Bill Moyers Takes the Gloves Off

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Bill Moyers Takes the Gloves Off

Excerpts from a speech delivered May 15 by Bill Moyers to the National Conference on Media Reform:
We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable.

... A free press is one where it’s okay to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.

One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at (the PBS television show) "Now" didn’t play by the conventional rules of beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.

Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay ... Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by beltway journalism.

The “rules of our game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up an issue...without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator so-and-so hasn’t criticized post-war planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius, “then it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

Mermin also quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists not discussing the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, “the word occupation...was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.” Washington talked about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not a war of occupation, so as a consequence, “those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.”

“In other words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about it, we don’t report it.”

... These “rules of the game” permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.

I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that “news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”

... Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.

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