Bill Moyers on Media Reform

I first learned of Bill Moyers while I was in school for journalism back in Canada. A classmate of mine lent me the book version of his rather famous interview series with Joseph Campbell entitled “The Power of Myth”.

Bill MoyersIn the years since I’ve watched a handful of his numerous interviews and I have to say that few people ask better questions than Bill Moyers. Not just of his interviewees, but of society at large.

At the recent NCMR, Moyers delivered a rather passionate and enlightening speech about the reforms so desperately needed in the modern media.

The entire speech (40 min) is available on YouTube, and though lengthy, well-worth the watch. I took the time to transcribe what I felt was a particularly good bit of Moyers speaking about the dangers of large media conglomerates and the needed role of an effective PBS:

“The myths of the marketplace have prospered as our opponents agree that the private system really can provide all that is necessary or that the public interest is what the public is interested in. So as the commercial voice of the mega media companies has been loud, strident, threatening and clear – the voice of public broadcasting has become a relatively small whisper.

Neither congress nor the FCC have seen fit to provide public media the requisite policy support. But, as you know so well, by comparison the private, commercial, cable television industries have been able to use their vast resources to shape the public agenda. And as a result, their operations have been almost totally deregulated. They’ve been given substantial public assets at no cost and with few obligations to their licenses, and they’ve been allowed to integrate vertically and to consolidate ownership across radio, television and newspapers.

Against that mighty armada of power and influence, public broadcasting has had little to work with.

But you can make a difference. I’m not asking for uncritical support. The strength of free press as an organization is its independence from its funders, and from, even, its friends. Those of us inside the public broadcasting system must put our own house in order, show courage, reveal to America the real faces of a pluralistic society of many colours, origins and interests; and hold steady to high standards of excellence, providing a real alternative to dominant and dumbed-down media. You should keep our feet to the fire. Insist from us accountability of the highest order, demand that we live up to our potential as public broadcasting.

What we need is your strong support – not as a lapdog, but as a watchdog.”

Back a few months ago I posted about the various TV programs I watch or have watched since moving to China. I made an open call for suggestions on what I should watch next and overwhelmingly people suggested The Wire.

Well, I’ve chewed through the first four seasons and am just working on the final season now and I’ve got to say, what a fantastic show. I am particularly liking this fifth season in how it illustrates the struggles and continual decline of the modern American newsroom.

So, it was with a bit of surprise that I listened to Bill Moyers mention David Simon, The Wire‘s producer/writer/creator, in his speech.

In particular Moyers quotes an opt-in piece Simon wrote for the Washington Post entitled “Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?

Simon knows what he’s talking about. A long-time reporter in the very newsroom that gets examined in The Wire, he has witnessed first hand what these massive media mergers, byouts and layoffs have done to the quality of news reporting in America.

Everything points to the fact that so long as a corporate board of directors controls and influences the content and/or quality of our media, we will lose the battle for free speech and free press.

The great part is, we’ve already shown we’ve the tools to win the war. We, the people, still control the Internet and the content generated on it. What will be essential in the skirmishes to come is whether or not this new medium is able to attract the defecting and derelict generals and commanders from the print world needed to lead this legion of keyboard soldiers.

I leave you with this, also from Moyers speech:

I am no romantic about journalism – some of my best friends are journalists :-). We are all fallen creatures like everyone else. But I believe more fervently than ever, that as journalism goes, so goes democracy.

6 Responses

  1. Emo Phillips has this joke: “I used to think that the brain was the most amazing organ in the body, but then I realized..ahhhh! Look what’s telling me that!”

    I’ve noticed most teachers exaggerate the importance of teachers to society. Same goes for architects, labor organizers, environmental lobbyists, etc. Journalists are no exception. They spend a lot of time talking about journalism – enough to make whole shows out of it. One of my favorite podcasts is WNYC’s On The Media.

    My point is “as [insert one’s generalized profession here] goes, so goes democracy” feels good to say and is never really false. It’s never really true, either. It’s just a navel-gazing platitude delivered via YouTube.

    Besides, democracy is myth. Moyers should replace it with “the Mandate of Heaven”.

    The Wire is great. I’m finishing up the final two episodes.

  2. It is with great irony that THE WIRE comes from HBO, part of the Time-Warner conglomerate. Then again, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox/Newscorp produced FIGHT CLUB. As Leonard Cohen once sang, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

    I also second the recommendation of ON THE MEDIA and add STUDIO 360 to the mix. Both are available on free podcast editions.

  3. @Josh – when teachers are told in teachers’ college that they play an essential role in guiding the young and helping them achieve their best.

    Or when doctors pledge to ‘do no harm’ at the end of their education.

    Or when journalists are taught again and again to report the news with journalistic integrity and be the watchdog of the government…

    These are all essential functions of what I would consider a good society.

    One doesn’t have to do the job of the other, but they are all vital. And so, should they all aggrandize themselves in the light of their own importance, perhaps it is ego-centric, but it doesn’t make it less true.

    Democracy, as a term, is nothing more than abstracts that give people a comfortable term to rally around. But on the ground, there is a very real job to be done by all branches of a libertarian society, and journalism, the ability to report freely and without unjust recourse, is as integral a part of that liberty.

    Moyers point, and on a grander scale, the purpose of the conference he was speaking at and the movement in general, is in my feeling a very legitimate and urgent concern.

    I’ve worked in newsrooms that’s content was completely dictated by advertising dollars, and it was painful to live with in a non-relevant fluff rag – but to see it happen to institutions that millions upon millions of people trust as an unbiased source – it’s nothing but wrong.

    @King of Men: That’s the tricky part, isn’t it. As long as it sells – and The Wire sells. HBO, and in turn Time-Warner, knows that their product is only good if it is ‘edgy’ and critical of the establishment. Corporations don’t have much in the way of personal shame – they’re more than willing to let folks listen to criticisms about them, if they’re paying the corporation to do it. Both Simpsons and Futurama notoriously did this with Fox as well.

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