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Bill Moyers, part 2: liberal activist or journalist?

In a post last week, I voiced concerns about PBS presenting talk show host Bill Moyers alongside journalists like Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill in promotional spots for its election coverage 2008.

I said that it is more important than ever during this election of a lifetime that voters know where they can get verified factual information on the candidates and their campaigns. I pointed to Lehrer as the embodiment of a school of journalism that seeks above all else to provide such trustworthy data as its primary democratic duty, while Moyers, on the other hand, is an ideologue and propagandist promoting a partisan position.

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As much as he decries talk show hosts like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity on the right, Moyers is more like them than he is like Lehrer. (If you are reading this on a website other than baltimoresun.com and want to see the full post, click here.)

There was considerable reaction. The best by far came from Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, who offered as even-handed and thoughtful an analysis of the issues raised as one could hope for. See it here.

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I was hoping to leave the discussion there. I felt like I did my part to say that Moyers should perhaps be on MSNBC with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow rather than PBS with Lehrer and Ifill -- or at least viewers should judge his show that way. But I have since been directed to an excellent book that recently came out in paperback that offers a glimpse of Moyers, the liberal ideologue, in action -- something several commentators asked for in response to my original post.

The book is titled The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. And its author is Matthew Bai, who writes about national politics for the New York Times Magazine.

In the book which seems like must-reading for anyone hoping to understand new media and Democratic politics today, Bai reports on Moyers attending a secretive gathering of "progressives" who were trying to build a liberal media organization to compete with the right wing operation David Brock had described in his book The Republican Noise Machine.

According to Bai's book, which recently came out in paperback, Moyers not only attended a gathering in 2005 that included billionaires like George Soros, Hollywood money men like Rob Reiner and "political operatives" like John Podesta and David Brock, he helped the group craft a strategy to combat conservatives in the media.

One Moyers' suggestion involved "creating a 'nerve center' that could book progressives on TV news shows," according to the book.

Here's a PBS talk show host telling political operatives how to manipulate bookings on TV talk shows. That sounds like a major conflict of interest for someone who self-identifies as a journalist. But in trying to be fair, I e-mailed Bai asking him if Moyers' actions as he reported them seemed to be those of a journalist or an activist and ideologue.

"I have to admit, I was surprised that when the book came out, no one seemed to care that he had been an active participant in that conference," Bai wrote in an e-mail response. "I did think it was odd. I tried to ask him about it, but he declined to be interviewed, which I also thought was odd. I admire Bill Moyers, for sure, but I would think that any journalist would have been profoundly troubled by the level of secrecy and the total lack of transparency."

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