Bill Moyers' Lasting Legacy

In American journalism, the new year should begin with the acknowledgment of a great loss. Bill Moyers, anchor of PBS's NOW, has retired.

More than a skilled reporter of the daily fare, Moyers was fascinated not only by the deeper trends in our public life but also by the larger philosophical controversies that lay at the heart of political debate. Though clearly a journalist with left sympathies, he displayed an all-too-rare willingness to acknowledge the contestability of his own perspective and the cogency of his opponents.

My late mentor at The Progressive, Erwin Knoll, covered the White House for Newhouse Newspapers during the Johnson administration. He once quipped that Moyers's outstanding work in public journalism represented atonement for the manipulations and evasions in which he had engaged as a press secretary for Lyndon Johnson.

Moyers has more than atoned. More importantly, he would be the last to set himself up as the final standard of political truth or journalistic integrity. Much of his career has been devoted to an exploration of the limits and dangers of a journalism gripped by narrow economic interests or ideological agendas. He has been one of the few voices, even in public broadcasting, willing to explore the consequences of the corporate consolidation of the media. His final broadcast included an extensive discussion of the risks in the recently announced collaboration between radio giant Clear Channel and Fox News.

Just as commendably, Moyers has walked the walk in his commitment to diverse journalism. Even in an age when corporate agendas dominate business reporting, it is remarkable how seldom the media explore the fundamentals of their own conservative perspective. Among my favorite memories of NOW was a program in which a leading libertarian economist, under provocative questioning from Moyers, detailed the ways in which misguided monetary policy in the early thirties had exacerbated the Depression. He claimed New Deal pump priming only impeded recovery. I was not convinced, but the segment exposed the assumptions and even elements of faith inside every economic persuasion.

NOW programs devoted to critics of corporate excesses generally included substantial opportunities for those accused to present their own responses. Nor were these responses shouted down, ridiculed or demeaned. (Unfortunately, the days of Moyers -- and William Buckley -- are fading memories.)

More broadly, Moyers, a former Baptist minister, has had a long-standing interest in religious controversy and its implications for politics. But for Moyers, religion comes in not only various fundamentalist garbs but also in prophetic voices that challenge establishment verities. As liberals and the left discuss how to respond to the religious right, Moyers subtly reminded us that even Christianity hardly speaks with one voice.

Cal Thomas argues that evil springs from the unwillingness of this culture to accept the notion that there is a clear line between good and evil and to adhere to that line. Thomas recently quotes with approval a former Senate chaplain whose words might be taken as the quintessential valedictory on the fundamentalist understanding of good and evil:

"Abandoning an absolute ethical (and) moral standard leads irresistibly to the absence of ethics and morality. Each person determines his own ethical/moral code. That's anarchy. Humans become their own gods and decide, each in his own way, what is good and what is evil. Evil becomes good -- good becomes evil. Upside down morality! Good is ridiculed! Evil is dignified!"

Several NOW guests highlighted other views of good and evil, perspectives that can hardly be termed relativist. Paul Woodruff, author of Reverence: The Forgotten Virtue, suggested that "one of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God's will. Oedipus and the other tyrants are not in trouble because they didn't sacrifice enough chickens. It was about their attitude towards themselves and their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike ..."

Like Woodruff, and like Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest mid-twentieth century Protestant theologians, Moyers seems to suggest that God does not will all. Rather, He wills that we make the best of all. The most virtuous societies are those that strive to maximize openness toward the new ideas and latent discontents often buried under the force of conventional wisdom and established power.

In both the content and demeanor of his journalistic life, Bill Moyers has consistently displayed reverence. Nonetheless, he would be the first to acknowledge that reverence is not confined to one man, it is a capacity that can be inspired in us by others and by many of life's events.

From observing former Maine native David Brancaccio on PBS's Marketplace and in his early work on NOW, I believe he is a worthy successor. It is a sad commentary on Moyers' values, however, that Brancaccio will be allotted only half an hour. May he make the best use of this time and may those of us who value this journalism lend our support.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist