Bill Moyers sits down with Jim Bouton, former Major League Baseball pitcher and author. Bouton, who turned MLB inside out with his best-selling book Ball Four, tells Bill Moyers about the influence of Big Media on his crusade to save a historic baseball park in Massachusetts. Bouton’s adversary is the formerly family-owned local newspaper — now part of a corporate media empire based in Colorado — that wants to keep opposing voices silent so a new park can be built on land it owns. His book, Foul Ball: My Life and Old Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark, chronicles his battle in a no-nonsense investigative report that goes to the heart of the media consolidation issue.
In recent years, the occurrence of polio has been reduced by 99 percent. NOW takes viewers to what may be the final offensive against polio through the lens of critically acclaimed photographer Sebastiao Salgado. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Somalia to India, Salgado’s unflinching eye captures the poignant human story behind the world’s conquest of a deadly disease.
Bill Moyers talks to John Leonard, media critic for CBS Sunday Morning and New York Magazine. After a long career as a literary and television critic, and social observer, Leonard gives viewers an inside look at how media consolidation and the quest for profits have become a priority over the journalist’s independence. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you all up there care so much about Wahconah Park?
JIM BOUTON: Well it’s, you know, we didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal. Baseball’s been played on that site since 1892. It’s one of the last of the wooden ballparks. It’s ranked as one of the top baseball viewing experiences in the country. Sports Illustrated called it “a little bit of heaven.” It’s known as…
BILL MOYERS: Field of Dreams.
JIM BOUTON: …a great baseball cathedral. A step back in time. Rockwell-esque. All those adjectives. And people sort of chart their lives through baseball. That’s what makes baseball a great sport is that people root for teams that their grandfathers rooted for. They go to these old ballparks and it’s a piece of their family history. And that’s why people want to preserve the ballpark.
BILL MOYERS: And you had a plan to save it?
JIM BOUTON: Yes. Our plan was, my partner and I had an idea to gather some investors and renovate the old ballpark. And then buy a team in the local independent league and sell stock to the people of Pittsfield and surrounding Berkshire County so that Pittsfield would have its own locally-owned baseball team, playing in its restored historic ballpark.
BILL MOYERS: And no taxpayer money in this?
JIM BOUTON: No taxpayer money whatsoever.
BILL MOYERS: Who could be opposed to that?
JIM BOUTON: Well, nobody in town was opposed to it. Everybody, 95 percent of the people, wanted it. The only opposition we had was from The Berkshire Eagle.
BILL MOYERS: The local newspaper.
JIM BOUTON: The local newspaper. In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the only daily newspaper in town is The Berkshire Eagle. And they were behind a movement to build a new baseball stadium in the center of town, on property, coincidentally owned by The Berkshire Eagle. And this was a new stadium, that the people of Pittsfield had voted against three different times.
BILL MOYERS: Voted down?
JIM BOUTON: Voted down. Voted against it clearly, decisively. And yet it kept rearing its head.
BILL MOYERS: Who was the group that wanted to build the stadium?
JIM BOUTON: Berkshire Eagle; Berkshire Bank, the largest bank in town; Cain, Hibbard, Myers and Cook, the largest law firm; and General Electric — a guy from GE, the head of their global communications department was one of the backers of this new baseball stadium. I call them the gang of four. They wanted this new stadium built on this property, owned by the newspaper.
And we said to them, “Look. Take your eighteen and a half million dollars of taxpayer money, and put something else in that location: build a concert hall, an indoor arena, a civic center. We’ll take care of the baseball fans, at Waconah Park.” But no. They insisted. They didn’t want the old ballpark. Because the old ballpark — restoring the ballpark and putting a locally-owned team in there — would have put a stake in the heart of the new stadium, and they wanted to put a new stadium on that location.
BILL MOYERS: You were up against, not just the newspaper, but a newspaper that had a stake in the opposing plan.
JIM BOUTON: Right, right. The Berkshire Eagle not only owned the property on which the new stadium would be built, the property was polluted. They never told the people that it was polluted. And they had an economic interest in the outcome of it because it would enhance the value of their property, plus relieve them of the liability of a cleanup. That would have passed to the people of Pittsfield had they voted for a new stadium. And I guessed early on that there might be some toxic waste on that site. And a baseball stadium, which doesn’t go down into the ground, would make a nice band-aid. A band-aid over a tumor. Almost any other kind of a building, an indoor arena, a civic center, a concert hall, would have to go down deep, where bad stuff might be found. Whereas a baseball stadium sits on slabs, and you have the large outfield there.
BILL MOYERS: So the newspaper wanted to build a stadium, with public funds, on a piece of property the newspaper owned.
JIM BOUTON: And that they knew was polluted, and they never told the people it was polluted. As a matter of fact, after I started writing the book, a friend of mine who did some investigation at the DEP in Springfield, Massachusetts, found a document called “A Release Notification Form”. This is a document that confirmed that that property was polluted. The date on the release notification form was January 12th, 2001. This is five months before the people of Pittsfield would be asked to vote for or against the new stadium. Had they voted for a new stadium, they would have inherited the pollution on that property. As a matter of fact, the first public notice of that property being polluted, was when I printed the document, the Release Notification Form, on page 360 of my book. Only then did the newspaper acknowledge that the property was polluted.
BILL MOYERS: Did they ever disclose that they owned the land on which the new stadium would be built?
JIM BOUTON: Yes. Oh, yes. And they were gonna, quote, “donate” it to the city of Pittsfield. But of course the stadium would have been built on that land. And they would have been able to cover up the toxic waste.
BILL MOYERS: What did you do then? What happened?
JIM BOUTON: Well, first of all, we went to the City Council. And the City Council, James Massery, one of the Councilman, said that the City Council couldn’t do anything until they were released by Andy Mick. Andy Mick is the publisher of the newspaper. So, we went to Andy Mick. And we said, “What about our proposal?”
He said, “You’ll have to talk to my boss in Denver, Colorado.” So, here were the people of Pittsfield, their baseball legacies, in the hands of a guy in Denver.
BILL MOYERS: When you began this, did you know that The Berkshire Eagle was owned by the media group based in Denver?
JIM BOUTON: No. No I thought The Berkshire Eagle was a local paper. I mean I was…
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t know that it was one of 50 newspapers owned by Dean Singleton.
JIM BOUTON: No.
BILL MOYERS: Salt Lake Tribune, The LA Daily News, The Denver Post. You didn’t know that?
JIM BOUTON: No, I didn’t know that. I found that out after a while. But I didn’t know that going in.
BILL MOYERS: And so this publisher, the hired publisher said, “You’ve gotta go see him”?
JIM BOUTON: The publisher of the newspaper said we had to talk to Dean Singleton, in Denver, Colorado. To restore a baseball park in Pittsfield.
BILL MOYERS: Did you do that?
JIM BOUTON: Yeah. We contacted him. We wrote letters to him, and I even sent him an autographed copy of Ball Four. And never heard from him.
BILL MOYERS: So the local publisher didn’t really have the power to act independently.
JIM BOUTON: He was being controlled by his boss in Denver. And the local politicians were being controlled by the local publisher. So there was sort of a puppeteer working through another puppet, controlling the decisions that were made by the local government.
BILL MOYERS: What is it like to go up against a paper like that in a fight like this?
JIM BOUTON: Well, you feel, first of all, you feel alone. And you feel like you can’t be heard. You feel like you’re walking down the street trying to shout out your idea because you’re constantly fighting the daily paper which is out there every single morning. Our only defense against this, my partner and I, was to go on local radio shows. And sometimes we’d try to go online the night before, read the morning headline in The Berkshire Eagle, craft a response to that headline at two or three o’clock in the morning. See if we could arrange to get on a radio show in the morning so we could be on a radio at 9:00 countering that day’s headline in The Berkshire Eagle. And that was really our best shot. Or wait for a city council meeting, which happened once every two weeks, go to the city council meeting; take advantage of a three-minute open mic period and make our case in these three-minute, little segments.
This turned out to be a full-time job. And here we were having to spend all our time around the clock to get our message out in the face of this newspaper. I said to my wife at one point, I said, “Who else but my partner and I, Chip Elitzer, who else but Chip and I could do a thing like this?” And my wife said, “Single people mostly.” The average citizen doesn’t have that. Plus, I have a bit of a profile from having written Ball Four. And I played for the Yankees. So I was able to get more notice than someone else. But if we had just been, I mean, really private citizens with regular jobs, we would have gotten steamrollered in terms of getting our message out there. As it was, we got steamrollered anyway.
BILL MOYERS: Did the newspaper cover this story while it was happening?
JIM BOUTON: They distorted the whole story. They misrepresented our proposal. First of all, for a while, they said we had no plan. Then they said we didn’t have enough money. And then they were calling us carpetbaggers, even though we were from the same county. It was biased reporting, conflict of interest. We just…
BILL MOYERS: Why did you decide to write a book?
JIM BOUTON: Well, first of all, I started keeping notes on this book fairly early in the game. I didn’t go into it with the intention of writing a book. But when the city councilman told me that they were beholden to the local newspaper, and when the publisher of the local newspaper said he was beholden to his owner out in Denver, that’s when I started keeping notes for the book.
BILL MOYERS: You earned a reputation many years ago for telling the truth with Ball Four. Now you’ve done it again. What does telling the truth do to you?
JIM BOUTON: I don’t know. I don’t really go looking for trouble. I wrote Ball Four because I wanted to share the fun of baseball. I wasn’t interested in telling the truth. But in sharing the fun a few truths got told, I guess. But that really wasn’t my purpose. I wanted to share the fun. I wanted to write Ball Four. Foul Ball, on the other hand, I felt I had to write this book. I felt compelled to write it. I had access to a story that seemed shocking to me.
BILL MOYERS: Quite a case study, I mean.
JIM BOUTON: Foul Ball is a case study of what can happen when a distant media conglomerate owns the only daily newspaper in town. And the story didn’t end with that because it continued when I tried to get the book published. The publisher of the book, the proposed publisher I had signed a contract with, PublicAffairs, the publisher.
BILL MOYERS: A company based here in New York.
JIM BOUTON: A company based in New York City. Just before —
BILL MOYERS: Very successful company.
JIM BOUTON: Yes, very successful company. Just before they were gonna put the book Foul Ball in their catalog — and they had mapped out a book tour, and they were gonna arrange dinner with buyers at Barnes and Noble —they were saying this was gonna be their big book of the spring. At that point, the publisher of PublicAffairs, the President of the company, Peter Osnos, sat down and told me at lunch that I would need to get balancing comments from General Electric for whatever I was saying about them in the book. And I said, “I’m not gonna do that. I didn’t get balancing comments from Major League Baseball when I wrote Ball Four, and I’m not gonna do that with Foul Ball.” I said, “Let them write their own book.”
Then he tells me that the top lawyer for General Electric is a friend of his, and he was going to become a partner in PublicAffairs. A week after that, the editor with whom I’ve been working on the book told me I had to remove all references to pollution and General Electric, or they weren’t going to publish the book. [See note at end of transcript.] I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. I’m not doing that. I want a termination letter.” They wouldn’t give me one. Months went by. I finally had to hire a lawyer to get my termination letter. And during the discussions about whether they were going give me a termination letter, the lawyer for PublicAffairs told my agent that I could keep half of my advance if I promise not to say why I was leaving PublicAffairs. I told my agent, I said, “I don’t know what my price for silence is, but I know it’s not $25,000.”
BILL MOYERS: So you took —
JIM BOUTON: So I left.
BILL MOYERS: And you published the book yourself?
JIM BOUTON: Yeah. I had to. It was too late for me to sign a contract with another publisher. And I wanted it to be out in June of this year. So I published it myself.
BILL MOYERS: And the response to it?
JIM BOUTON: Well, the response is very good. It’s a very good word of mouth. So, I have a guerilla marketing campaign, where I speak on college campuses in exchange for honorariums and travel expenses, and sign books at the local bookstores. It’s in its second printing, and it’s been getting reviewed by a few newspapers. But you know, here again, a lot of the major media will not review a self-published book.
BILL MOYERS: Did GE respond, when you raised the question of the toxic dump? Have they responded to the book?
JIM BOUTON: No, no. They haven’t responded to the book except for the action with the publisher. I haven’t heard from General Electric.
BILL MOYERS: You haven’t been able to prove that the toxic waste down there was put there by General Electric.
JIM BOUTON: Right, no, but they’ve been dumping PCBs all over that town since 1937. And you know they’ve been denying that PCBs are dangerous. And they’ve been denying that PCBs are in this location and that location. And yet a group called Housatonic River Initiative has been finding PCBs buried, barrels of PCBs, that kind of thing. The test borings that showed the property was polluted, that an environmentalist friend of mine discovered, showed that it was toxic oils, but not necessarily PCBs. However, there are test borings on that same property that have been done, that have never been made public. And I don’t know whether those test borings would show PCBs or not. I just found it curious that I would be told I had to remove references to pollution and General Electric from the book.
BILL MOYERS: Have you run into Mr. Mick, the publisher of the paper since the book came out?
JIM BOUTON: No. No.
BILL MOYERS: Have they reviewed the book?
JIM BOUTON: No.
BILL MOYERS: Are the people in Pittsfield reading it?
JIM BOUTON: Oh, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: It’s selling there?
JIM BOUTON: It’s selling. It’s doing very, very well. It’s being sold in Pittsfield. And they’re handing it around to each other. I’ve been told by people that as soon as the book came out they were on the phone reading excerpts of it to each other over the telephone. You know, the book presents such a different view of the story. Stunningly different. And the people of Pittsfield have come up to me on the street and said to me, “Yes, thank you for telling our story. We’ve been up against this for years and we’ve never been able to do anything about it.” You know, most of the people in Pittsfield are beholden to — I call them the Gang of Four — for their jobs, for the jobs of their children, their cousins, their relatives. They can’t speak out against these people. They can’t stand up. I had an opportunity to be in on the inside of things. And I don’t need The Berkshire Eagle, or the bank, or the law firm, or GE, so I was in a position to tell this story. And I felt that I owed it to the people of Pittsfield to write this book.
BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about media conglomeration?
JIM BOUTON: It’s not good. And you can’t have democracy when you have that. Because it’s a lack of democracy in Pittsfield basically because the local newspaper is not doing its watchdog function.
BILL MOYERS: You say you can’t have democracy. What do you mean?
JIM BOUTON: Well, when you have a city council that admits and that says it’s beholden to the local newspaper, how can that be democratic? The newspaper didn’t elect the city council. The citizens of Pittsfield elected the city council. They should be beholden to the people, not beholden to the local newspaper.
BILL MOYERS: This has made you an advocate against media concentration.
JIM BOUTON: Yes, I mean, I really didn’t know. I’ve been aware of the problem. But I didn’t know how it actually worked at the local level. So this was a firsthand example to see how the media conglomeration, the ownership of this paper by a guy in Denver, how it affected the local community. He was one of those who made the case at the FCC hearings that guys like him should be able to own even more newspapers and more television stations.
BILL MOYERS: Under the new rules proposed by the FCC it’s conceivable that that newspaper could own some of the radio stations in town as well, right?
JIM BOUTON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And then would you have gotten your story out?
JIM BOUTON: Oh, under the new rules, Dean Singleton would have been able to own the local television station.
BILL MOYERS: And if he’d owned the radio stations you probably would not have gotten your story out except by handbill, right?
JIM BOUTON: That’s right. That’s right. If The Berkshire Eagle owned the only television station in town and a radio station or two we wouldn’t have been able to make our case to the people.
BILL MOYERS: Why should people out there, who don’t live in and around Pittsfield, care about this?
JIM BOUTON: Well, I would guess that this is a story that’s going to be happening to them pretty soon if it hasn’t already happened. First of all, the stadium issue is a national story. Team owners, wealthy team owners force local communities to either build them stadiums with taxpayer dollars or they move the team to another town. So that’s happening all over the country at the major league level and at the minor league level. And then you’ve got the issue of a single newspaper in town. We have that situation in a lot of towns. So you have the stadium issue. You have the newspaper issue.
BILL MOYERS: Has this made you cynical?
JIM BOUTON: Um…
BILL MOYERS: You were cynical about baseball and…
JIM BOUTON: I’ve always been an optimistic person. My wife calls me a pathological optimist. And you know, I got scared at the end of this story.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JIM BOUTON: I got scared because of the power that I saw in the local daily newspaper having so much power over the community, which I never realized until I got involved with the stadium issue. The fact that we’d be told to remove passages from the book that had to do with pollution or General Electric. The fact that the newspaper was gonna quote “donate” property to the City of Pittsfield that was polluted and they never told the people it was polluted. I mean, this is fraud.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Foul Ball. The author is Jim Bouton. Thank you for being with us.
JIM BOUTON: My pleasure, Bill.
[Note: PublicAffairs and General Electric deny these allegations. Jim Bouton stands by them.]
World health workers are poised on the brink of a major triumph: for only the second time in history a deadly disease, the first being smallpox, is nearly eradicated. Fifteen years ago the World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF began a program to rid the world of the killer and crippler polio. As many as 10 million people had been infected worldwide in 1988 when the program began. This year, fewer than 500 new cases were reported. Famed photographer Sebastião Salgado documents the program’s endeavor to reach the last hideouts of polio in our Photo Essay from his book The End of Polio.
BILL MOYERS: John Leonard is our most prolific and eclectic cultural critic. His movie and television reviews appear every week in New York Magazine. Turn the pages of Harper’s and you’ll find his critique of a new memoir by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His byline is there in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books and The Nation. And you’ll see him on CBS Sunday Morning. His reviews take no prisoners. Consider this one about the movie, no slight intended, “Kill Bill.”
In his spare time he’s written four novels and seven works of non-fiction. He’s the editor of this new one, a collection of essays each about a different state of the union by a different writer. Here to talk about the state of the union is John Leonard.
JOHN LEONARD: Thanks for having me, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Well, welcome. You call this book a sort of rescue project. Your own reality programming. How so?
JOHN LEONARD: Well, you begin to feel that the bog people have taken over the country, have taken over the flag, have taken over the patriotism, have wholly occupied the Grand Canyon, and that those of us who still insist, as part of the nostalgia craze, in believing in social and economic justice have been dumped in the Atlantic. We don’t belong here anymore. And I know that not to be true. I know that even watching the Dixie Chicks, I realize that there is an alternative to the agenda that comes out of Washington. What I don’t know, as somebody who has lived in New York for a very long time, is actually what people are thinking outside of the city, and outside of journalism, and outside of editors who determine what’s culturally important and what’s not according to what they hear at pubs. And depending on how much money is being spent to advertise a cultural event. So we thought to do in this book what The Nation magazine had actually done back in the 1920s.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
JOHN LEONARD: The first time that was, These United States. And they’d gone to as many writers as they could think of, including H.L. Mencken, and Theodore Dreiser, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and some others and many that you haven’t heard of. And the same will operate with our people: we have famous names, we have unknowns that are coming up. But we thought to just check with them — were we out of our minds that something was missing? That what network television presented as America, what the news programs present as America, what Fox News thinks of as America, what the blogosphere and Clear Channel and all these people think of as America, leaves us out. Were there any people like us out there? If so, what were they doing? How did they feel? What did they, you know, what got them angry? What brought them to exaltation? And I particularly wanted to bring more novelists into the…
BILL MOYERS: Mystery writers. Detective writers.
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, and this is an—
BILL MOYERS: Odd assignment for…
JOHN LEONARD: Well, if for your sins, you read as much fiction as I do, one thing that occurs to you is that many of the academic novels, the serious, elite novels are about language. They’re not about community. They’re not about social justice. They’re not about class if you can mention the word class struggle, class animas, class mobility. Mystery novelists begin with an ethical dilemma. Begin with a crime. And more often than not, the private eye especially, is the Don Quixote of the social order.
BILL MOYERS: Even Garrison Keillor has Guy Noir.
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, here we go. So, yes, Janwillem van de Wetering up in Maine who has written wonderful Zen Buddhist mysteries, and James Lee Burke down in Louisiana, and you know, we’ve had and Tony… And what we get is a different sound, is a different, it’s, you know, it reminds…
BILL MOYERS: Different sound from —
JOHN LEONARD: Yeah, a different sound from,
BILL MOYERS: From the mass media…
JOHN LEONARD: …from the homogenization that has occurred. I give you an example that goes way back in my life. It involves Molly Ivins. And when I was the editor of the Times Book Review in the early 1970s and was reading Molly down in Texas and saying, “This is an extraordinary voice.” It’s something that we have to have in theTimes Book Review. And I called her up. And she agreed to review some books for us. And I hung up feeling very satisfied. And then I had to call her again because it occurred to me I didn’t want her to try to write for The New York Times. I wanted her to write the way she wrote. Not the way she thought people wrote for The New York Times. And she did. She wrote only one way. Her mistake was then coming to work for The New York Times, thereafter; where they didn’t really want her to write the way she wrote.
BILL MOYERS: And using a word —
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, using those words and use —
BILL MOYERS: …that offended The New York Times style.
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, but also it’s not just the words, because the words, the style, always reflects a habit of mind. And the habit of mind comes in from a different angle. The habit of mind uses the colloquial here and uses the joke there. And then creates some discordant music, and then something strange and wonderful happens. And you see things differently. You see a different light is shed on it. Well, it’s that tone. It’s The New York Times having a style which it not … the Times is much more hospitable to different styles now than it was 25, 30 years ago. But the culture as a whole is losing its individual notes, its diversity. And this is not only sad, it’s devastating. It’s devastating because routine language means routine thought, and it means unquestioning thought. It means if new words cannot occur to me, and a new image does not occur to me, then what I’m doing is I’m simply repeating what I’ve heard. And what we hear from an overpowering cultural force, and the forces of homogenization, what we hear is sell, sell, buy, buy. That’s it. That is the function.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here, quote, ours is a “buzz age. So full of yak, cable, white noise…” advertisements, videos, “dis-information and hypnotherapy that sorting out the signals to arrive at scruple, gravity or grace gets harder and harder.” Scruple, gravity, grace. I mean, God, those words call for something that’s missing.
JOHN LEONARD: Those are pretty good words aren’t they? Aren’t they? They resonate. And why do they resonate? Because, boy, are they gone. Are they are gone. I have to read a Toni Morrison novel to find gravity and grace, you know? I can’t remember the last time I thought of a spokesman for either an institution of government or a corporation that struck me as scrupulous. It, you know, what’s happened is if everything gets commodified, value judgments like this don’t apply anymore.
BILL MOYERS: By commodified you mean?
JOHN LEONARD: No, I mean I grew up sort of in my New York career in the world of book publishing. And the entire 20th century book publishing’s margin of profit was probably four percent.
But starting in the ’80s the people who bought book publishers thinking they could make more money out of book publishers began assigning arbitrarily higher rates of return that they wanted. They wanted 14 percent or they wanted 17 percent or they wanted 24 percent return on profit to the share… return on investment to the shareholder at the quarterly dividend meetings, whatever.
They arbitrarily decided this. And they aren’t getting it, of course, but they decided it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What books that used to be unique, every book unique, became units. That’s what I mean by commodification just on that simple level. It became what it is now which is, you know, they don’t want criticism.
BILL MOYERS: Do you, John, do you feel commodified at CBS News Sunday Morning now?
JOHN LEONARD: I feel that my role as a critic, I feel that all criticism — and this is not just CBS News Sunday Morning — I feel that this is what’s happening in the culture in general. CBS proved for the last five years, essentially, hasn’t really wanted me to review television. I was originally hired as a television reviewer. And they used to pride themselves on having the only network television critic of television. And I would review, when they first came out, Law & Order on NBC. Or I would review China Beach which I loved on ABC. And I would review Picket Fences and Murphy Brown and you know, CBS. But it was all hands-off. Well, the competitive —
BILL MOYERS: Nobody said you don’t —
JOHN LEONARD: No, in fact, I was promised before I ever took the job that I would be protected. But the competitive environment obviously changed. And the competition is fierce. And the affiliates didn’t, obviously, didn’t want this. And it was so you know, gradually, I found that they really don’t want me to review television at all. I’m not saying this is cast in stone. But it’s not what they want. What they want me to review are movies. And just like the arts and leisure section of The New York Times, just like the cover of Entertainment Weekly, just like any major media outlet that you can imagine, the movies that demand to be reviewed in the limited amount of the time that we have at CBS Sunday Morning are the movies that everybody else is reviewing, the movies that everybody else can be counted on to talk about, because they’re the movies that have the multi-million dollar budgets to promote them in advance. They’re the inevitable movies. They are not the movies that come with subtitles. They’re not the movies, usually speaking, that come out of the independents. Because nobody’s heard of them.
So it’s like the old days of TIME and Newsweek. You used to say, “Aren’t they embarrassed when they both have the same covers? Both, the same people on the covers? No. They’re not embarrassed. They’re relieved, because nobody has lost, you know, lost faith. This is what’s happening to all the outlets. We’re all talking about the same thing. And it doesn’t have to be Jessica Lynch. It doesn’t have to be the Paris Hilton sex tape. It doesn’t have to be Michael Jackson’s Neverland. It can be something worthier than that. It can be a perfectly decent movie like Shattered Glass. But it has to be, everybody has to agree this is what’s important this week, or it’s on the agenda. And the agenda is created by the buzz, as I said. The agenda is created by the buzz. The agenda is not created by what those of us who are critics would create by discovery.
BILL MOYERS: What could you say then, that you can’t say now on CBS Sunday Morning?
JOHN LEONARD: What has happened now is that I think that CBS is part of Viacom, is part of a huge corporation. The huge corporation is in business to make money. And anything that disturbs the audience out there, anything that might inspire e-mails of protest, like a Reagan movie, anything that will get one pressure group or another upset is what they don’t want.
BILL MOYERS: There was this outcry from the right that the proposed miniseries about Ronald Reagan on CBS was not according to Hoyle. It didn’t fit the party line?
JOHN LEONARD: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And they dumped it to Showtime?
JOHN LEONARD: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But the other day, the History Channel ran a documentary about the Kennedy assassination, and suggested that the men around Lyndon Johnson, of whom yours truly was one —
JOHN LEONARD: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: …were responsible for his assassination. A few people, a few of my old colleagues from the Johnson era protested. But not only did the History Channel proceed with it, but they are repeating it. Now how do you explain that?
JOHN LEONARD: Well here, what an interesting question. Because I haven’t had a chance to say this to anybody or in any of my various venues. I think The New York Times is partly to blame. Or maybe even largely to blame. The Reaganauts played this very carefully. When they heard about this, not having seen it of course, having heard one line, an invented line; I mean what fictionalized miniseries has ever been accurate about anything?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
JOHN LEONARD: I mean that was absurd to begin with. But when they got excited about this prospect, among the places they went was The New York Times.
BILL MOYERS: The right wing?
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, the right wing. And all of those ex-Reagan administration people, and they were on the phone. And their letters, and The New York Times ran a huge story about their upset. But the story itself set the agenda. You know what happens. You’re in television. When The New York Times has a big story, the television people say, “My God, that becomes the number one thing.” If it’s about you, there’s nothing else you could think about. That story in The New York Times was the one that had to have started CBS worrying about what it had on its hands.
BILL MOYERS: But they didn’t write about the History Channel’s —
JOHN LEONARD: Yes, no.
BILL MOYERS: …death.
JOHN LEONARD: Who heard about it? I only heard about it afterwards. And I’m a television critic.
BILL MOYERS: The columnist John Leo, conservative columnist, U.S. News and World Report, says the conservative media world has gotten very good, it’s his word, at gang tackling.
JOHN LEONARD: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Matt Drudge, Fox, the blockers, the talk show radio hosts, the columnists, The Wall Street Journal, it’s like David Brooks, who’s now writing…
JOHN LEONARD: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: …a regular column for The New York Times, says the conservative media have quote, “cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out.” What does that mean for politics? Do you agree with it?
JOHN LEONARD: Well, I do agree with it. It means dire things for politics. If ever you close off, it becomes strictly partisan, it is, in effect, a right-wing Jacobinism.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
JOHN LEONARD: Bloodthirsty. That’s the terror in the French Revolution. And that means it’s not politics anymore, it’s a bloodthirsty crusade.
BILL MOYERS: You haven’t given up?
JOHN LEONARD: No. Why? You can’t give up. You know, Studs Terkel’s a friend of mine. If he’s not gonna give up, I’m not gonna give up.
BILL MOYERS: Ninety years old.
JOHN LEONARD: Yeah, right. And his last book was Hope.
BILL MOYERS: Hope?
JOHN LEONARD: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: In this book, Lonesome Rangers, you say that it’s “the protean nature of celebrity to shift shapes according to what a society at any given time has been encouraged to value or taught to fear.” What are we taught to value today?
JOHN LEONARD: Well, I think we’re taught to value the Donald Trumps of the world. I think we’re taught to value the moneymakers of the world. And right now we’re deluding ourselves into thinking that we’re valuing the warriors. But we’ll get the warrior thing because it doesn’t work. Modern warfare doesn’t quite yield the cult of personality that…
BILL MOYERS: As Wesley Clark…
JOHN LEONARD: Yeah. I think we value success and we define success as money. And I think we fear, oh, do we fear all kinds of things.
BILL MOYERS: James Lee Burke writes in his essay in this book of, “A place each of us has in our hearts like a stained glass cathedral visited by people who are emblematic of our lives.” Do you have a place like that?
JOHN LEONARD: Well, I would have a couple places. A couple of bridges. The Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge. But the odd thing I would add to it, I never would have imagined growing up, is I’d add the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I don’t think I’ve ever… there was a war I opposed, I was hired by the New York Times out of the anti-war movement. But I never opposed and neither did most of us, the young men who fought in that war and died in that war. And when I first saw that black wall, I thought, “Oh, my God. They’ve done it. Maya Lin has done it but she’s done it for all of us. This is one of the places we belong.”
What it isn’t, and what I don’t have — and maybe that’s living too much in New York — I don’t have a sense of sanctuary. I don’t have a place where I think I can go. I once went to the famous Kyoto temple with the Zen garden, the gravel, the little mounds. And it’s been pictured over and over and over again. And what they don’t tell you is that this little acre or some acre of serenity is surrounded by millions of people taking pictures. So it sounds like a storm of mosquitoes constantly. And it never stops. And there’s no serenity. And so not even in Japan can I find sanctuary.
BILL MOYERS: For many of us, this is a sanctuary. The book is These United States: Original essays by leading American writers on their state within the Union, edited and introduced by John Leonard. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
JOHN LEONARD: Thanks a lot.