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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Seems like a one-sided deal, doesn't it? Courtesy of Moyers, Public Citizen gets a lot of money and, courtesy of PBS, it gets publicity for its work. Not to worry. Public Citizen can scratch backs, too, noting on its website: "It is not often that we advertise for TV programs, but we'll make an exception this time. Bill Moyers has done a documentary on PBS entitled: 'Trading Democracy,'" which you can order from Public Citizen "for $29.95 (plus shipping)."

The Sierra Club, another Schumann grantee, similarly shills for Moyers. In its campaign to "Stop Fast Track" free trade agreements, the club advises "friends of the environment" on how to "take action." Item 2--"Request a free copy of a stunning new documentary by Bill Moyers on NAFTA's corporate lawsuit. . . . Screen these videos in your homes for friends and neighbors and help generate letters on fast track to your elected officials." (The video in question was also "Trading Democracy.")

This isn't the first time, or even the second time, Moyers has been caught funding his own sources. Consider this report from the November 1, 1999, issue of a weekly newspaper called Current, devoted to covering public broadcasting:

When Bill Moyers interviewed three campaign-finance-reform advocates for a PBS documentary aired in June, he didn't think to disclose that they had received grants from a foundation he runs. "It should have occurred to me to identify them," he told Current last week. "Next time, I'll be sure to do so."

Still, Moyers was defiant. "I don't see that it's a conflict, but I do believe in disclosure," he told Frazier Moore, the television writer for the Associated Press, shortly after these questions were first raised. "We won't give our critics another chance to ignore the journalism for their own purposes."

Leave aside for the moment Moyers's assertion that his high-dollar advocacy constitutes journalism. The PR he does for his grant recipients, and the research they do for him, makes that at least an open question. And leave aside, too, the rather amusing claim that there is no conflict of interest in conducting interviews with subjects who have received millions of dollars that you control. (Imagine how Moyers would react if, say, Rush Limbaugh gave $1 million to the Heritage Foundation and then repeatedly interviewed its experts for his nationwide audience, and did so over a taxpayer-funded medium, like NPR.)

Bill Moyers isn't the victim of unfair attacks, as he would have us believe. He just refuses to practice what he preaches. When The Weekly Standard asked Moyers in February 2002 about his continued funding of sources, he bristled:

Yes, sometimes--not often--a Schumann Foundation grantee shows up in one of my programs; the concerns of democracy that interest me as a citizen also interest me as a journalist (just as, say, a prominent conservative columnist may have a penchant for baseball and write about it even while serving on the board of a major league team). But on the rare occasion it happens, and I know it, I make that fact public.

Is Moyers clueless about who receives the millions of dollars his foundation dispenses in grant money? A review of his PBS program since that statement shows that Moyers regularly interviews or cites research from his grant recipients but rarely acknowledges a financial relationship. Here is a partial list of the groups Moyers has funded and featured on his show without disclosure. (The dollar amount represents the total given from 1991, his first year as president of the Schumann Foundation, to 2001, as well as grants from the affiliated Florence Fund.)

Annenberg School of Communication--$100,000

Aspen Institute--$218,000

Brennan Center for Justice, NYU--$425,000

Center for Investigative Reporting--$803,000

Democracy 21--$200,000

Environmental Working Group--$234,000

Friends of the Earth--$166,500

Media Access Project--$125,000

The Nation Magazine--$135,000

Natural Resources Defense Council--$105,000

New America Foundation--$750,000

Public Agenda Foundation--$150,000

Public Citizen--$411,000

Sierra Club--$584,000

Union of Concerned Scientists--$335,000

World Resources Institute--$75,000

That's $4,806,000 over the past decade to groups that have gotten free PR on Moyers's show just in the past 16 months. In several cases, he aired stories reported, or at least co-reported, by grant recipients like the Nation and the Center for Investigative Reporting. In one instance, Moyers encouraged his viewers to buy the next issue of the Nation for more information. Given all that, it would probably be simpler for him just to add game-show boilerplate to the end of his broadcasts ("promotional considerations have been paid to some of the guests on this show").