Corporate Media, Coming of the Rapture, and the Culture of Fear:
Coffee Talk with Bill Moyers
Spend five minutes on the phone with Bill Moyers, dubbed by some "the conscience" of American journalism, and it's abundantly obvious that the man is troubled, and profoundly pissed off; though it's doubtful someone so imbued with good Southern manners would use such talk. Now 70, Moyers has spent most of the past 55 years hunting the truth behind his craft, a working journalist tracing the twisted paths of power for both newspapers and television. Embodying that rare combination of graciousness, dignity, and passion, Moyers has been audacious enough to tell the truth behind the news, rather than to report the he-said-she- said ping-pong that often passes for news. And the truth about the news business and democracy as Moyers sees, could not be more grim.
The mainstream news media, Moyers laments, has taken a dive at a time when the power of the Republican Party has never been more absolute and more morally bankrupt. As a result, public discourse has been reduced to a scream-fest dominated by such unabashedly conservative media giants as Fox, Clear Channel, and Sinclair, who've become echo chambers for the Bush administration, if not outright propagandists. And when it comes to the realities of bare-knuckle politics, Moyers is hardly some pious sissy. For three years he worked closely with former President Lyndon Johnson, whose ferocity as a political infighter was exceeded only by his reputed Machiavellian genius. After his stint with Johnson, Moyers went to work for CBS; in 1986 he created his own independent production company, Public Affairs Television.
Via Public Affairs, Moyers explored not just the political but the spiritual dimension of American life, introducing the likes of anthropologist Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) and poet Robert Bly to the American public. Over the past three years, Moyers became best known for his searing weekly news series NOW broadcast Friday nights on public television which painstakingly dissected the worrisome cross-pollination between political and corporate power.
Late last December, Moyers pulled the plug on NOW. He had no time for anything else, he explained, and his five grandchildren weren't getting any younger. And at age 70, neither was he. Moyers is hardly retiring from life; rather he's launching what he called his third act. On March 1, Moyers is set to appear at UCSB's Campbell Hall to kick off a fundraising campaign for the university's Arts & Lectures program where he'll be interviewed by acclaimed Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Two weeks ago, he gave me a chunk of prime time on the phone, and the following is an abbreviated version of that conversation.
NICK WELSH: When you arrive in S. B., there could be 500 reporters from all over the world covering jury selection for the Michael Jackson trial. Any interest in a firsthand look; any gut reaction to seeing so much journalistic time, energy, and resources devoted to such a trial?
BILL MOYERS: First, I think the other 500 will handle the heavy responsibilities of reporting that trial. And second, I once said to a judge, You know there's no justice in the world. And he said, That's right. Get on with it. I have learned at this advanced stage in life not to grieve over what I cannot change and not to be disturbed about what doesn't bother me. It's unfortunate that so much attention could be given to the trial of a Michael Jackson as opposed to covering the truth behind the news. But there's no institution more immune to criticism than the media. I don't waste any time, energy, or grief over the reality of a world saturated with celebrity. I mean, the BBC which I listen to every morning led yesterday with the announcement that Prince Charles is going to marry Camilla what's-her-name. As did the New York Times. This is a startling announcement? I thought maybe the rapture had begun.
In your parting shots prior to going off the air, you accused conservative news outlets like Fox of being a propaganda arm of the administration or at least a vast echo chamber. These outlets are incredibly popular though, bringing to mind Al Capone's famous line, I'm just giving the people what they want. So when you look at the ratings, why shouldn't we conclude that Fox and O'Reilly are what the people want? I don't dispute that. It's certainly what the people who watch that want. I've never challenged that. They're giving their ideological audience what that ideological audience wants. They bought into a belief system that can't be challenged by any evidence to the contrary.
If that's the case and that's so bad, then why do you think the other media outlets the ones that don't buy into this approach are having such a hard time competing? I think mainstream journalism has been driven to the lowest priority on the scale of values of the mega media companies that own them. Journalism and the news business don?t always mix. And we now have big media companies that own the journalistic organs and that?s not their top priority. When Michael Eisner says he doesn't want ABC news covering Disney activities you realize there's a chilling effect on corporate journalists that proscribes their boundaries. With a few honorable exceptions, you cannot count on the big media companies to put journalism above other values in their hierarchy of values. There was a study done a year ago in which one-third of the journalists who responded said they were asked to kill stories that were offensive to the clientele of their corporate bosses. So you have a very neutered mainstream media, and you have a powerful ideological megaphone in Fox News and talk radio for the right wing. So there's an imbalance today and the right wing has the dominant megaphone in America.
As feeble as you say mainstream media is, it still reported many of the most notable failures of the Bush administration: no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; no postwar planning for Iraq; new policies that condone torture in Iraq; an all-out attack on environmental regulation; tax policies that favored the rich and destabilized the dollar. Still, Bush got elected. The first time around, he managed to run as the compassionate conservative, but this time, the information was out there for anyone to see ? I never took him as a compassionate conservative. I'm a Texan. I saw what he had done to Texas and I knew he would do to the nation what he had done to Texas. And by God he's done it. He's turned the environment over to the polluters, he's turned the courts over to big business, and he's turned the schools over to the religious right. I was not fooled by his prevarications and his camouflage and his deceits.
But all that was out there in plain view. How do you account for this? There are always a lot of people who prefer the comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth. In this case, a majority of voters knew exactly what you're saying, yet voted for him none the less. They did so for one of two reasons. First, Bush had America scared to death. And fear was the dominant issue in that campaign, not moral values. Second, many of Bush's supporters buy into the belief system that he and his allies have propounded. And in that belief system which is supported by Fox News and talk radio no evidence to the contrary can be permitted. Ideologues embrace a worldview that cannot be changed because they admit no evidence to the contrary. The Washington Post had a story about a study recently about how even if what people first hear turns out to be wrong, they still tend to believe it's true. That's because, if it fits their value system, they don't change it after they learn it's not true. It's a weird phenomenon. I'd also say conservatives have never been more politically dominant and more intellectually and morally bankrupt. Because of that they can keep their troops believing the Big Lie. The Big Lie is that the threat of Al Qaeda is greater to us than the threat of low wages, environmental pollution, the growing inequality in America, or the terrible failure of the Bush policies on schools. People just didn't want the uncomfortable truth to disturb the comfortable lie.
At the risk of twisting your words, I thought I read somewhere that you said the reason we went to war with Iraq had nothing to do with oil or fighting terrorism or spreading democracy but because of Bush's religious beliefs about accelerating the coming of the Rapture. Am I getting this right? You are twisting my words. I didn't say that about Bush. I said the the reasons Bush went to war were not the reasons he gave: There were no weapons of mass destruction and there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center. I also said there are a lot of people 15 percent of the Bush electorate are people who believe in the Rapture who believe that Jesus is coming again and that that belief diminishes their interest in addressing issues like the environment. I have no idea whether Bush subscribes to that, and would not want to suggest that he does. But I do know for a fact there are millions of people who are part of the conservative constituency, who believe the end-times theology that turns Earth into a transit station to heaven, and who actually believe the Rapture cannot come until certain biblical prophecies are fulfilled.
For those secular people not in touch with the Rapture index, could you explain what that's all about? Is this some fringe group of nut balls or is this more mainstream and we just don't know about it? I do not look at them as nuts. They are perfectly sincere; they believe the Bible is literally true. I would never describe them as nuts. Some of them are my cousins.
But you are describing a relatively extreme worldview and I'm trying to get a sense of how many people hold it. According to a Gallup poll, one-third of the American electorate believes the Bible is literally true. Among that one-third, there are millions who believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. And they believe in the Rapture index. The best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the Left Behind series written by Christian fundamentalist and religious right-winger Timothy LaHaye [co-written with Jerry Jenkins]. These true believers believe that once Israel has occupied the rest of its biblical land, legions of the antichrist will attack, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. Those Jews who have not converted will be burned and the Messiah will return for the Rapture. I'm not making this up. These people are sincere, serious, polite people who will tell you they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's one reason they've declared solidarity with Israel as a Jewish settlement and backed up their support with money and volunteers. They see war in the Middle East as not something to be feared but welcomed because it's part of the biblical prophecy.
You write a lot about the right-wing media and right-wing Christianity. Is there a connection there, and do you find it odd that the right-wing conservative networks have led the charge in smutifying the airwaves and that they led the T&A quotient? It's so interesting that one of the chief critics of smut in television, Brent Bozell, who runs a right-wing media watch group [Media Research Center], is silent when it comes to the public standards of Rupert Murdoch's sleaze empire. They do have a double standard. They are silent about the fact that it's capitalism, and that it's the media tycoons who are polluting the public sphere.
To what extent do you feel that the left has ignored that issue at their own peril? That there is a genuine and sincere outrage over the pornification of the airwaves and that it's not just right-wing Christians who are offended? This is not a monolithic country, contrary to what people feel. This is not a left or a right country. The networks wouldn't be making money if there wasn't a large percentage of people who watch and appreciate that stuff.
The Christian right has been around for a long time. But it seems it's gained new intensity. Is this a function of the gay marriage issue or is there something else that accounts for its current strength? Not all Christians are the same. There are evangelical Christians who believe in stewardship of the environment and there are fundamentalist Christians who believe that the environment is just a passing phenomenon and we ought not to pay any attention to it. It is a great danger in America that we have allowed simplistic bumper-sticker notions to dominate what is a complex society with a lot of different views. I just read a letter from a guy in Indiana who home-schools his children and goes to church every Sunday and deplores what happens in popular culture but is a liberal when it comes to economics. I know there are a lot of people who are conservatives and Christians who do not share the Republican ideology.
Why don't we hear from them? The mainstream media doesn't give a damn. It wants the most flamboyant outspoken sensational Pat Robertson it can get.
So is the only option for them to get their own media outlets, kind of like Al Franken is doing with Air America? I don't think that will be possible. They don't have the money, for one thing, and secondly most of the outlets are taken up. If a group of [liberal] churches were to try to provide an alternative, it?s too late. The stage has been bought, the arena's been filled.
Thanks for the grim picture. Where do you get your news? I use the Internet widely and I read 10-12 newspapers every week and 50 magazines every month. I scan them. You have to work hard to stay informed in this society. You can't take any one newspaper or any one magazine and expect to be informed. You have to work at it. Anybody who has the energy and the time and the will can be informed today. But you can't do it by listening to one broadcast or watching one cable channel or reading one newspaper. You really have to become your own editor today. I think that's both exhilarating and exhausting. It is also a necessity. You can't rely on the networks. You have to read the other side and listen to the other side. I spend as much time with conservative Web sites and conservative journals as I do with the New York Times, Washington Post, or the L. A. Times.
You worked for Lyndon Johnson, who was destroyed by the antiwar movement despite being some sort of Machiavellian genius. Bush on the other hand hasn't been fazed by the antiwar movement, even though there were hundreds of thousands of people protesting since long before we even went to war. What's Bush got that LBJ didn't? He's got a contained war for one thing, and a war without a draft, for another thing. Iraq is not Vietnam. We made the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. Their information and judgment is no better than ours was in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson misinterpreted the events in the Gulf of Tonkin and too quickly committed the U. S. to escalating the war on the basis of inadequate information. That's what they did in Iraq. But for sheer scale and scope, Vietnam was far beyond what Iraq is. Unfortunately, it's been very destructive to the Iraqi people, but because of embedded journalism and terrorism, the public doesn't see or care about what's happened to Iraqi citizens. You had 55,000 Americans killed in Vietnam 1,400 killed in Iraq. The sheer scale of the violence and the death and destruction in Vietnam which was a well-covered war brought home to Americans the immorality of that war. The ends did not justify the means. You've also got a more compliant press. Lyndon Johnson railed against journalists but he never tried to keep them from being in Vietnam. That was a war under a looking glass. And Iraq has been very carefully censored. And very carefully contained, and successfully kept largely off the radar screen.
Seymour Hersh talks of Vietnam being a tactical war, Iraq being a strategic war meaning that the stakes are a lot higher than in Vietnam. This war was sold to us as a means of containing terrorism and has actually created more terrorism. It's inflaming the Muslim world in a way that Vietnam didn't inflame the rest of the world. Let me put it this way: Iraq is a war with consequences for billions of people who don't live there. Vietnam was largely a war with terrible consequences for the people who fought and the people who lived there but it didn't have a great fallout for the rest of the world. It's dangerous to read any historical event into the present reality. But it is possible you can learn from the past, and that lesson is: Be damn sure of your information. A war is too terrible to undertake on a mere suspicion.
Do you see this mushrooming beyond the scope of Vietnam? I don't think anyone knows right now the extent to which downstream consequences of the policies in Iraq will create continuing alienation and vengeance on the part of the Muslim world. It's our policies that are driving so many people to hate us. Some of that's unjustified, some of it isn't. But you're asking questions that will take journalists 50 years from now to answer.
You're a Texan. LBJ was a Texan. Bush is a Texan. There's all this myth about Texas. Does that give any edge in understanding this guy? Or is Bush really a Texan or just an East Coast Brahmin masquerading as a Texan? He's Texanized American politics. I was never fooled by it, but if you go home to Texas today, it's a Christian empire. The state of Texas is a Christian nation. Conservative Christians dominate everything there. I don't know Bush. I've never met him. I don't know if he's a likable man or not. But I know if I met him I would ask him, How can you grow up well-churched and well-loved and well-taught and be so utterly insensitive to other people's reality? How can you be so indifferent to people?? He's a privileged man who is the ally of people who are trying to undo the social contract in this country and to take us back to the pre-1932 period, when it was every man for himself and American economic strategy was to let the animal spirits of capitalism run and everyone take the consequences. I do not understand that. Except to say that if a son of privilege cannot see beyond his own prerogatives and is therefore unable to feel and see how life is for others, then that's a tragedy and a political travesty.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Do you think it's possible that whatever Bush's true intentions were in Iraq, they might lead to a free democratic nation? I hope things go well in Iraq. Too many people have died and too much suffering has occurred and too much treasure spent for it not to. I do not think you should go to war based on a suspicion, as I said earlier; but having gone, I certainly don't want the people who have been beheading their own people to win. It remains to be seen if we wind up with a theocracy or not. But again, it is too early to predict the outcome of the forces that have been let loose in Iraq.
If you were a young man coming up today, do you think you'd go into journalism again? If you want to go cover Michael Jackson, I guess yes. But if you want to be a serious student and analyst of the world, if you want to do really good journalism and journalism that tells the truth as you see it, then broadcast journalism is not the place to go today. There are still good newspapers. If you're young today and you have a fire in your belly, you've got to follow it because it's that fire that will sustain you in moments of low wages, in the face of indifferent editors and hostile owners, and a public at large that doesn't care. But if it were me, I'd probably do the same thing over again.