Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 5 1998 3:30 AM

Bill Moyers

The importance of being earnest.


Bill Moyers broadcast his latest PBS documentary this week, Close to Home: Moyers on Addiction, five and a half sobering hours about alcohol and drug addiction. It was an oddly appropriate subject, because Moyers' shows themselves are a kind of addictive drug. After watching a Moyers documentary, you are likely to be--for no rational reason--in a warmhearted, benevolent, slightly euphoric mood: I feel better for having watched this. Moyers is a glass of chardonnay before dinner, a small toke on a marijuana joint.


It's easy enough to mock Moyers, America's secular televangelist. He is, after all, the person who gave America the mythmeister Joseph Campbell, the men's movement guru Robert Bly, and the oppression poet Maya Angelou (now, Bill, would you please take them back?). Moyers is capable of turning almost any subject into liberal squish: In his hands, the book of Genesis is a story of family dysfunction (Genesis: A Living Conversation), and drug addiction is a disease for which addicts bear no responsibility.

M oyers is terminally earnest, and more cynical journalists (that is, all of us) tire of his lectures on our frivolity. An ordained Baptist minister, he adores sermonizing about his seriousness of purpose. (Click for some examples.) His TV manner can be unbearably ingratiating. He does not address his audience as much as hypnotize it. His gestures are too soothing (click to view my favorite). His Texas drawl and folksy eloquence are overpowering--like drinking a gallon of sweet, warm cream.

Moyers also gets hit for making money off public television. Foundations and corporations give him millions to produce documentaries. He brilliantly markets for-profit spinoffs: His companion books for the Campbell, Genesis, poetry, and mind-body medicine series have all been best sellers. It's hard to see what's so offensive about this commercialization: Why shouldn't Moyers make a fortune off his books and videotapes? Just because he's on PBS doesn't mean he should be a monk.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Moyers' smug piety does not diminish his very real achievement: He has spent his life trying to bring moral seriousness to television. When Moyers quit as Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretary, he could have made a fortune anywhere. (Compare him with fellow LBJ confidante Jack Valenti, who has been buck-raking and power-playing for 30 years.) But Moyers believed he would best serve the public as a TV educator, a teacher in what he calls the "biggest classroom in America."


To that end, he spends hours documenting political, artistic, and spiritual subjects that other TV news dismisses in minutes. He tackles big issues--the world's great religions, evil, poetry--and often explains them eloquently. He has done more than anyone on television to popularize little-known scholars. Yes, that includes Campbell, but for every interview with someone like him, there is one with a Mortimer Adler, the philosopher who used Moyers' show to try to explain Aristotle.

(Conservative critics have complained that Moyers is pernicious because he is faux high culture. Moyers offers the simulacrum of knowledge. When people watch Adler explain Aristotle, they are being diverted from real thought. They are watching television rather than actually reading philosophy. This seems to me an ungracious snipe: The time spent watching Adler probably would have been spent mooing over Ally McBeal, not studying Aristotle.)

M oyers' political documentaries, too, address difficult issues clearly, if one-sidedly. Liberals cite his Iran-Contra TV essay as a model for great television. Documentaries on the CIA, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the minimum wage are much admired, too. And for all his tendencies to liberal hackdom, Moyers did make The Vanishing Family: The Crisis in Black America in 1986. It linked black family decline to bad social welfare policy years before most Democrats acknowledged the issue. (Moyers, incidentally, is one of the culture's best Zeitgeist indicators. Click to read more.)

Moyers' grand public-spirited ambitions do often fail. Many of his broadcasts during the Reagan and Bush years reflexively reinforced liberal nostrums. Some of his recent spiritual documentaries have degenerated into New Age banalities. But at least he keeps trying. And whether or not a documentary succeeds, Moyers always serves as a tonic to television's mad rush. Moyers' documentaries are languorous, even soporific. But his long, unhurried interviews crack his subjects wide open: They talk to the camera as they would with an old friend. Their frankness is a tribute to Moyers' genuine warmth and empathy. (Lesson: The thoughtful chin-grab works.)


Which brings us to Moyers' one real shortcoming. He rejects confrontation. He opens people up by agreeing with them. Moyers was an aide to the most political and confrontational of presidents, but he is the world champion of consensus, the patron saint in the church of Deborah Tannen. Moyers gathers the faithful. His shows are more 700 Club than Crossfire. His guests almost always share Moyers' belief about the topic at hand. If you watched the addiction series, for example, you heard little about other popular views of addiction, e.g., that addicts should be forced to take responsibility for their actions, not coddled into victimization.

Moyers' kind of journalism seems designed to place this thought in the viewer's mind: No right-thinking person could ever disagree with all these nice, smart guests.

"Knowledge is a violent, bright, hot thing, but you would never know that watching Moyers," says Laurence Jarvik, author of PBS: Behind the Screen and a Moyers critic.

Moyers' defenders say that television has enough strife elsewhere (very little of it illuminating) and that it's important that the airwaves offer a civil forum like Moyers'. There is lots of truth to that view. But I can't help wishing that Moyers would sometimes apply his keen mind to confronting those who disagree with him. Compare Moyers with 60 Minutes, whose rough-and-tumble, ambush journalism is the antithesis of his. 60 Minutes prods, provokes, and fights with its subjects. After a great 60 Minutes segment, viewers shake their heads in anger and disbelief. After a great Moyers show, viewers nod in agreement. Which is better journalism?

If you missed the discussion of Moyers' self-righteousness, click. If you missed the discussion of Moyers' gift for Zeitgeist, click.