The Magazine

PBS's Pontificator

From the June 9, 2003 issue: Whatever happened to Bill Moyers's promise to disclose conflicts of interest?

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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JUST TO DECLARE MY INTEREST at the outset: Bill Moyers and I have a history. I wrote an article about him (PBS's Televangelist, February 25, 2002) that made Moyers mad. The gist of the piece was simple: Bill Moyers flagrantly indulges in the same conflicts of interest, Washington logrolling, and mutual back-scratching that he finds deeply objectionable in, well, everyone other than Bill Moyers. There were piles of documents--from IRS filings to internal records from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--that supported this conclusion.

In his dual roles as head of the $75 million Florence and John Schumann Foundation and PBS Pontificator-in-Chief, Moyers regularly interviews the people he funds (conflict of interest). He has gotten rich at "the public trough," producing shows partially financed by taxpayers and lining his pockets with the royalties (profiteering). And while he demands strict disclosure of others in the public sector, Moyers rarely tells his viewers when his interview subjects are the recipients of his foundation's grants or discloses details of his own financial relationship with public broadcasting. The Enron-like lack of transparency at PBS has caught the attention of Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight of PBS. Tauzin has asked the General Accounting Office to look into government-funded broadcasting, indicating a particular interest in Moyers and his refusal to let taxpayers know what's happening with their money.

Not surprisingly, Moyers didn't like the scrutiny. In the fusillade of insults that he sent my way, one claim stuck out as something that could later be verified. He said that he always disclosed the fact when a Schumann grantee appeared on one of his programs. The claim wasn't true when he made it. But surely he has since mended his ways? Well, not exactly.

Typical was an interview with pollster Daniel Yankelovich, which aired on June 14, 2002. Moyers ladled on the praise, describing Yankelovich as "the grand old man of listening, recognized the world over for careful and credible research on American values and public opinion." Public Agenda, a Yankelovich nonprofit that does polling on policy and social issues, "has long been at the forefront of social research on national issues," Moyers said.

Moyers asked Yankelovich about a topic close to Moyers's heart, a subject that animates much of his work with the Schumann Foundation and his advocacy on public television. "So when the watchdogs become lapdogs there's nobody to bark for the people who have been exploited?" Yankelovich: "Yeah, and you know not only lapdogs, but become sort of interested in--their own doggie pursuits....You know, conflict of interest--it's been meaningless the last couple of years on Wall Street and other places. It's as if the concept didn't even exist. Hardly paid lip service to it, or just lip service to it." As he finished this thought, the identifier at the bottom of the screen reminded viewers that these were the views of "Daniel Yankelovich, Founder 'Public Agenda.'"

One wonders if the show's executive editor, Judith Davidson Moyers, planned it as a clever bit of irony. Mrs. Moyers is on the board of Public Agenda. The Public Agenda Foundation was a recipient of a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Schumann Foundation in 2001. Not that any of this was mentioned. Conflict of interest? It's as if the concept didn't even exist.

Last October 4, Moyers began a segment of his weekly PBS news series "Now with Bill Moyers" with this rant:

Out of sight and out of mind big energy producers are getting the deluxe treatment. Drilling for oil in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Weakening auto emissions standards. Billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies [footage of energy plant]. Just a few of the giveaways under consideration as part of the Bush energy bill now being hammered out by a Senate and House conference committee on Capitol Hill.

Continued Moyers: "According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, power companies pushing for the law's repeal gave more than $15 million to federal candidates."

But who will watch the watchdog? Public Citizen is a frequent recipient of Schumann grants: $42,000 in 1999 to "fund a full-time investigative reporter to research and write on the nexus between special interest political contributions and the outcome of major domestic policy debates." Another $75,000 in 2000 for "the Public Citizen Congress Watch investigative research program." A further $204,000 in 2001 for "general support of Public Citizen's educational efforts." In fact, from 1991 to 2001, the last year for which IRS records are available, Moyers's Schumann Foundation gave Public Citizen a total of $411,000.