‘The Pivotal Role of Public Television’, November 16, 2011

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I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here. Or maybe I can. Last Friday, after filming in Washington for our new series, I was waiting at Union Station for the train back to New York when a woman about my age approached me with a quizzical look on her face. She asked:

“Weren’t you Bill Moyers?”

“Once upon a time,” I answered.

She said, “I’ll be darned…. I didn’t think you were still with us.”

“Well, I think I am,” I answered. I guessed that she was a news junkie, so I said: “Maybe you have me confused with other on-air journalists, old-timers like David Brinkley. Or Bob Pierpoint. Or Howard K. Smith… Paul Duke…Charles Kuralt…All of them have passed on.”

She was still unsure, and said: “Well, I always watched you when you were alive.”

She’ll have another chance come January. I trust she doesn’t get Moyers & Company mixed up with The Walking Dead.

So considering the alternatives, I’m glad to be here. Very glad. Like crime boss Michael Corleone trying to go legitimate in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Now I know the bind you’re in. As Eleanor Roosevelt said in the days leading up to World War II, we live in “no ordinary time.” Things are tough. The financial and emotional distress created by the economic meltdown makes it all the more difficult for people to hear each other – and makes your job harder. Not only to raise operating funds, but to figure out how to offer programming that doesn’t ignore the reality of America today: of men and women out of work; of parents wondering how they are going to pay the mortgage, rent, electricity or heating bill, let alone the car payment, gas, and phone bill; of college graduates who can’t find jobs but have massive student loans to repay; of senior citizens with shrunken pensions. Just the other day, the government published a new report confirming that the poverty rate is the highest in 52 years – 49 million of our fellow Americans, including 16 million children. One in seven American households is “food insecure,” living with the specter of too little to eat. And the inequality gap is greater than it’s been since 1929.

No wonder that in one recent survey, only 15% of Americans said our country is heading in the right direction. Washington is polarized and paralyzed, and our gross national psychology seems as bearish as our gross national product. On my desk I’ve kept a headline from the Wall Street Journal: “The End of American Optimism.” And I think often of the story Mark Twain wrote called “The Terrible Catastrophe.” In it he got his characters into such an impasse that no matter what anyone of them did, they would all be destroyed. Twain decided the situation was hopeless, and he ended the story by writing: “I have these characters in such a fix that I cannot get them out of it. Anyone who thinks he can, is welcome to try.”

He doesn’t tell us if anyone did.

In times like these, what do we do as public broadcasters?

During this new election season, for example, what’s our role? Some admirable journalists in the media will do their best to follow the money, trace the patterns of influence and power, analyze the veracity or relevance of partisan claims, and place them in context. But as usual, the “horse race” will dominate the coverage. We’ve seen it already: Trump’s in, Trump’s out; Palin will, Palin won’t; Bachmann’s up, Bachmann’s down; Christie will, Christie won’t; Perry’s Sir Galahad, no, Gomer Pyle; Cain’s able, oops, Cain ain’t; Obama’s Jimmy Carter, no, he’s Harry Truman – take your pick.

But many Americans want a place where they can go for something different. And that’s our opening – yours and mine. Our two major parties may be further apart ideologically than at any point since the late 19th century, and their most loyal voters seem “better sorted” than they used to be, with liberals more likely to be Democrats and conservatives more likely to be Republicans. Certainly the most passionate in both parties have moved further apart. But as the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write in their book, Winner Take All Politics, most Americans are just not that far apart in their views. Polarization reflects not the growing polarization of voters, they conclude, but the growing failure of politicians to respond to the real-life concerns of the broad majority of the country, people who have little time for politics because they’re too consumed by the challenges of just getting by.

Yet these are people who also long to understand the relevance of policy to their lives – the connections between government decision-making and their own needs and duties. They rely on reason more than rant, and appreciate a place where conventional wisdom and misleading rhetoric are challenged, and where the true conversation of democracy continues – a conversation crucial to the quality of our lives and the character of our country.

Let me share with you a letter I received some weeks ago from a retired scholar of religion and society at one of our leading universities. I don’t know him personally, but I found what he had to say compelling. It actually was intended for you, too – for all of us. Because he implored me to urge public broadcasters to address the crisis in American politics. Confidence in government keeps falling, he wrote, as more and more people come to see that the downward slide in their quality of life has been brought on by “engineered economic inequality.” You and I, he said, have a special obligation to measure political speech against relevant data, to gauge political promises against deeds.

Democracy, he said, lives or dies on the process of political representation. And representation cannot happen unless citizens see that their personal situations and the condition of the nation are inextricably linked – unless they understand how their difficulties in providing for their children, sustaining their marriages, getting further education or training, are caused directly and indirectly by tax, fiscal and monetary policies at the national level.

So make it clear, he urged us, that no one can afford to be confused about politics; their livelihoods, and any hope for their children and generations beyond depend on what politicians do with their votes. So please, he asked, help us redress the imbalance between policy and partisanship. Clearly explain the distribution of tax burdens. Expose the special interest tax loopholes and how money and influence corrupt government. Show how increases in productivity connect to declining take-home wages, and unemployment rates to alcoholism, depression, divorce and suicide. In other words – and I could feel his sense of urgency – enable us to grasp the relationship between declining optimism about the future of the country and the social indicators of personal despair.

That’s a tall order, and it comes at a time when, as the old song goes, we ain’t got a barrel of money. Sometimes it feels like we don’t even have the barrel. And yet, while reeling from the same hard slap of austerity as the rest of the 99 percent, there are ways we in public television can help Americans address the crisis of hope that has enveloped our nation.

We start with assets – three things that that no other network or alliance of television stations possesses. We have our independence. Yes, we still rely on government funding and the largesse of foundations and corporations, but our core constituency is the public in public television. That’s why we’re here. And when we allow political or other outside pressures to misdirect our agenda, we’re letting the public down. We’ve sometimes censored ourselves even before the threat has been whispered. But we are not owned by a multinational syndicate with a not-so-hidden agenda, like the one where the promise of “fair and balanced” has been twisted on its head into a perversion worthy of George Orwell. As the group 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting notes, “In an era of increased media consolidation, public broadcasters are among the last remaining locally owned and controlled sources of news, information and cultural programming.” What an asset.

The second thing we have is trust. You may have seen the recent New York Times/ CBS News poll in which 89 percent of the American people say they don’t trust government to do the right thing – the highest level ever. But for the past several years, as measured by the Roper Public Opinion Poll, Americans in every age, ethnicity, income and education group have ranked public television as America’s most trusted institution. That’s all of us: the stations, APT, PBS, NETA and others. At the beginning of this year, a survey of trust in television news, conducted by the group Public Policy Polling, found public television, quote “at the top of the heap,” unquote.

To keep that trust we must never flinch from reality, no matter the loud and malicious attacks from partisans who come down on us for reporting what contradicts their propaganda.

When Newt Gingrich maliciously described public television as a “sandbox for rich people,” we should have kicked the sand right back in his face. Bullies don’t respect 97-lb weaklings until they fight back.

Ideology, remember, is a worldview people swear is true despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it’s one reason the attack against reason and reality has reached the proportions of an unholy crusade. The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote that Americans “desperately need to reaffirm the principle that it is possible to carry out an analysis of social life which rational human beings will recognize as being true, regardless of whether they happen to be women or men, whites or blacks, straights or gays, employers or employees, Jews, Muslims, or born-again Christians” Or skeptics and secularists. “The alternative is to stand by helplessly as special interest groups tear the United States apart in the name of their ‘separate realities’ or to wait until one of them grows strong enough to force its irrational and subjective brand of reality on all the rest.” We’ve seen what happens then. We have to stand against that happening.

The third and perhaps most important asset we have is community. Those people who remain our most loyal supporters, and who give, and give again, to support us, know that for all the flaws of public television, our fundamental assumptions come down on their side, and on the side of democracy. Working harder to live up to their expectations – especially now, in such difficult times – would do more than anything to dispel the general malaise about the state of our industry and free us from the constant defensive strategy that drains our energy and imagination.

Public broadcasting has been around long enough to qualify as an American institution. Quite a remarkable achievement. But that’s also far enough away from the original vision to forget what inspired our creation. As some of you know, the original Carnegie Commission report landed on my desk when I was a young White House assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. The Commission envisioned that public television “…should seek out able people whose talents might otherwise not be known and shared…provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard…be a forum for debate and controversy…[and] have the means to be daring, to break away from narrow convention, to be human and earthy.” I had helped organize the Peace Corps in the early 60s, and not since those heady days had I read anything as exciting. The statement President Johnson made when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law in 1967 remains a classic endorsement of what was really meant by the term “the public interest” in the Communication Act of 1934.

Ten years later I had the privilege of serving on the second Carnegie Commission, convened to assess how public broadcasting had fared after its initial decade. That our report was largely ignored is not nearly as important as the verdict we rendered. We were candid about what was missing – enough funding, fearless independence and a clear grasp of what public media could mean to the public interest.

It was an honest assessment, and for all the marvelous programming over the years, most of its concerns still hold true. It’s just that today our situation is even more serious. The core problem is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully. In our candid moments, usually while bending elbows at the bar, we admit to each other that we’re mired in a sclerotic system that binds us to a politically cautious set of national entities that are both underfunded and themselves incapable of leading anyone towards a more vigorous notion of our future.

I know from talking to station managers that there’s been more discussion of what’s needed, at least internally, than producers like me may realize. But I also know that discussion has been halting in its resolve and implementation. There’s much talk about this going on among all your affinity groups and their coalition in the AGC, but it’s been difficult in such forums to frame the vision and the plan. Further, stations can only carry it so far on their own. Everyone involved in the system has a vested interest in the status quo, no matter how fragile and perilous. In truth, we all know that the better solutions demand a major overhaul of the national system. Yet there’s a huge vacuum between the system, nationally and locally, and the big foundations and no one has yet been inspired or capable enough to link the two at the level of a consensus national plan.

There are always people who remain afraid of change or an unknown process, fearful of where it might lead. But by contrast, the British and Canadians go through periodic charter reviews that invoke a national conversation; there’s a culture of discussion and planning for public media in those nations that help them survive even the worst assaults from detractors or vested interests. This could be a reason that public support for public media in nations like the UK exceeds $80 per capita, while we’re still limping along on $1.49 per capita. Perhaps it explains why, despite this multiplatform universe, we still have no serious, morning, national public television service other than programming for kids. As I’ve said before, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now is there for the asking – and Amy would bring with it a charismatic talent for raising funds for local stations that would build your membership. And there are other serious possibilities for such a day-starting service. See me if you want to know more.

In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that even within the fiscal crisis public television currently faces, we have an opportunity to serve the public – to renew our bond to our communities.

You may not have money for in-depth documentaries or other high-end productions but you have cameras, microphones, studios and the trust of the community. You can be the ombudsman for the public within your reach, provide the venue for forums, teach-ins, town meetings, and debates over the issues that matter to people where they live, telecast in an atmosphere of openness and clarity without the mean and mindless rhetoric or cant that are so triumphant today. Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. No media can nurture, foster, and empower it the way we can.

And there are other ways to tell your communities what’s going on that they need to know. Everyone knows there’s a crisis in journalism; commercial broadcasters and newspapers have cut more than 15,000 local journalism jobs in recent years. Watchdog reporting – covering city councils, school boards, state governments, public utilities, public services – is imperiled. The FCC commissioned a study on the information needs of communities and is now holding hearings around the country on how to improve local news. Several foundations are getting into the act. And some journalism schools – maybe even one near you, a potential partner in reviving local journalism.

Before you say this is a pipe dream, given our hard times: I am old enough to remember when public television stations created low-budget nightly broadcasts while local newspapers were on strike, bringing reporters into the studio to discuss the stories that no longer had a venue in print. It’s still a fact that the most powerful production value can be the human voice and the human face. The talent is out there – you’d be surprised how willing they are to work. You have the airtime; offer them the chairs and table and let them go at it. I’ll wager there are local institutions, foundations, organizations, and individuals who can be enlisted to put up the money for you to signify in this way. KPBS in San Diego has pioneered on this front. Check it out.

Just two nights ago, as I was cleaning off my desk to get ready for the trip to Memphis, I had a call from Chris Daggett, the dynamic president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey. He was excited to tell me about the collaboration taking shape to push back the news blackout that has been spreading in New Jersey since the Newark Star-Ledger cut loose 45% of its newsroom staff in 2008, and The New York Times closed its bureau in the state capitol of Trenton. Now, New Jersey Public Radio (owned and operated by New York Public Radio) is creating the New Jersey News Service and Montclair State University is establishing the NJ Digital Media Initiative, and they’ll work together to deliver public interest journalism for the twenty-one counties, 566 municipalities, 604 school districts, and all the independent authorities – almost too many to count – that operate in the state. These are the political and governmental entities that affect the daily lives of citizens, from taxes to law enforcement to our children’s’ minds.

Their impact reminds me of how the journalist and historian Richard Reeves responded when a student asked him for his definition of real news. Richard answered: “Real news is the news we need to keep our freedoms.” Keep your eye on this new development in public media–it could turn out to be a model for the future.

Meanwhile, let me offer just a few other ideas for you to consider: Take a whole evening of prime time and give it to a forum for the fight in your neighborhoods over charter schools. Do the same for other distressed public institutions – your libraries, for example. Or your parks; the governor of New Jersey announced this week he’s going to privatize our state parks – turn them over to corporations to run for a profit. Why not a teach-in on whether that’s a good idea – and who wins and who loses if it happens?

Or how about one week inviting as many social workers as you can get into your studio and asking them to share what they see every day – how people are coping each day with these worst hard times? Do a series of workshops on Occupy Wall Street, pro and con. Out there in Iowa, find the lady carrying the placard I saw last weekend on television that read: “I couldn’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.” Bring her into the studio with her local member of Congress – have them talk frankly to each other about their different perceptions of money in politics. Do an evening of prime time on the fight going on right now in your state over redistricting – gerrymandering – the outcome will influence your state’s position and power for the next ten years. Get folks aware and involved. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not the commercial stations in your market, that’s for sure.

If you’re worried about the size of your audience for such programs, think again. Despite the thousands of cable, satellite and Internet options, the doom-and-gloom reports of declining audiences, you don’t have to play by the numbers, to compare your stations with those earning the highest ratings by groveling to the lowest common denominator. We’ve proven it with our programs time and again. It’s not the number of people who watch but the imprint on those who do, and the cumulative impact of your programming over time.

Do we want younger viewers, the famous 18-49 metric? Of course. But listen up. One of the smartest number guys in the business is David Poltrack, the long time chief research officer of CBS, the grand poobah of ratings and statistics. He recently confessed to a professional audience that “reliance on the 18 to 49 demographic is hazardous to all media and marketers… There is no link, none, between the age of the specified demographic delivery of the campaign and the sales generated by that campaign.”

This throws everything we have always believed about television audiences out the window. Marty Kaplan at the University of Southern California says, “The metrics are wearing no clothes.” So let’s not sell our birthright for fickle, fugitive numbers. Throw out mandates to get a 1, 2, or 3. It actually turns out that the audience more and more coveted is the audience public television has always had and which will continue to grow right into our hands. There are 80 million baby boomers out there. Another one turns fifty every 7.6 seconds. Graying boomers are the big catch — waiting to be hooked on what matters, ready for the serious side of public television. The ones most likely to become sustaining, dues-paying members.

These are people who have entered what educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls “The Third Chapter” of their lives. When I spoke with her on the Journal a couple of years ago she told me that boomers “were talking about new learning in their lives, new adventures that they were taking, new risks…this is the most, perhaps, transformative time of our lives,” she said. “Most exciting, in terms of new learning. Limitless in its opportunities…continuing to do work that’s meaningful. Continuing to figure out a way to be productive. To be purposeful. To be creative. To be innovative.”

And then Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot mentioned something completely relevant to the problem I’ve been discussing with you today. She said, “There’s a way in which this reduction in our resources forces us to think more dynamically, more creatively, about how we can do more with less. In fact, how we can shape a new legacy in this time of sacrifice.”

“A new legacy in this time of sacrifice.” Now there’s a challenge to public TV. Hard times give us perhaps our last and best chance to make ourselves indispensable to America – a chance to resurrect ideals long deferred by the unhappy combination of financial constraints and political pressure. The key to our future in the digital revolution may well rest on our analog past. We can build on our ability to give time and breathing room to the on-going conversation that America must have if its ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” -grounded in political action – are to survive, and if “We, The People” are to save our social compact.

One friend in the system brought me up short the other day when, harking back to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he asked, “If you had to do it over again, what changes would you make?” I can’t get his question out of my mind, although I don’t yet have a full answer. I’d certainly call for a universal, system-wide, public media news service in every U.S. community, modeled along the lines of NPR and more of its stations. Some PTV stations have struggled to do this, but with two few resources. I’d ask CPB to put much more of its funds into this and at the same time to get serious in convening foundations large and small all over the country to make it happen: Give our influential friends and supporters something big to back. (I’d also inform certain foundations that keep telling us what to do but then refuse to follow through with real money to put up or shut up.)

And since David H. Koch of Koch Industries is on the board of both WGBH and WNET, I’d ask him to round up his billionaire buddies – and in a non-partisan spirit reach out to civic-minded progressive billionaires like George Soros – and together create an independent, fully endowed, self-governing production center (free of any partisan strings or influence) for American drama that would bring our epic history and culture to the screen just like we’ve brought over the Brits’. Downton Abbey, make room for Jefferson’s Monticello! Now there’s an Upstairs Downstairs story the public would make a pledge to see.

Come to think of it: If we had it to do over, I’d reach into American history for a really big idea. Remember the Articles of Confederation? That was the agreement that legally established the USA as a confederation of sovereign states – “a firm league of friendship,” they called it. The Articles held those 13 states together in the beginning, but were too weak for the long run; the new government couldn’t even raise the money for its modest needs -its paper money was useless, hence the saying, “not worth a continental.”

The idea grew for a “Grand Convention” in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation and strengthen them. But once the delegates met and began talking, thrashing out their differences and making their compromises, they wound up writing a new, spare and powerful constitution that saved the fledgling republic and survives today.

Why can’t public television learn from that experience? Forty years after the founding, our “Articles of Confederation” aren’t working all that well, either. Sure, over these four decades we’ve provided America with extraordinary fare that has touched and enriched the hearts, minds, and lives of millions. But we are in denial if we don’t read the signs. Time’s running out. We’re just hanging on, leaking away, fraying at the margins; scrambling year by year to survive, hoping all the while for what in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and austerity will never be – more and more funding from Congress.

What we need is a makeover of our own – a rebirth, yes, of vision, imagination, and creativity, but above all a structure and scheme for the 2lst century, one that uses the resources that the digital platform provides to realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.

One of my good friends in the field – a station manager – was scratching his head the other day as he wondered aloud why there has never been a comprehensive system-wide discussion about fundamental change in our Rube Goldberg system. From the second Carnegie Commission on, through the latest Aspen meetings, we haven’t engaged in a full and frank examination of the system – the full nature of the process – top to bottom and with all the interested internal and external public and private parties participating.

So why not have our own “Grand Convention” – a week-long gathering of the public television community? Delegates from the stations (large and small); board members, managers, and programmers; a cadre from Crystal City; representative producers and some “viewers like you” (chosen by straw, if that’s the way to do it) would convene for a conversation about where we are, what’s not working, where we want to go, and what the journey’s going to cost. We could even stream it live on every public station website in the country.

What would come of it? Nobody knows. But at least we’d be alive again – to each other, to ideas, to new possibilities, and to the American people – the public, I say again, in public broadcasting.

Impractical? Maybe. But Albert Einstein did say: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Of one thing I am sure. Such a constitutional convention will not occur if the stations just sit by and wait for others to convene it. Your own national agencies have been unable to do it; Congress, successive White Houses, foundations, think tanks and other institutions have failed to act in concerted fashion. No one is informed enough, or willful enough, and no one leads. You, the stations, have more recently been trying to take on that role. But may I say you’re still hesitant, unsure of yourselves, setting only modest planning goals. I may be being too presumptive and sounding like the proverbial Dutch Uncle, but I think you are the ones who are going to have to lead this process with the vision, the in-depth research, thoughtful analysis and multiple scenarios planning it will require.

Now’s the time to be bold and broadly thinking. Don’t settle for simple short-term fixes. Think bigger, more aggressively about whole new multicast and online local and national program service plans and through them a much richer embrace with all the citizens of this nation.

Remember, there are still millions and millions of people who need us. And millions more who will find us if we but give them the real news, the cultural experiences, and the opportunity to learn that are otherwise missing in their lives.

People like those construction workers out west who many years ago happened on our series of “Six Great Ideas” – spirited debates among educators, business executives, lawyers, poets and jurists on liberty, justice, equality, truth, beauty, and goodness. They wrote to say:

(We) are sure that it’ s just due to our well-known ignorance as tradesmen that not a single one of us had ever heard of you until one Sunday afternoon we were watching public television and [you] came on with Six Great Ideas …We listened intensely and soon became addicted and have been ever since. We never knew a world of ideas existed…We thank you and we applaud you…We may be plumbers during the day, but at lunch time and at night and on the weekends, we are [now] philosophers at large. God bless you.

Or like the housewife in Utah, who discovered our series on the Constitution and wrote to say:

I have never written a letter like this before. I am a full-time mother of four children under seven years and I am entirely busy with the ordinary things of family life. However, I want to thank you very much for [your series.] I am moved by the experience of listening at the feet of thoughtful citizens, justices and philosophers of substance. All these are people with whom I will never converse on my own, and I am grateful to you for having brought these conversations within my sphere. I am aware that I lack eloquence to express the measure of my heart’s gratitude. I can say, however, that these programs are a landmark among my life’s experiences. Among all the things I must teach my children, a healthy interest in understanding the Constitution now ranks very prominently. Thank you.

Sandbox for the rich? Yeah, sure.

And like the fellow in Colorado who followed our series that sought to cover the election with respect for the whole motion of the race and not just the impassioned moments of conflict, controversy, and sound bites. He wrote:

Your series accomplished the impossible. As a sixties college graduate, disillusioned Vietnam combat veteran, embittered anti-war author, and indifferent citizen, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d register to vote… But yesterday I registered and November 4 I’ll vote. [The series] spurred me to again participate in our democracy. Thanks. It’s good to be back.

So it is. I’m glad to be back, too. Mighty glad, and thanks for your welcome. Eighteen months ago, we took leave from the conversation. And we’ve missed it. Let’s keep talking.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Pfeiffer/689898589 Daniel Pfeiffer

    Bill Moyers, thank you.  We need you, and all of PBS, to continue to inform, enlighten, challenge and entertain us.  There is simply no other media spot on the dial to combat the now 24-hour barrage of corporate messaging that confuses and confounds us.  You cut to the heart of the matter, and allow for a discussion that takes place nowhere else on TV.

    My mother and I had a 90-minute conversation following last night’s (1/22) broadcast (we get it at 6PM on Sundays on NY’s Channel 13).  While we engage regularly on the issues of the day, we could not help but be grateful for your return, and wondered to each other why there was no other place in the media-sphere for this type of programming.

    Here’s hoping your return gets the rest of the nation talking, too.