November 21, 2017
Hall of Fame

Bill Moyers: Hall of Fame Tribute

Rip Rense

Aside from the stock observations about Bill Moyers — his hungry mind, his analytical and compassionate approach to his subjects, his 100-proof American roots — there is one deceptively simple aspect of this remarkable journalist that might provide the key to his entire motivation. It's a quality as essential to interviewing as curiosity, and a close cousin of same.

He's got big ears. Metaphorically speaking.

"Southerners like to talk, and we like to listen," he said flatly. "I grew up listening to people tell stories, listening to teachers read poetry, listening to radio … "

Here he took a bit of a breath, and followed his muse a little:

“Listening to the sounds in the evening of the neighbors on their porches or in their streets of a small town, listening to the night sounds of crickets, and wind in the magnolia trees. Listening to sermons, listening to the chatter of the farmers and the shoppers on Saturday afternoons in the town square, in the courthouse of Harrison County in Marshall, Texas. Listening to traveling salesmen at the Marshall Hotel when I was a kid wandering around what, to me, was a bewitching and wonderful world of men who arrived late in the day and had coffee at the coffee shop, and had their shoes shined outside the hotel, and bought papers at the little single newsstand that we had there. Listening to my mother and father as they lay in bed talking. I mean, I grew up in the South in a small town of 20,000 and back in the woods of East Texas, just attuned to this cacophony of voices and sounds. I was a kid wandering around with my ears open and my eyes popping. I'm comfortable listening. I like to listen to other people.”

He also likes to talk. He does so as compellingly, occasionally as poetically, as many of his more famous interview subjects, although he would dispute that compliment. You get the idea, frankly, that Moyers — always the interviewer — gets something of a kick out of being Moyers the interviewee. Accordingly, with due respect, this article will be interrupted from time to time to interview Mr. Moyers. For example:

Q: What kind of people do you like to interview?

Moyers: I feel at home interviewing people who want to talk, whose purpose is to reveal, not to conceal. I feel very awkward trying to get people to say what they don't want to say and I've almost given up interviewing politicians for that reason.

"Bill Moyers" shouldn't be a name — it should be a term. You should be able to find it in Webster's, somewhere between bilk and bilabong, with a primary definition reading something like: "high quality, articulate, incisive, penetrating, enlightening, honest, inquiring, stimulating, informed, inspiring use of the television medium." Or at least: "the art of interviewing refined to its utmost effectiveness."

Maybe it will happen some day. For now, if you invoke the name in expressions like "Bill Moyers-like programming" or "a Moyers-like interview," people know you are referring to television that lives up to its noblest potential; the exact opposite of television that is contrived to pander to, and ruthlessly exploit, banal knee-jerk reflexes in order to make a fast buck.

Moyers is too modest — and too careful a thinker — to acknowledge his place vis a vis the tube in such drastic relief. What he will say is something like this:

Television is a little like the [Roman] god, Janus — looking both ways. Television can look blindly and unblinkingly ahead, or it can look with wisdom at the world around us and help us, through its eyes, to experience that wisdom. So it's a mixed medium.

Q: What from your childhood suggested your future career path?

Moyers: The first thing I remember in that regard was my father buying an old Magnavox console radio after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and our listening to newscasts every night thereafter. That's where l first heard Edward R. Murrow on the rooftops of London, and his word-pictures filled and excited my mind. I became absolutely enraptured to the spoken word, to reporting … By the time I was in high school, I wanted to either be a broadcaster like Murrow, or an editor like Ralph McGill, the celebrated progressive editor of the Atlanta Constitution who was making a name for himself arousing the South to do the right thing by civil rights ...

Doing just fine after 1994 heart bypass surgery and lengthy rehabilitative therapy, Moyers is up to his neck in work, back at his "very littered, disorganized" little office on W. 58th St. in New York. It's an unassuming office, really — not what you might expect from a person of such reputation. Books are scattered about, transcripts and notebooks lay willy-nilly on a credenza. An ever-present sweater hangs on a wall, along with a Peace Corps baseball cap from his years organizing the Corps during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, various framed reviews, and a few awards.

There isn't room on that wall — or possibly three or four offices' worth of walls — for all the honors bestowed upon this man. You have to wonder, tallying them up, if further accolades can have any impact on him. His reporting for CBS News and his own independent production company, Public Affairs Television, has accrued over 30 Emmys alone — plus the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Gold Baton Award for Career Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, and recognitions from the Organization of American Historians, the Board of Regents from the State of New York, the Lowell Mellett Award for Improving Journalism Through Critical Evaluation, an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute, and enough other major awards — 50, by quick count — to take up much of this article. His greatest reward in 25 years of broadcasting? None of the above.

“Mostly what satisfies me is to receive letters from people who have been touched by the programs I've done, whose lives have been enlarged by what happened to them while they were watching a broadcast — meeting someone they would never have met,” said Moyers, citing an 88-year-old homebound Toledo, Ohio, woman who wrote to thank him for allowing the philosopher/educator/editor Mortimer Adler in her home "through this wonderful medium of television" (he and Adler did a six-part series about ideas). He could publish entire books with letters of that ilk.

"I mean, it sounds extravagant," he continued, “but those kinds of letters come in all the time, and it's that feeling of intimacy you develop with strangers you'll never meet — who write to say how they have been transformed by the experience of television — that keeps me a believer in this medium — despite a lot of the doubts I occasionally entertain.”

Q: Interviewing is artificial, forced conversation. How awkward is it for you?

Moyers: It takes some doing to overcome the contrivance of television interviewing because you're not just alone with another person. There's a crew of 10, bright lights, makeup which both of you can recognize on the other. There's a swarm of artificial stimulation, and you have to establish a relationship that is sometimes awkward to do authentically in an artificial world. But once you break through, you discover that people are having a good time, and you're having a good time.

Author of five best-selling books (his first, in 1971, was tellingly titled, Listening in America), former publisher of Newsday, deputy director of the Peace Corps under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1963-67), trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, holder of a Master of Divinity degree, executive editor of the acclaimed Bill Moyers' Journal, senior news analyst for the CBS Evening News, producer of 200 of the most contemplative and probing hours of television ever (including A Walk Through The 20th Century, Healing and the Mind, The Constitution in Crisis, A Gathering of Men with Robert Bly, and the landmark series of interviews, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth) — this is Bill Moyers.

He was born in Oklahoma to sharecropper parents who came from farms on either side of the Red River, which separates Oklahoma from Texas. His dad was a route salesman for a soft drink company, and his mom stayed at home, raising Bill and brother James (who was to die of cancer in 1966 while doing communications work for the White House). The boys worked on their high school newspaper ("I was too small to play football," says Moyers, "but soon the football team was waiting for my columns about their games and I suddenly discovered I didn't have to wear a football number to achieve standing"), and eventually joined the local paper, the Marshall News Messenger.

Enter Lyndon Baines Johnson. Moyers spent the summer of 1954 working as a 19-year-old intern for Senate Majority Leader LBJ, who "took a liking to me." Bill was going to a small college in north Texas, but quickly transferred to the University of Texas, after Johnson gave him a job off-campus at radio station he, um, owned in Austin. Moyers manned the first mobile TV news unit in the state's history — a station wagon painted fire engine red:

"I was its captain, first mate, and crew, and I roamed over central Texas covering breaking news, political news, crime, accidents, speeches," said Moyers, a trace of the thrill left in his voice. "I mean, bells, whistles, people moving over and excitedly waving to you. That hooked me on it."

With the $100-per-week salary Johnson offered him, Moyers was able to marry his fiancé, Judith Davidson (she is currently the president of Public Affairs Television, Inc.), and look ahead to his next step in education: teaching journalism at Bailey University while pursuing a Ph.D. in American civilization. But something came up — something called the presidential campaign of 1960. Moyers opted against Bailey to join Johnson's presidential machine, and wound up staying on to help to organize the Peace Corps in 1961 under Vice-President Johnson.

Q: How has your interest in religion, your Divinity degree, informed your work as a journalist?

Moyers: All my training in social ethics — that's what I majored in in theology school — was good preparation for a lot of the issues I would face, both in government and as a journalist, where all that is news is not seen, and often has to do with the meaning of things, as opposed to their mere happening.

He left the White House to become publisher of Newsday in 1967, where he remained until the paper was bought by Times Mirror in 1970. From there, more or less, it was on to writing books and in-depth news reporting for CBS. How unusual was he in the world of television? Ed Siegel, who interviewed Moyers many times as TV critic for the Boston Globe, explained, “Bill has always had an unwavering commitment to what he sees as the way news should be covered, particularly by the electronic medium — that it is a combination of words and pictures, and that the electronic tail should never wag the dog. I think what has happened in electronic journalism is that as people have seen the power of the medium, the picture has come to dominate the content; a story is only worth covering if it has good video to go along with it. Bill never bought into that. Bill always thought the word came first, and you shaped the video to match the word. And that, I think, is his unique contribution.”

A supreme — and extreme — example of Moyers' vision, Siegel suggests, was the 1988 series of interviews with that avatar of original thought, Joseph Campbell, in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Even at PBS, some folks thought that discussions with a man who came to understand humanity through its mythology were just a bit too cerebral.

"Moyers just really fought that, and the result was one of the most successful series," said Siegel. “Not successful in terms of Ken Burns' Civil War or Baseball, but very successful in terms of changing people's lives. Even the people who had fought him on it admitted they had made a mistake. I think the Campbell series really showed people that it was possible to live a spiritual life without taking the Bible or any other religious book literally.”

Moyers set out to interview Campbell "out of curiosity," not because he anticipated a large impact. Ratings were indeed modest, even for PBS, but soon stations were besieged with requests for repeats. The six-part series acquired a kind of grassroots following that grew and grew. Before long there were about 2,000 groups across the country getting together to tune in to the absorbing and instructive conversations between Moyers and Campbell.

"What Campbell did," said Moyers, “was to give us a new vocabulary for talking about what it means to be spiritual in this world. He opened up new vistas of the soul and the spirit. And I didn't know that at the time — I just found him to be an interesting mind to be unloaded. Yet it struck a chord ... [His] stories reminded us of the cosmic significance of a lot of everyday events we had taken for granted. It formed a community with a center for those 30-some-odd million people who were listening. That is the magic of television.”

Q: What are some of your doubts about television?

Moyers: It can distance us from people and ideas. It can trivialize and vulgarize. It can inflame and agitate. It can stupify. It can take us down to the lowest common denominator ... But l remember my father, who became incapacitated later in his life and yet was able, there in East Texas, to watch ball games in Los Angeles and New York; who could go to the political conventions without leaving his living room. Who could watch the Democrats and Republicans nominate their candidates and tear themselves apart. I saw him get interested in ideas by watching debates on television ...

Moyers' friend, Arthur Unger, retired television critic for the Christian Science Monitor, found that viewers are not the only ones changed by the Moyers treatment.  “I've spoken to most of the people he has interviewed over the last 15 years to discover what impact the on-air interview with Bill had on them, and on their professions and status. It was an incredible response in that he could have been Mother Teresa. I've never heard such positive response. People who had been working in a specific field for 20 years said it had changed completely. People recognized and appreciated their work, and it changed their whole life.”

Moyers is now embarked on several rather dazzling and daunting new television journeys (one of which, fundraising is perpetually ongoing, taking about half his energy), including: a 10-part series to air next year about the Book of Genesis, featuring discussions with Christians, Jews, Muslims, lay people, agnostics, believers, men, women, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.; a five-part series with religion historian Houston Smith; a documentary entitled An American Tragedy, concerning how people are recovering from the Oklahoma City bombing; a series called After the War, an examination of the bleak and anguished Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

In other words, a hell of a lot more work — even for a journalist with big ears.

Q: What are your feelings about being inducted into the Hall of Fame?

Moyers: Well, I remember when the guys who were inaugurated into the baseball hall of fame, I thought of them as old geezers. Wobbling forward on bent knees, bent legs with pinched faces and leathery hides ... I’ve been in television early, you know? Television wasn’t that old when I came to it. We sort of grew up together, and I'm just glad that the work of an eccentric and independent journalist is recognized by the men and women out there who make this kind of decision. I’m very pleased.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Bill Moyers's induction in 1995.

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