“When he makes up his mind, he lands hard on his conclusions,” a New York Times reporter once wrote about Bill Moyers, the 81-year-old, award-gobbling elder statesman of progressive journalism. It’s true that, via his PBS programs, Moyers has been waging a soft-spoken jeremiad against powerful interests and sold-out politicians for decades. It’s tempting to describe Moyers, a graduate of Baptist seminary, as a preacher. Or to get downright biblical and call him a prodigal son who had his come-to-Jesus moment during a press briefing when he was President Johnson’s spin doctor-in-chief. A reporter was pressing him with a question, the answer to which might tank the stock market. Recalling his father’s admonition not to lie, Moyers said that right then, “I decided I belonged on the other side of the desk, asking the questions.”
Those narratives may be accurate as far as they go. But in conversation, Moyers revealed himself to be neither righteous nor all-consumed with speaking truth to power. He showed great willingness to question his own approach to the craft of journalism. The most important thing, he said, that he learned from one of his favorite interview subjects, mythologist Joseph Campbell, is, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor. Change the story.” Below is a condensed version of the story Moyers shared in an interview conducted via email and telephone. On Wednesday, May 18, he will give a talk entitled “Coming in November: Armageddon, Apocalypse, or Rapture?” at the Granada Theatre as a guest of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life at UCSB.
One way to describe you is as a professional conversationalist. Can you offer a couple of tips for nurturing a productive conversation? Listen closely. My challenge as a journalist is not to produce a “gotcha moment” but to help my guests get over the fear of saying what they really want to say.
I didn’t talk much as a kid, but I sure listened a lot. We were poor, lived in a small two-bedroom house on the corner of the street. I could hear my mother talking to our landlord, Mrs. Platt, across the back fence. At twilight we sat in the swing on the front porch and listened to passersby. After dark, in bed, I entertained myself trying to decode the murmurs of people walking home from the movies or some party up the street. On Saturdays I would go down to the courthouse square and listen to white farmers on one side of the square selling their goods and catching up on the news, and on the other side, black farmers swapping stories about the weather and the latest funeral. I learned right there the meaning of the term “the public square.” Their voices are embedded in my head.
On television, you come across as avuncular, but you are often motivated by anger about war or injustice or the environment, to name a few topics. In your off-screen life, do you ever just need to go hit a punching bag? My arthritic hands don’t allow me such pleasure, so I usually take it out on my teeth and now have to wear a night brace to prevent grinding them. But listen, some things are worth getting mad about. Don’t you get mad about how our economy is rigged to favor the one-tenth of the one percent? Don’t you feel a flush of anger over so many people barely making it in America? Over what’s happening to our public schools, our public parks, our public highways, our public libraries — under the relentless assault of those who want to privatize everything public for a profit?
It’s beyond ridiculous. It’s shameful and scandalous. Members of Congress spend three to four hours a day just “dialing for donors” — calling contributors begging for money. Anyone who doesn’t see Congress today as an owned-and-operated subsidiary of powerful corporations, rich individuals, and organized interests is living in some kind of la-la land.
You want to know the one thing I most remember about Jesus from my Sunday School days? He got so angry at how the moneylenders in the temple were profaning the sacred that he threw them out of the temple. Imagine if he could see the money changers in Congress, once known as “The People’s House.” To quiet him down, the security guards — our centurions — would have to arrest and crucify him.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Citizens United case: good or great? Oh, god, just awful. The worst decision since Dred Scott, when Chief Justice Taney, a former slaveholder, led the court to rule that a black man couldn’t be a U.S. citizen and therefore couldn’t sue for his freedom. John Roberts is today’s Taney. Before he went on the court, he was a mercenary for hire — a white-shoe lawyer — by big corporations. He was put there to protect business, just as Taney’s mandate was to protect white supremacy.
Where is there hope for our democracy? In the same place where change always comes from: uprisings of Americans outraged at injustice, who know they are only going to have better lives and a better country if they put themselves on the line. Abolitionists once upon a time and the civil rights movement in my time. Those brave men and women, most of them young, who took on white supremacy. Populist farmers who rose up against the railroad monopolies and overweening banks in the last decades of the 19th century. Suffragettes who went to jail for the vote. Workers marching and striking for a living wage. Tree-huggers and climate-change marchers willing to be arrested to save the Earth. Democracy is far, far more than voting; democracy is what we do between elections. Agitate, agitate, agitate.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you what you make of the current presidential election. A lot of political commentators have made facile comparisons between Sanders and Trump as the “outsider” candidates addressing economic angst. Oh, man, how right you are. I’m just recovering from having read the news report today of Michael Bloomberg’s commencement address at the University of Michigan. He told a captive audience that in this presidential election “we’ve seen more demagoguery from both parties than I can remember in my lifetime.” Makes you wonder just where this man been all his life. Michael Bloomberg bought his first election as mayor with so much of his own pocket change that the leading contender, a really serious progressive, was drowned out. Now Bloomberg has the gall to lump into one category of castigation the “demonization of immigrants” and “the demonization of the wealthy.”
As the New York Times put it, “his remarks appeared directed at Donald J. Trump and Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.” Only a useful idiot would believe such a claim. Bernie Sanders is no mirror opposite of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Nor is Hillary Clinton (she’s more the mirror image of Michael Bloomberg). There really are differences, and Bloomberg’s effort to conflate them reveals just how far removed our plutocrats are from the lived experience of ordinary Americans — from the deep rumbling in the American viscera.
You said of your time as LBJ’s press secretary, “You begin to confuse the office with the man and the man with the country.” How did that experience impact the way you approached the craft of journalism after you left the White House? Our credibility was so bad we couldn’t believe our own leaks. So I realized how crucial transparency is to democracy.
Can you be objective and tell the truth at the same time?
I am not quite sure what objectivity means, or even truth, but I will confess to having been deeply influenced by the words of the great 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Beyond left and right, and beyond question and answer, there is a truth the journalist is trying to find.