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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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MOYERS HAS DISCLOSED at least some of his conflicts. But, as Charles Lewis, head of the Schumann-funded Center for Public Integrity, pointed out on "Now with Bill Moyers" last year, things are not always as they seem. "Everyone says they're for disclosure," he said. "Bottom line is, that's a lot of hooey. They're not for disclosure. It's just a line they use."

That claim came on the October 18, 2002, episode of "Now." The sweater-wearing host began with a soft-spoken warning about what, for him, must have been a horrifying possibility: "President Bush is off on a marathon trip raising funds for Republican candidates. Coming up in three weeks is one of the most important midterm elections ever, with control of public policy and the public purse at stake. If Republicans take the Senate and the House, they will control the federal government lock, stock, and barrel for the first time in 50 years."

As soft jazz music drifted from the speakers, Moyers welcomed Lewis to the cozy confines of the "Now" studio. "Once upon a time," he said, "Chuck Lewis was a television journalist. His last job was producing for "60 Minutes." But then he went straight, and in 1989 he founded the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which makes him the loneliest man in Washington." Lewis and his center, Moyers continued, are among "the country's most respected analysts of money and power."

To his credit, Moyers offered a disclosure on air, at the start of his interview. "You and I have been kindred spirits and allies on this issue of money and politics for a long time now. In fact, I want my audience to know that many years ago when you were starting this center, the Schumann Foundation, which I head, was one of your important funders. That's been some time now, but I've been following the work you do and I have to begin by saying we haven't been very effective, have we, in reducing the influence of money in politics."

Call it a half-disclosure. Schumann didn't just fund the Center for Public Integrity "many years ago," and it certainly hasn't "been some time now" since Lewis and Moyers collaborated. According to the most recent publicly available IRS documents, Moyers gave the Center for Public Integrity $500,000 in both 1999 and 2000. In fact, Moyers's foundation has dramatically increased its funding over the past decade. And if their work together has not been very effective, it's not for a lack of resources. Over the last decade, Moyers's foundation gave the Center for Public Integrity a total of $3,305,000.

The interview, to use a broad understanding of the term, was what one might expect from an exchange between the head of a foundation generous to left-wing causes and someone who has received millions from that foundation in the past and, presumably, would like to go on receiving more millions in the future. A sampling:

MOYERS: Is there anyway to break the grip of money on politics?

LEWIS: I think the way to break--there are basic things that are, I think, rather common sense. Number one is transparency.

MOYERS: Openness.

LEWIS: Openness. Any politician that's standing for office that has any entity that's secretly raising millions of dollars needs to be outed and they need to, they have a lot of explaining to do to the American people.

Transparency, these days, is getting scarcer, Moyers and Lewis agreed, with those who control political money doing everything they can to hide its influence. As Lewis complained about the insincerity of those who advocate disclosure, the show's producers plugged his organization on the bottom of the screen: "More on the Center for Public Integrity--PBS.org." Moments later, Moyers wondered incredulously at his guest's persistence.

MOYERS: [Some people] even say it's too late to save democracy [pause, bite lip], but you keep trying.

LEWIS: Well, I don't think it's too late to save democracy. Who said that? I mean, why would they say that? I mean, we're still living, aren't we, we're still breathing. These decisions affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. . . . I'm not willing to give up on democracy. We need to know what these bastards are up to. I'm sorry, we do. And we need to start tracking them, we need to hold them accountable and we need to ask them inconvenient questions.

Inconvenient questions--that's one thing Lewis did not get from Moyers.

MOYERS: How do people find out about the Center for Public Integrity?

LEWIS: Well, you can go to publicintegrity.org, that's our website.

Moyers came closest to providing the sort of disclosure he's always promised when Lewis appeared on his show on February 7, 2003. In the middle of a discussion of civil liberties, Moyers offered his viewers a solid representation of his relationship to Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity, saying, "the foundation that I serve on has been a big supporter of yours, and you've been a big supporter of our journalism." Nothing to cavil at there. But at the end of the show, more evasion. "Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Foundation, which provided assistance to the Center for Public Integrity in its formative stages." Maybe the center's still in its formative stages.

SHORTLY BEFORE Moyers's financing of the guests on his show first came under scrutiny in 1999, his Florence and John Schumann Foundation gave birth, with an initial grant authorization of $6,250,000, to another grantmaking organization known as the Florence Fund. Moyers installed his son, John, as the executive director of the Florence Fund. The group's statement of purpose describes, succinctly and precisely, what Bill Moyers has tried to do by blurring the distinction between his non-profit and public broadcasting roles: "To invigorate public debate by helping public interest groups put their messages and work products before larger audiences or to penetrate target audiences more deeply. Special interests include the role of money in politics, the environment and media criticism."

The Florence Fund appears to meet its objective. With grants to left-wing groups and the creation of TomPaine.com (a frequent advertiser in this magazine), the fund has provided another voice to those who believe the Democratic National Committee, the Wilderness Society, and Peter Jennings are too conservative. It has had another consequence--it's now more difficult to trace the funding Bill Moyers directs to his work in public broadcasting.

In 1999, the Florence Fund gave just two grants. One of them, for $54,000, went to the Ozarks chapter of the Sierra Club for unspecified purposes. That chapter of the environmental group has been doing battle for years with the Doe Run Chemical Company, which it claims "has been releasing lead and other toxins into the environment and endangering citizens." That comment came in an April 2, 2002, press release from the chapter, just as the fight intensified over health repercussions and potential punishments, including one that had the company buying up homes in the vicinity of its Herculaneum, Mo., plant. Five weeks later, on May 10, 2002, Moyers featured the town, and the fight, on a special edition of "Now," called "Kids and Chemicals."

As he wrapped up the show, Moyers told his viewers that, "under pressure, Doe Run agreed to buy 160 homes. The company has until August to make its emissions legal." Some of that pressure came from the state government in Missouri. But some of it came from the Schumann-funded Sierra Club chapter. As Herculaneum resident Jim Kasten told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 21, 2002: "Our kids are being used as political pawns by the Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club. Their goal is to close down the smelter." Another resident, John Stockton, added: "Don't misunderstand. We're not defending Doe Run. They've done a miserable job, and they need to clean up. But the evidence is coming in that things are improving. All we're saying is that we need to rely on good science, not scare tactics."

Those views were hard to find in Moyers's report, which, like so many of his David-and-Goliath plot lines, created the impression that the combatants in this fight were suffering citizens and public-spirited environmentalists on one side, with an evil, polluting Big Corporation on the other.

It's a frequent Moyers theme. On April 19, 2002, Moyers ended his show with a pitch for his latest PBS documentary, "America's First River." Over spectacular footage of New York wilderness, a gentle voice floats from television sets across the country: "It's quite a river, the Hudson, flowing from near the Canadian border down past New York harbor to the Atlantic. And it's quite a story we report, from the American Revolution to the epic battle between Jack Welch and the people up and down the Hudson who fought him tooth and toenail over PCBs dumped in the river by GE."

Tough choice--the beautiful outdoors or a powerful CEO who wants to pollute. It's a bit more complicated than Moyers would have us believe, of course. And there's one detail that he left out: In 2001, the Florence Fund paid $104,397 to something called "Citizens to Clean Up GE," which organized those "people up and down the Hudson."

As the segment wound down, Moyers warned that rivers throughout the country are in jeopardy. He ended on an optimistic note. "All is not yet lost. What happened on the Hudson can happen elsewhere if people love something enough to fight for it."

WE KNOW ABOUT SOME of the relationships cited above only because Moyers identified the institutional ties. What is more difficult to determine is how often Moyers relies on experts from organizations he has funded without telling his viewers. Take Pamela Gilbert, who in a "Now" episode last February on campaign finance was identified only as a lawyer and former director of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But she was also the chief congressional lobbyist for Public Citizen throughout the early 1990s. Or take John White. In a story this January about anti-SUV legislation in California, Moyers identifies White as simply an "environmental consultant." White was also a top lobbyist for the Schumann-funded Sierra Club, a group that pushed strenuously for the new legislation. At least once, Moyers needed to look no further than his own board of directors for an expert. When "America's First River" ran a week after Moyers promoted it on Now, the special prominently featured environmental activist Bill McKibben, who earned $25,000 in 2000 and 2001 for his work on the Schumann Foundation.

And on it goes.

Even as PBS executives tolerate Moyers's advocacy, he is busy working to move public broadcasting further left. One Schumann-funded outfit, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, laments the "conservative bias" on PBS. As Moyers himself likes to say, I'm not making this up. According to a CIPB analysis, "U.S. Public Broadcasting: Structure and Programming," "large numbers of small stations in conservative pockets of the country exercise great influence over the national schedule." Later, the report complains, "PBS underwriting guidelines, while friendly to corporations, ban support from organized labor and public interest groups."

Moyers is of course free to broadcast and fund whatever he wants. And journalism ethics classes can debate his practice of interviewing grantees. Much of what happens in Washington is a collaboration of likeminded people who work together to promote ideas and causes they believe in--in this, Moyers is no more sinister than those he targets on his show. All of that would be his own business were it not for the fact that his show, which is a collaborative effort with National Public Radio, takes taxpayer money. We don't know how much because PBS doesn't reveal funding for individual programs.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. Thanks for research assistance on this article is owed to intern David Hackett and to the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia, where we plodded through more than 50 hours of "Now with Bill Moyers."