No Fairness Doctrine for PBS
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- Introduction: 'Activists' Inappropriate for PBS, If They're Conservative
- 1. Bill Moyers and his Impeach-Bush Bandwagon
- 2. Tavis Smiley Campaigns Against the GOP
- 3. ITVS, the "Independent Television" Service
- 4. Recommendations
1. Bill Moyers and his Impeach-Bush Bandwagon
PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers, the former Lyndon Johnson press secretary, is a very famous affront to the idea that people with ideological "day jobs" are never allowed into the liberal PBS sandbox. Moyers "retired" from PBS in 2004, only to re-emerge in the last weeks of the 2006 election cycle with three programs titled Moyers on America attacking conservatives. "Capitol Crimes" attacked former Rep. Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, "the majordomo of Republican Washington." He warned Republicans were losing their evangelical Christian base with "Is God Green?" The third was devoted to a socialist critique that corporations are ruining the Internet, a cause dear to the PBS-defending liberal groups such as Common Cause, Free Press, and the Center for Digital Democracy.
Once the Democrats recaptured the House and Senate, Moyers returned in 2007 with another reincarnation of Bill Moyers Journal. Its first program on April 25 was a special 90-minute show called "Buying the War," which laid into the liberal media for not being full-throated enough in opposing the Iraq War before it began. Moyers didn’t allow a single conservative to challenge the idea of a Bush-pleasing media. Moyers did feature far-left media critics like Eric Boehlert and Norman Solomon to echo his conspiracy theory that the major media were pawns of the neoconservative architects of war. But then, Moyers also added major media players, from disgraced CBS anchor Dan Rather to former CNN boss Walter Isaacson, to agree with him that they were all woefully lacking in anti-war fervor.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Moyers said this program underlined how the truth-tellers against the war faced a "slime machine" of conservatives. "The Hannitys and the O’Reillys and the Limbaughs and the Mike Savages would come down on them, slander them, discredit them, so good reporting lost its power to break through because of this avalanche of opposition and venom directed at them."
On July 13, Moyers aired a completely one-sided hour promoting the idea that President Bush and Vice President Cheney should both be impeached. The guests were leftist writer John Nichols of The Nation magazine and Bruce Fein, who Moyers identified as "a conservative who reveres the Constitution." In fact, the "conservative" Fein was a harsher opponent of Bush and Cheney than the man of the left. Fein compared Bush to the Nazi regime, the wardens of the Soviet gulag, the architects of America’s Japanese internment policy in World War II, and King George III, the enemy of the American Revolution. Fein and Nichols both argued that impeachment would not be an act of partisanship, but of statesmanship. The trio harrumphed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was failing to be statesmanlike by cutting the Bush presidency short for the good of the nation. Moyers concluded with a commentary underlining how PBS was created to disturb the peace for liberalism (see box).
Where was Moyers in the Clinton impeachment process in 1998? He was absent from television for most of the year due to an illness-related break, but on October 6, the day after Congress took up impeachment, he marked his return to PBS with a Frontline documentary attacking both parties from his far-left perch for not passing a leftist campaign-finance bill. He was not a voice for impeachment, and certainly not a voice for devoting more PBS air time to the impeachment debate.
PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler arrived at the obvious conclusion on the PBS website. He found "there was almost a complete absence of balance, as I watched it, in the way this program presented the case for impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Cheney."
Moyers, always sensitive to criticism, quickly wrote a letter of opposition to Getler: "I respect your work and your role, but I disagree with you about ‘balance.’ The journalist’s job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect -- sometimes, alas, reverence -- for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist’s job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story. That’s what I did regarding the argument for impeachment. Official Washington may not want to hear the best arguments for impeachment -- or any at all -- but a lot of America does."
Moyers added that PBS was created to disturb the "official consensus" and praised his two pro-impeachment guests for making "a valuable contribution to the public dialogue, as confirmed by the roughly 20:1 positive response to the broadcast. Of course I could have aired a Beltway-like ’debate’ between a Democrat and a Republican, or a conservative and a liberal, but that’s usually conventional wisdom and standard practice, and public broadcasting was meant to be an alternative, not an echo."
Ironically, Moyers pointed out that Getler himself had seemed to ask for the impeachment hour in an earlier ombudsman’s column opposing the Iraq War. Getler had written that "all future steps should be vigorously explored in public by an independent press in a way that goes well beyond a Republican saying this and a Democrat saying that on a talk show, or the panel discussions of a predictable on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand specialists."
Getler was not alone. The ombudsman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Bode, wrote an opinion piece for the Indianapolis Star listing "Bush administration crimes," and agreeing that "The crimes are real and probably impeachable, and the monarchial arrogance of the Bush-Cheney administration is monumental," but in political terms, "the timing is wrong."
But on his CPB blog, Bode later acknowledged "I expected to hear a debate directed toward both sides of the question proposed in the title of the program. In fact, they were clones of one another, both arguing in favor of the proposition, each ready to complete the other’s sentences. The program was one-sided and devoid of balance....for those who believe PBS programming leans inexorably to the Left, it was confirming evidence."
How could anyone who looks through the jungle of verbiage surrounding this impeachment-promoting show not be struck by the left-wing tilt of the public broadcasting system? No one inside PBS would argue this is an example of objectivity in programming. Some would argue that this willingness to take the debate boldly to the left of the "official consensus" of elected officials is what makes public broadcasting worthwhile.