The Magazine

PBS's Televangelist

Bill Moyers preaches on . . . and on.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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WHEN PBS executives asked themselves the question so many Americans asked after the September 11 attacks--what can we do?--their answer was obvious: Bill Moyers. We can give America Bill Moyers. Lots of Bill Moyers.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting promptly set aside some $440,000 in public funds for "emergency programming" featuring Moyers and friends. First there was "Moyers in Conversation," six half-hour episodes beginning September 12. Also on September 12 came "New York Voices: The Day After," an hour-long special co-hosted by Moyers. Then, on September 20, "America Responds: A National Conversation with Bill Moyers," two hours of live dialogue between Moyers and, among others, author and rapper extraordinaire Cornel West, O.J. attorney Alan Dershowitz, and "Vagina Monologues" playwright Eve Ensler.

They weren't done. PBS executives also wanted a more ambitious contribution from public broadcasting--a continuing, "serious show with people who know terrorism and international relations," says one. They thought of Moyers, the furrowed brow of American democracy. This time, already knee-deep in public-broadcasting work, Moyers turned them down.

PBS president Pat Mitchell personally interceded. Moyers told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he could sense her "disappointment in the opportunity of the moment, because of 9/11, to create something new. And [PBS] didn't have a person, an on-air journalist, around whom to create it. And I really anguished over that. I've been at this for 31 years. I didn't want, in my twilight years, to let Pat Mitchell, PBS, and public television down." So Moyers agreed to create what became "Now with Bill Moyers," an open-ended series of weekly, hour-long, primetime shows that debuted on January 18.

In one sense the choice was natural. Through the work of Public Affairs Television, Inc., the private company he and his wife run, Moyers has been communing with American audiences for decades. He has hosted scores of documentaries and "think" shows, on everything from death and dying to the nature of myth; from NAFTA, modern dance, and chemical companies that kill to the power of ideas; from Genesis to fundamentalism to "Amazing Grace," all the while cultivating a reputation as an avuncular examiner of life's Big Questions. A sweater-wearing sage with a southern-sweet style, Moyers admits to being passionately biased in favor of the public interest.

In another sense, though, the choice of Moyers to lead a national reflection in the wake of September 11 was strange. Moyers hardly qualifies as politically nonaligned, a neutral moderator respectful of all sides. In recent years, this veteran of the Great Society--he began his public life as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson--has drifted further to the left, his arguments increasingly strident. By 1991, he was telling interviewer Eric Alterman, "I find it very hard to have intelligent conversations with people on the right wing because they want to hit first and ask questions later."

Moyers's difficulty conversing with people on the right seems to have impaired his ability to report their opinions fairly, particularly on issues of race. "The right gets away with blaming liberals for their efforts to help the poor, but what the right is really objecting to is the fact that the poor are primarily black," he told Alterman. "The man who sits in the White House today [George H.W. Bush] opposed the Civil Rights Act. So did Ronald Reagan. This crowd is really fighting a retroactive civil rights war to prevent the people they dislike because of their color from achieving success in American life."

For Moyers, the statement was hardly exceptional. No wonder some on Capitol Hill and in public television are incensed at Mitchell's choice of host for the new PBS series. "Why Moyers?" asks one longtime Republican adviser. "The only qualification for Moyers in this area is that he keeps comparing conservative Republicans to the Taliban."

IF MOYERS hasn't made that comparison explicitly for almost a year, he apparently still believes it. An address he delivered to a gathering at the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, on January 4 offers an instructive sample of his thinking. It elaborates what has become a favorite theme: Democracy is threatened not only by terrorism but also by the sinister forces of money and the market.

The speech lasted an hour and was at times quite eloquent. American democracy, Moyers said, "is at a crossroads. Just as we've been visited with tragedy, we've also been presented an extraordinary opportunity to redefine in deep and enduring ways our faith in democracy and then to live that faith every day personally, practically, and politically as if everything depends on it because it does. It does."

Moyers went on to talk about "true believers" of bin Laden's ilk. Social philosopher Eric Hoffer, he explained, gave this name to "people whose inner rage seeks refuge in a validating rebirth, a religious conversion if you will within a charismatic movement. Once they marched for Hitler, now they march for God."

Then Moyers shifted targets, begging patience as he grappled publicly with his own profundity. "Bear with me just one moment as I try to compose the main thing I want to say," he urged the audience.

America's in trouble. Explained Moyers,

"Not just religious true believers threaten our democracy. It's true believers in the God of the market who would leave us to the ruthless forces of unfettered monopolistic capital where even the laws of the jungle break down. And they're counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. While you're standing at attention with your hand over your heart pledging allegiance to the flag, they're picking your pocket. I know we're not supposed to be raising criticisms right now. This is a national emergency. But what if this emergency lasts a decade? What happens to democracy?"

Big companies--with help from Washington conservatives, including President Bush--are using public vehicles to enhance their private interests, Moyers argued. Worse, he said, they're doing it in the name of those who died on September 11. A "mercenary crowd in Washington" is exploiting the terrorist attacks to enrich themselves. Moyers singled out Rep. Dick Armey, who opposed government-paid health insurance for laid off airline workers, as serving the interests of corporate types who contribute mainly to Republicans. Said Moyers, "Mr. Armey and his band of true believers went along."

Moyers eventually connected "right-wingers" with bin Laden by suggesting that the Bush administration is more interested in protecting its wealthy contributors than in fighting "terrorists' dirty money." The passage deserves to be quoted in full.

"Last year, a year ago this month, the right-wingers at the Heritage Foundation in Washington teamed up with deep pocket bankers, some of whom support the Heritage Foundation, to stop the United States from cracking down on terrorist money havens. I'm not making this up, it's all on the record. Early last year thirty industrial nations were ready to tighten the rules on offshore financial centers whose banks have the potential to hide and help launder billions of dollars for drug cartels, global crime syndicates, and groups like bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. Now not all offshore money is linked to crime or terrorism. Much of it comes from wealthy people who are hiding money to avoid taxation--and right-wingers believe in nothing if not in avoiding taxation. Let firefighters and police and teachers pay out of their middle-income salaries for the war on terrorism. So these right-wingers in Washington and the banking lobbyists went to work to prevent the American government from joining in the crackdown on dirty money. Closing down the havens, they said, would in effect lead to higher taxes on poor folks trying to hide their income. I'm not kidding, it's all on the record. The president of the powerful Heritage Foundation spent an hour with Treasury Secretary O'Neill, Texas bankers pulled their strings at the White House, and, Presto!, the Bush administration pulled out of the global campaign to crack down on dirty money. How about that for patriotism? Better terrorists get their dirty money than tax cheaters be prevented from evading national law. And this from people who wrap themselves in the flag and sing 'America the Beautiful' with tears in their eyes. Bitter? Yes."

MOYERS WAS STILL bitter when I asked him whether his frequent attacks on the Bush administration--in "documentaries" on taxpayer-funded television, in his new show, in his speeches--are more strident even than the attacks Bush's political opponents make on commercial networks.

"What attacks on the president?" he responded, with no apparent irony. After pointing out to me that he criticized the Clinton administration for its campaign finance abuses, he turned the question around. "Are you going to attack me by reporting on this? I mean, I'm asking you seriously, where in this broadcast have I attacked President Bush? Where in the LBJ library speech have I attacked President Bush? You have to be specific."

I started reading his words back to him. "How about that for patriotism? Better terrorists get their dirty money than tax cheaters be prevented from evading national law . . ." Cutting me off, Moyers scoffed. They're facts, he says, not attacks.

But upon closer examination, some of Moyers's "facts" aren't what they seem. According to a report by the Treasury Department, none of the money that financed the terrorists has been traced to the so-called tax havens; much of al Qaeda's banking was done in countries like Germany, Great Britain, and even the United States. And, as Dan Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation (where, in the interests of full disclosure, I worked for six months in 1993) points out, "every nation in the world has bank secrecy. The real issue is the conditions that must apply for that secrecy to be waived. Needless to say, all the low-tax jurisdictions waive secrecy for universally recognized crimes such as terrorism, drug-running, murder, etc. What they don't do, however, is help other nations tax income earned inside their borders."

Such "facts," as Moyers calls them, mar not only his speeches, but also his new television program. The first several episodes of "Now with Bill Moyers" develop the theme of the dual threat to American democracy, from terrorism and money.

The show's premiere started strong, with National Public Radio's Juan Williams offering viewers a sophisticated look at a Cleveland, Ohio, imam embroiled in a community-wide controversy because of hateful comments he had made about Jews ten years before. Moyers followed that segment by interviewing an imam from Connecticut. Thirty minutes in, however, the focus shifted to Bush. "From the beginning it's been a happy marriage of money and politics," Moyers intoned, over footage of President Bush's inauguration. The remainder of the show pushed campaign finance reform as the panacea for our democratic woes.

The second show took up where the first one left off, with a lengthy Enron segment recycled from another PBS show, "Frontline." In a tip of the hat to ideological balance, Moyers interviewed Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, badgering him about why the paper doesn't consider Enron another Whitewater. And Moyers returned to the subject of tax havens that he says benefited "the terrorists."

"Those tax havens were encouraging . . . Europeans and others to avoid their laws. How can we have a society when people are encouraged to hide their money and evade their laws? It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of oversight that citizens cannot maintain themselves and that governments have to do it and that we shouldn't be encouraging people to hide their money."

Moyers then offered something labeled "Commentary," presumably to distinguish it from the objective reporting just completed. Halfway through the show, Moyers wandered back to September 11, profiling a Pentagon widow who opposes any U.S. military response to the attacks.

The third installment developed the same themes, split roughly in the same manner. Moyers spent most of his fourth show looking at civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but saved time for a "Frontline" excerpt on pornography, "the new source of profits" for "big business."

IF MOYERS has no special expertise in terrorism, he has abundant credentials on money in politics. Perhaps that's why his focus has drifted away from the original purpose of the series. He's been working on political money for nearly 30 years--pointing out whenever he has the chance that he was the first newsman to take an in-depth look at PACs, some 25 years ago. Plus, we've been in something of a democratic "crisis" now for more than a decade.

One need not be a campaign finance reform zealot to find unpalatable some of the subsidy-seeking by industries and money-grubbing by individuals after September11. Indeed, there are truths buried in Moyers's heaps of hyperbole. Absent his rhetorical excesses, many of the "right-wingers" he vilifies would agree that capitalizing on the attacks for financial gain is repugnant.

Still, it seemed odd that these accusations should come from Moyers, who has himself made so many programs since September 11. When I approached Moyers to discuss the series and elucidate their funding, I was told he couldn't talk. "He's just too busy, you know, with the new show, the documentaries, and lots of other interviews," explained Adina Barnett, a spokesman from the public relations firm Moyers retains to promote him. Disappointed, I begged. "But there is more than a week before my deadline," I explained. "He can't find even 15 minutes anytime in the next eight days to chat?" No, she regretted to tell me. "He's just too busy."

Later I called again, and she put her foot down. "His doctor has told him not to talk on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays," she revealed. "He's doing too much talking late in the week, with the documentaries and the show. It's not that he won't talk to you. He can't talk to you."

So I sent him a fax. I didn't come up with this idea on my own. Last February, the American Chemical Council had resorted to faxing back and forth with Moyers when he was working on an expose of the industry. And Moyers had always responded quickly.

I had spent some time at www.abouttradesecrets.com, a website the chemical industry set up to counter Moyers's claims in the PBS documentary "Trade Secrets" that aired on March 26, 2001. Some industry representatives had heard that Moyers was set to trash them in the broadcast, suggesting that for years the industry had put profits before human life. Naturally, they wanted a chance to discuss the charges or at least provide what context they could. Terry Yosie, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, had urged Moyers to follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics--"test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error" and "diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of possible wrongdoing." In a series of letters to Moyers, Yosie had begged for balance.

Moyers wouldn't hear of it. "This is an investigative documentary, not a debate," he said at the time. "We wanted to make sure of our reporting and make sure we had our facts laid down and then we wanted the industry to have the chance to respond to our reporting." He shut them out of the first hour and a half of the program, offering them the chance to participate only in a 30-minute panel discussion after the case against them was made. This brought criticism from Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who wrote, "Unlike the most routine news story, the 90-minute documentary includes not a single comment from the industry under fire."

Wanting Moyers's assistance in getting my "facts laid down," I tried one more time to reach him. "One piece of information I am hoping you can provide me," I wrote in my faxed letter, "is how much money your company Public Affairs Television has made in post-September 11 public television." Surely he wouldn't be lobbing those rocks at the "mercenary crowd in Washington" from the front porch of a glass house.

MOYERS CALLED two hours later. He apologized for not calling sooner, and we had a brief chat. I asked him about the money.

"I've never discussed my earnings in public," he said, clearly agitated that anyone would ask about them. "I'm not a publicly held company, I'm a small independent producer who makes a reasonable income."

If he's criticizing others for exploiting September 11 for a buck, I ask, isn't it fair to inquire how much he'll earn for his work on these public television broadcasts?

"I didn't say the questions were unfair," he said. Still, he wouldn't answer them. Finally, he said he simply doesn't know how much he's made. "I actually don't know." Much of the work, he suspects, may have even been done pro bono.

That's a point he confirmed in the five-page, single-spaced letter he e-mailed to me the next day. "Nothing. Nada. Zip," he wrote. When the station insisted he take a "talent fee," he gave it to his "church and other non-profits in New York. Like just about everyone else in this city, I had no appetite to benefit financially, even modestly, from 9/11."

He further pointed out that he "privatized" more than ten years ago, eschewing "public television funding" altogether. "For over a decade now I have raised every penny for every production from foundations and corporations," Moyers insisted. "They're 'subsidizing' public television, not the other way around. As I say, you have it wrong."

If I have it wrong, so does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Their records show that over the past decade, Moyers took a total of $969,377, though nothing since 1994.

Some might call this nitpicking. After all, PBS was created with federal funds, and the indistinguishable streams of taxpayer, corporate, and foundation money that flow through public broadcasting make the Enron partnerships look simple in comparison. What's more, many of the shows Moyers produces for public television come with companion books, and Moyers sells most of his productions in video after they air on PBS. Amazon.com, for instance, lists 33 different Moyers videos and dozens of books. "The 11th of September--Bill Moyers in Conversation" can be had for $16.99.

"Almost all of our producers have the rights to their shows," says PBS president Mitchell, who adds that almost all of the money made from video and book sales goes to the producer, in this case Moyers. "My guess, as a producer who used to be in the business, is that it's not much money. The only programs that really make revenue are the children's projects," like "Barney." We'll have to rely on those guesses, because Moyers, as we know, won't discuss his money.

What he will tell us, though, is that with the production of "Now with Bill Moyers," he has decided to suspend his privatization. "Yes, I have now made an exception in the funding for this new series (which funding comes from PBS, not CPB)," he explains in his letter.

The reasons? "First, the initiative came from PBS. . . . Second, having indicated my intention to step back from active production at the end of this year, I was drawn to the challenge of creating for our stations the model for a new broadcast that might be sustained after I am gone. Third, the one condition sought by PBS--that this be a collaboration with NPR--was in itself an exciting opportunity. Fourth, I figured I might be able to raise additional funds for the kind of reportage not tolerated by the original budget."

When I asked Moyers if he sees any irony in the fact that he's a wealthy man owing in no small part to his long association with public television, the MVP of PBS told me that he's no different from any other public servant--fireman, policeman, or teacher. But when I reminded him that their salaries are matters of public record, he once again reverted to the status of private contractor.

"I make the same disclosures any privately held company makes," he insisted. "I am an independent producer who has made a decent living, by choice in public television as opposed to commercial television. I'm not Enron."

And of course he's right. Still, when it comes to complex, incestuous funding schemes that enrich a few at the expense of so many, Moyers is--to paraphrase Judge Smails--no slouch.

THOUGH HE'D BE loath to admit it, given his frequent complaints about media consolidation, Moyers has become something of a clandestine media magnate. He quietly earns $200,000 a year as president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, which has assets of $90 million-plus. From that nice perch, which he has held since 1990, he has sought to influence public debate in three main areas: the environment, "effective government" (i.e. campaign finance reform), and "independent media." Moyers has directed funding to numerous media outlets on the left: the Washington Monthly, the Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, TomPaine.com (run by Moyers's son John), and, most generously, the American Prospect. In some cases, this support runs well into the millions.

What his work with the foundation makes clear is this: Moyers isn't opposed in principle to buying influence. He just insists it be done in what he sees as the public interest. And he's very specific about that.

For example, a 1994 grant for $52,000 supported "a detailed report in The Washington Monthly on the influence of selected lobbyists in Washington." A 1997 grant for $100,000 went to Mother Jones for "promoting important money-in-politics investigations" by the magazine. The foundation's tax reports are loaded with such gifts--usually several million dollars a year for media projects alone, and millions more for effective government and the environment.

These gifts to private magazines or foundations associated with them aren't a big deal. True, they make Moyers look a little silly in his oft-repeated public proclamations that he has "no agenda." But, as he reminded me several times in our short chat, he can do whatever he wants as a citizen--he has First Amendment rights. And conservative foundations have supported specific projects for years through nonprofits attached to magazines such as the American Spectator.

Things get a little sticky, though, when we consider Moyers's grants to public television and radio. His $42,000 to WETA "to support a series of special features on money in politics to run four consecutive weeks in the Fall of 1997 on the PBS program 'Washington Week in Review.'" Or, that same year, $296,500 "to fund production of three 15-minute segments for the 'PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer' on campaign finance reform." Still in 1997, $127,000 to NPR "to support the special 'Money, Power and Influence' reporting position" and another $100,000 to "support an additional reporter to cover the 'Money, Power and Influence' beat outside the Beltway." A few years earlier, the foundation sent NPR $184,000 to pay for "a full-time reporter for increased environmental coverage."

The list, as they say, goes on. A "Frontline" documentary on campaign financing for the small fee of $200,000 in 1995. Not enough impact from the first one? Fine. How about another $240,000 in 1997?

And when nasty conservatives suggest that all of this reinforces a left-leaning public affairs bias at PBS? Or that public broadcasting in America is for sale? Just give $15,000 to help Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting run an op-ed ad "in support of the independence of public television." As Moyers might say, I'm not making this up.

ON HIS OWN shows, Moyers frequently draws on the "expertise" of the interest groups he funds through his foundation. In 1999, all of this back-scratching caught up with him when an enterprising reporter from Knight Ridder named Frank Greve pointed out Moyers's duplicity.

"No TV journalist has reported more aggressively on the influence of money in American politics than Bill Moyers," wrote Greve. "His triple roles as journalist, advocate and financier have made Moyers one of the nation's most influential champions of tighter restrictions on campaign contributions. In fact, with the Senate set to begin debate on campaign finance this week, Moyers is using his control over money and media to influence public policy in ways that would be the envy of the special interests he deplores."

Greve pointed out that a one-hour Moyers special called "Free Speech for Sale" featured three campaign finance crusaders who had received Schumann money. When I asked Moyers about such criticism, he shrugged it off.

"I have [interviewed grantees] over the years, coincidentally, because I have strong feelings about a number of things and I have a lot of friends and contacts in a lot of fields. There was one person this week in the documentary we did about 'Trading Democracy,' NAFTA, Chapter 11. There was one young man--I've never met him--who works for Earthjustice, which is an environmental watchdog, and as we said in a disclosure at the end of the program, the foundation had made a grant to Earthjustice not related to this issue some time ago."

Indeed, he has disclosed some of this double-scooping on recent shows. But not all of them. Moyers lists the Center for Responsive Politics as a source for one of his campaign finance stories on the "Now" series, and gives the group "special thanks" for their help on "Trade Secrets." But Moyers neglects to mention the millions the center has gotten from his foundation over the past decade, or that the center is, according to its website, currently receiving a two-year grant for $1 million from Schumann.

The "Trade Secrets" website links to numerous Schumann-funded groups including the Sierra Club, US PIRG, Grist magazine, the Center for Public Integrity, the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and, once again, the Center for Responsive Politics. The same is true for the site for "Earth on Edge," an advocacy documentary Moyers produced last summer in collaboration with the World Resources Institute.

And while he wasn't eager to talk for this piece about the potential conflicts of these dual roles, he hasn't been so reticent in other settings.

"My own personal response to Osama bin Laden is not grand, or rousing, or dramatic," Moyers explained to a gathering of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in October. "All I know to do is to keep doing the best I can the craft that has been my calling now for most of my adult life. My colleagues and I have rededicated ourselves to the production of several environmental reports that were in progress before September 11. As a result of our two specials this year, 'Trade Secrets' and 'Earth on Edge,' PBS is asking all of public television's production teams to focus on the environment for two weeks around Earth Day next April."

These apparent conflicts have nicked Moyers's reputation, perhaps, but they haven't kept him from winning effusive praise from the nation's television writers and earning dozens of broadcast journalism awards over the course of his career. He won the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University Gold Baton award for 1998-99, honoring a documentary on South Africa. And the Columbia Journalism Review, in a Moyers tribute for its fortieth anniversary issue this winter, gushed, "Moyers's conversational ease, his earnest delivery, his fierce intelligence--all of it has transformed him into our leading television intellectual, and a worthy successor to Edward R. Murrow." Moyers has been "an invaluable presence on television" and remains "one of our most astute press critics." In sum, "serious journalism is Moyers's legacy to us."

Moyers left another legacy to the Columbia Journalism Review, this one undisclosed. It's the serious funding his foundation has provided for years, including a recent $2 million grant to help "save"--his word--the publication that praises him so effusively.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.