The intolerable smugness of Bill Moyers.

Media criticism.
Feb. 23 2009 6:05 PM

The Intolerable Smugness of Bill Moyers

He just can't help himself.

This article was published on Feb. 20. A software bug has given it a false publication date.

Bill Moyers, 1965.
Bill Moyers, 1965

Bill Moyers took it in the shins this week after the Washington Post's Joe Stephens, drawing on FBI files liberated by a FOIA request, reported the liberal lion's role in hunting suspected homosexuals inside the Lyndon Johnson White House.

The Post story's primary focus is on the FBI investigation of presidential aide Jack Valenti's sexual orientation, an investigation OK'd by President Johnson. It also reports that Moyers, then a special assistant to the president, asked the FBI to investigate two additional administration figures thought to have homosexual tendencies.

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These weren't the only Moyers White House homo-hunts. On Commentary's blog, Jason Maoz quotes former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that weeks before the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election, Moyers "was tasked to direct [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover to do an investigation of Goldwater's staff to find similar evidence of homosexual activity. Mr. Moyers' memo to the FBI was in one of the files."

The Wizbang blog continues the Moyers bashing by quoting from CBS News correspondent Morley Safer's 1990 autobiography, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam. Safer writes:

[Moyers'] part in Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover's bugging of Martin Luther King's private life, the leaks to the press and diplomatic corps, the surveillance of civil rights groups at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and his request for damaging information from Hoover on members of the Goldwater campaign suggest he was not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson.

Rounding out the week's pillory is my old boss, Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin, who finds the Post discovery consistent with the thuggery that marked Moyers' political career. As long as Moyers is taking such a well-deserved beating, allow me a couple of licks.

When Moyers was Johnson's press secretary, he believed that journalists existed to serve the president. James Deakin writes in Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House and the Truththat Johnson's assistant press secretary Joe Laitin told Moyers that it was OK to plant a question with reporters every once in a while at presidential news conferences. A bogus idea, for sure, but Laitin thought the technique was useful in getting important information out. "When [the president] volunteers something, everybody immediately is on guard: what's he trying to sell?" Laitin told Deakin.

Moyers pitched the idea of planting questions to Johnson, who embraced it, giving Moyers a couple of questions for Laitin to distribute, which he did.

Johnson so loved this innovation that he was determined to plant every question at his next news conference. About 15 minutes before the session started, Moyers brought Laitin about 10 questions from the president. When Laitin protested that this was too much—"Bill, this isn't the way it's done"—Moyers said, "Do it!"

A rebuked Laitin approached John Pomfret of the New York Times first, primarily because the two were close. Deakin quotes Laitin:

I said, "John, would you mind asking the president this question?" There was no time for amenities; I had to be blunt because they were waiting and it was now eight minutes away from call time. He looked at me and said, "How dare you try to plant a question on the New York Times? I'm offended by this, and it's highly unethical."

Laitin did succeed in planting one or two questions, but, as Deakin writes, "the Grand Plan had failed."

Nancy Dickerson confirms the Moyers methodology in her 1976 memoir, Among Those Present: A Reporter's View of Twenty-Five Years in Washington. She writes:

The tactic [of planting questions] has been tried before, notably in Ike's day, with little fuss, but it hurt Johnson immeasurably. …

One day when I phoned Bill Moyers he asked if I was going to go to the news conference later that day. When I said that I was, he suggested, "You'd be the perfect one to ask LBJ how he feels; after all, it's his birthday.

Dickerson agreed to the request, but another reporter beat her to the question at the news conference. She continues:

I don't know how many other plants there were that day, but in retrospect I know that I was wrong in agreeing to ask one, even if it was a valid news question. Bill Moyers was out of line in suggesting it, and I was at fault in agreeing to it. Years later Bill told me that [Eisenhower press secretary] Jim Hagerty and [Kennedy press secretary] Pierre Salinger had done the same thing with great skill, and that it was necessary to compensate for the inadequacies of a press corps that often fails to ask the key question. I disagree. If a President has some information he feels the American people should know, he has only to make an announcement before the reporters' questions start.

Now compare Moyers' willingness to script Johnson news conferences with the sanctimonious interview he gave to Buzzflash in October 2003. He observes that modern journalists "who don't serve a partisan purpose and who try to be disinterested observers find themselves whipsawed between these corporate and ideological forces" and goes on to complain about the White House press corps, saying:

I think these forces have unbalanced the relationship between this White House and the press. Frankly, even if we had tried it in LBJ's time, we wouldn't have gotten away with the kind of press conference President Bush conducted on the eve of the invasion of Iraq—the one that even the President admitted was wholly scripted, with reporters raising their hands and posing so as to appear spontaneous.

Where does the guy who planted questions at LBJ news conferences, who told Nancy Dickerson that previous press secretaries had done it, and who told her that planting questions was necessary get the moxie to accuse the Bush press corps of participating in a scripted news conference?

The scripted news conference he's harping about is the one from March 6, 2003, in which Bush snubbed a reporter who was trying to get his attention by saying:

We'll be there in a minute. King, John King. This is a scripted—(laughter.)

Does this mean the Bush news conference was "scripted"? Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer claimed absolutely not in a March 7, 2003, briefing. Fleischer said that Bush had called upon questioners from a "suggestion" list he had prepared. The president preferred this method because it results in a "more orderly news conference," added Fleischer. The scripted comment was just another Bush joke gone flat. (If you have a Nexis account, see the nicely done March 8, 2003, Newsday news story "Not Scripted, but Listed: Checklist of reporters helps Bush work news conference" by Ken Fireman.)

Bush isn't the only president to have relied on the list approach. Barack Obama favors it, too, something that Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin was complaining about in early January, before the Obama inauguration and well before his first news conference (Feb. 9). As you may recall, Obama made no effort to conceal his reliance on a list as he called on reporters.

I await Moyers' "expose" of the Obama administration's blatantly scripted news conferences.

[Addendum: Don't miss the  follow-up for more on Moyers' smugness.]

[Addendum 3: Shafer probes Moyers' memory.]

******

Oh, never mind. A Feb. 11, 2009, Wall Street Journal editorial already claimed this scoop. "We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors," the Journal editorial states. Many thanks to Slate's John Dickerson, son of Nancy, for pointing me both to the Deakin passages and to his mother's book. Send Moyers news to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Moyers content in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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