The real dean of American journalism is retiring

by: Daniel De Groot

Thu Apr 29, 2010 at 23:50

This weekend, PBS will air the last new regular episode from journalist extrordinaire, Bill Moyers, in his show Bill Moyers Journal.  It's hard to think of this except in terms like "tragedy" and "unmitigated disaster."  Moyers has more than earned his retirement (semi retirement one hopes) but still I lament the withdrawal of a clarion, unabashed liberal voice from the discourse.  I can't help but compare him to Justice Stevens, whose retirement will likely lead to a rightward shift on the court, so too it is nearly inevitable that Moyers' replacement at PBS will be at minimum unable and probably unwilling to provide the kind of clear commentary and relentless analysis Moyers has provided.  No one else has the stature to take on the sacred cows of the DC elite discourse the way Moyers does.

Before I go further, please go set your PVR to record or jot a note somewhere to watch the program whenever it airs on your PBS affiliate.  It would be a nice send off for the retiring warrior to get a decent spike in the ratings and kick start one last round of discussion as he has done so often with his many excellent programs.

I cannot hope to do Moyers' career justice (though Eric Alterman comes close in a well worth reading piece comparing Moyers favourably to Murrow, and this 3-part series on his role in founding the Peace Corps is amazing) so I would like to use the occasion to highlight the ongoing importance of public media in the modern era, and mourn the lack of support given it in America.

Daniel De Groot :: The real dean of American journalism is retiring
In other english countries (Canada, Britain and Australia) public broadcasters go back to the 1920s or early 1930s, when the organizations that would become the BBC, CBC and ABC (that's Australian Broadcasting Corporation in this context) were formed.  In America, except for a period during WWI when Wilson nationalized all radio, this just didn't happen.  Whether simply because it was the Gilded Age and big business Republicans were running the government, or for other reasons, America would not see true national public broadcasting until the end of the Johnson administration (another fitting tie to Moyers' career).  

In any event, public broadcasting did not get entrenched in America the way it has in other lands.  While all the public broadcasters endure endless accusations of bias from conservatives* they remain enormously popular cultural institutions, possibly equal in untouchability to the third rail key welfare state programs.  

The consequence is that PBS and NPR are radically underfunded compared to their analogs in other countries.  Congress alotted about $400M to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which gives the money to PBS and NPR) in 2010.  ABC, serving a population less than 1/12th of America gets over $700M (in US), the CBC gets $1B and the BBC about $5B.  There's a reason that the BBC can produce things like the greatest Sci-fi show in history and the CBC can run a competitive quality 24-hr news network - they're adequately funded.  

There is a strain of criticism for public broadcasters (typically aimed at NPR) among the American left, and I think the specific criticisms are warranted, but the general conclusion to give up on public media is a grave mistake.  At least part of the impetus behind the founding of public broadcasting in America was the ogliopoly enjoyed by ABC/NBC/CBS, particularly over television.  The need for an alternative voice not biased by the fiduciary obligation to shareholders was strong then and is strong now.  For one thing the consolidation of media companies down to five means the "good old days" aren't really that old, and it may be even worse now since the big media companies are often owned by bigger companies with even worse interests.  It's one thing to analyze NBC as an independent for-profit corporation racing to the bottom for ratings.  It's harder to figure out the effects of being the propaganda arm for GE.  The news media was important enough to merit specific constitutional protection.  How a society informs itself is just too important to entrust solely to market forces.

To the extent NPR and PBS are cowed by movement conservatives, or simply too weak to regularly confront the big lies has a lot to do with having to beg for money all the time, and having no assurance that the next budget crisis won't see them cut to zero, with only muted public outcry, and even that possibly drowned by the cheering of teabaggers.  Then you have the interests of their many foundation donors to worry about, which boils down to public broadcasting catering to the interests of the philanthropic class.  They're not all bad, but they're certainly comfortable, and probably don't want things to change too much from the world that brought them their level of wealth.  Why are NPR and PBS weak?  They're poor.  

Yeah, I know public money is scarce right now and in an era where liberals may yet have to fight to protect social security from a Democratic tri-fecta increasing funding to PBS ranks low, but it needs to be on the progressive strategic agenda.  Imagine if as the price for allowing the Bush tax cuts through, some Senate Democrat had extracted an extra $250M for the CPB back in 2001.  It might have flown.  The wealthy wanted their damn money badly enough to have swallowed it.  Yet even if anyone in office even thought of it, they wouldn't bother asking because not even the Democratic base would have taken any note of it.  Funding NPR isn't even on the list of shiny baubles Democrats seek as cover when caving to Republican bad ideas.  That, at least, can change.

As for Moyers, I'll close on his piece de resistance, which you should watch if you haven't seen it, and particularly if you're fuzzy on what Iran/Contra was all about.  So much of what is wrong today has its roots in the weak response to that scandal.  Reagan should have been flown to prison out of the airport that now bears his name.  Bill Moyers from his landmark 1987 documentary, The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis.

Good night, and good luck Mr. Moyers.

* Accusations which I think are accurate - public broadcasters more frequently tell the truth and whole truth about things, and that's usually bad news for conservatives, so yes, by virtue of not giving their nonsense positions undue weight, they are "biased"

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Generally agree (0.00 / 0)
Certainly, Bill Moyers was one of, if not the, best journalists on television, and it's incredibly sad to see him go.

But I do have one concern about public broadcasting: it would seem that, in theory at least, they might have a difficult time criticizing the government if that's where their money comes from.

I'm not too knowledgeable about this topic, though, so I might be wrong about that.  And, of course, our current private media hardly does a better job...

awful awful news (0.00 / 0)
moyers was second to none in exposing the dc plutocracy

I have a replacement in mind for PBS: david sirota.  


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