For a third of a century Bill Moyers was a commentator and host of programs on American television, most notably the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), from which he (along with his wife) would earn, by one estimate, more than $20 million taxpayer dollars during that time period. Moyers retired from television in December 2004. He has also been President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy since 1990.
Born Billy Don Moyers in 1934 in Hugo, Oklahoma, this son of a laborer grew up in the town of Marshall in east Texas. He attended North Texas State University, working in his spare time as a reporter for the local newspaper. In 1954 he wrote to the office of then-U.S. Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) seeking a job, and that summer he worked in the mail room of Johnson’s office in Washington, DC. He then transferred, as Johnson recommended, to the University of Texas in Austin, where he was given a job as Assistant News Editor at Austin radio and television complex KTBC, whose government licenses had been granted to Johnson’s wife Lady Bird.
Moyers wed Judith Suzanne Davidson on December 18, 1954.
After receiving his journalism degree in 1956, he spent a year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland on a Rotary International fellowship. In 1957 he entered the Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, earning a divinity degree and becoming an ordained minister in 1959. He briefly accepted a lectureship in Christian ethics at Baylor University. “I thought it was a call to the ministry,” Moyers later told one interviewer, “but actually it was a wrong number.”
Senator Lyndon Johnson invited Moyers to work on his 1960 presidential campaign. When Johnson eventually was named to be John F. Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate, Moyers became LBJ’s executive assistant.
After Kennedy was elected President, Moyers in 1961 became associate director of public affairs, and then deputy director, of JFK’s new Peace Corps. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Moyers rushed to Lyndon Johnson’s side and became the new President’s special assistant.
In LBJ’s White House, Moyers supervised the task forces that shaped the legislation of the vast welfare expansion known as the Great Society. Moyers also orchestrated the 1964 political campaign of calculated defamation against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Moyers personally green-lighted the notorious “daisy ad” that featured a little girl plucking daisy petals as a countdown leads to her vaporization in a nuclear blast, presumably what would happen if Goldwater were elected.
In 1965 Moyers was promoted to the position of President Johnson’s Press Secretary. In 1967, however, Moyers and Johnson had a personal falling out and they never spoke to one another again.
Thereafter Moyers was named publisher of the suburban New York newspaper Newsday. Moving the publication farther to the political left, he turned it into a literary salon that invited writers such as Saul Bellow to be its correspondents. Moyers left in 1970 when Newsday was acquired by the then-conservative Los Angeles Times.
In 1970 Moyers began a long career on television, that year hosting the show This Week for PBS. Moyers would edit and host Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS from 1971-76 and then resume it from 1978-81.
In 1976 Moyers took a job with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), where he worked as editor and chief correspondent for CBS Reports until 1980, and then as senior news analyst and commentator for CBS News from 1981-86.
In 1986 Moyers and his wife created their own production company, Public Affairs Television, Inc. This afforded them both absolute control over the programs they did and a lion’s share of any profits from their shows. By agreement with PBS, for example, Moyers retained ownership and the right to market such popular series as Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, first broadcast by PBS in 1987. Moyers, who has refused to make any public disclosure of his income, pockets the proceeds from tape and DVD sales, sales of the related book and other subsidiary products from hundreds of hours of his programs.
From 1986 to his final series, Now with Bill Moyers, Moyers’ PBS programs have been done and owned by Public Affairs Television.
Moyers has always been more commentator than journalist, more concerned with persuading his audience than with reporting facts objectively. As Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post and host of Reliable Sources on CNN, wrote of one Moyers “documentary” attacking the chemical industry: “Unlike the most routine news story, the 90-minute documentary includes not a single comment from the industry under fire.” Even Moyers’ programs dealing with religion and culture seem designed to undermine traditional Western values and beliefs. His guests over the years have been disproportionately from the left, including radicals such as Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Carlos Fuentes, and Cornel West.
Moyers announced in February 2004 that he would retire after the November elections. By that time, as many as 30 PBS affiliates had ceased airing Moyers’ partisan show Now during pledge drives, partly because its blatant bias alienated many potential contributors. Now had also become an ethical embarrassment because Moyers, as of 2003, had used his taxpayer-subsidized PBS show to promote guests from at least 16 leftist organizations that had gotten at least $4.8 million in grants from the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. Moyers had neglected to inform his audience of this conflict of interest involving an organization of which he was President and from which he personally pocketed $200,000 per year.
Said Moyers in 2004: “I’m going out telling the story that I think is the biggest story of our time: how the right-wing media has become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee. We have an ideological press that’s interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that’s interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don’t have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people.”
In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Moyers said the following: “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.”
In a speech titled “The Progressive Story of America,” Moyers told the 2003 “Take Back America” conference of the Campaign for America’s Future: “Conservatives — or better, pro-corporate apologists — hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words like ‘progress,’ ‘opportunity,’ and ‘individualism’ into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right.” “Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was hijacked, too,” Moyers continued, “so that conservative politicians, judges, and publicists promoted, as if it were, the natural order, the notion that progress resulted from the elimination of the weak and the ‘survival of the fittest.’ This ‘degenerate and unlovely age,’ as one historian calls it, exists in the mind of Karl Rove — the reputed brain of George W. Bush — as the seminal age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America today.”
During a November 2004 election-night panel discussion on PBS, Moyers said: “I think if Democratic presidential candidate [John] Kerry were to win this … in a tight race, I think there’d be an effort to mount a coup, quite frankly. … I mean that the right wing is not going to accept it.”
> “Maybe [Gingrich is] afraid. Afraid the very white folks he’s been rousing to a frenzy will discover who Saul Alinsky really was: a patriot, in a long line of patriots, who scorned the malignant narcissism of duplicitous politicians and taught every day Americans to think for themselves and to fight together for a better life. That’s the American way, and any good historian would know it.”