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Moyers Gets the Hook

It seems that Bill Moyers has even managed to spook some PBS executives with his radical show. (Oh, and he throws an elbow at The Factor, too.)

12:15 AM, Jul 26, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I took a long look at the nation's foremost liberal scold, Bill Moyers (here and here). Among the many questions the article raised was this one: Why would a show dedicated to promoting the views of the most extreme elements of the far left in America get a coveted prime-time spot on the television network funded by the American taxpayers?

Some PBS sympathizers guessed that the decision-makers at PBS either didn't know or didn't recognize just how left-wing the avuncular Moyers has become. There is some support for that speculation. At their convention last month, PBS executives invited the likes of Alan Alda, Robert Redford, and Ted Turner to address the gathering. One local PBS executive phoned in his complaint to The Weekly Standard. "I'm sitting here looking at the schedule and I can't find a single right-of-center person on the entire thing." So, yes, despite years of criticism that PBS skews dramatically to the left, maybe PBS big-wigs are still ideologically oblivious. It's the ideological equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal looking at Manute Bol--he's tall, but he's not that tall.

But now, thanks to a report in April 8 issue of the Nation, we can posit a second hypothesis. PBS executives deliberately carved out a prime-time spot for Moyers because they see such programming as central to their mission. Indeed, at the PBS pow-wow last month, Moyers participated in a pep-talk dressed up as a panel discussion to address the issue directly: "Reaffirming Our Relevance--Public Affairs and the Public Broadcasting Mission."

That mission, in its essence, involves providing programming that might not survive the harsh competition of market-driven television. The Nation report suggests that were Moyers subjected to competition, his brand of public affairs programming would be in trouble. Here is that item, in its entirety. It ran under the headline, "Bring Back Bill: Public Broadcasting Suspends Bill Moyers's 'Now' Program":

"Some thirty public television stations suspended Bill Moyers's 'Now' during pledge drives, apparently on the theory that the program's controversial stories might offend donors. If your PBS station isn't carrying it--protest (and withhold your donation). Note: House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who says PBS is too liberal, recently called for totally defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a way of trimming the deficit."

The Weekly Standard asked PBS and Moyers's production house, Public Affairs Television, Inc., for a comment on the report in the Nation. In a statement, PBS spokesman Laura Nichols said, "The bottom line is that the Nation got it wrong, and we're seeking a correction." She further explains, "the stations that pre-empted 'Now' are most likely juggling their schedules to accommodate pledge drives. Depending on a local station's format, theme and objective for any pledge drive, they often change their schedule and that means not running regularly scheduled programs. It's not unusual for a show to get pre-empted--it happens to 'American Experience,' 'NOVA,' 'Masterpiece Theatre' and others."

Su Patel, deputy director of special projects for Moyers's show, had a similar theory. "As all loyal PBS viewers know, programming of all kinds (including all prime time programming) is subject to change during pledge drives. Even so, the vast majority of our stations carried 'Now with Bill Moyers' and no station has expressed to us any donor concern about the series' content," she said in a faxed statement.

And, finally, in a letter to the Nation, PBS senior vice president Jacoba Atlas wrote, "While we appreciate your interest in public television's programming, the implication of this story is wrong and needs correction."

The Nation published the letter, but not a correction, in this week's issue. (It should be noted that the letter wasn't sent until July 11, and only after inquiries by The Weekly Standard.) Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, says she stands by the report. "We did fact-check our item. We stand by the report, including the part that says the show was suspended apparently for political reasons."

For PBS viewers, pledge week comes as something of a mixed bag. They have to put up with constant money-grubbing from lego-haired news-anchor wannabes, but, at the same time, PBS affiliates generally save their best programming for those weeks dedicated to supplementing the funds provided by taxpayers. So even as PBS exists largely to shield "quality programming" from the market, pledge drives have an undeniable market-based assumption: The programs that viewers most enjoy will generate the most revenue.