from a woman in
New York, five pages of handwriting. She said,
among other things, that "after the worst sneak
attack in our history, there's not been a moment
to reflect, a moment to let the horror resonate,
a moment to feel the pain and regroup as humans.
No, since I lost my husband on 9/11, not only our
family's world, but the whole world seems to have
gotten even worse than that tragic day."
She wanted me to know that on 9/11 her husband
was not on duty. "He was home with me having
coffee. My daughter and grandson, living only
five blocks from the Towers, had to be evacuated
with masks - terror all around. Š My other
daughter, near the Brooklyn Bridge Š my son in
high school. But my Charlie took off like a
lightning bolt to be with his men from the
Special Operations Command. 'Bring my gear to the
plaza,' he told his aide immediately after the
first plane struck the North Tower. Š He took
action based on the responsibility he felt for
his job and his men and for those Towers that he
In the FDNY, she said, chain-of- command rules
extend to every captain of every fire house in
the city. If anything happens in the firehouse -
at any time - even if the captain isn't on duty
or on vacation - that captain is responsible for
everything that goes on there 24/7."
So she asked: "Why is this administration responsible for nothing? All that they do is pass the blame. This is not leadership. Š Watch everyone pass the blame again in this recent torture case [Abu Ghraib] of Iraqi prisons Š"
And then she wrote: "We need more programs like
yours to wake America up. Š Such programs must
continue amidst the sea of false images and
name-calling that divide America now. Š Such
programs give us hope that search will continue
to get this imperfect human condition on to a
higher plane. So thank you and all of those who
work with you. Without public broadcasting, all
we would call news would be merely carefully
Enclosed with the letter was a check made out to
"Channel 13 - NOW" for $500. I keep a copy of
that check above my desk to remind me of what
journalism is about. Kenneth Tomlinson has his
demanding donors. I'll take the widow's mite any
Someone has said recently that the great raucous
mob that is democracy is rarely heard and that
it's not just the fault of the current residents
of the White House and the capital. There's too
great a chasm between those of us in this
business and those who depend on TV and radio as
their window to the world. We treat them too much
as an audience and not enough as citizens.
They're invited to look through the window but
too infrequently to come through the door and to
participate, to make public broadcasting truly
To that end, five public interest groups
including Common Cause and Consumers Union will
be holding informational sessions around the
country to "take public broadcasting back" - to
take it back from threats, from interference,
from those who would tell us we can only think
what they command us to think.
It's a worthy goal.
We're big kids; we can handle controversy and
diversity, whether it's political or religious
points of view or two loving lesbian moms and
their kids, visited by a cartoon rabbit. We are
not too fragile or insecure to see America and
the world entire for all their magnificent and
sometimes violent confusion. "There used to be a
thing or a commodity we put great store by," John
Steinbeck wrote. "It was called the people."