Bill Moyers investigates the power of visuals on news, politics and elections and explores how news organizations increasingly serve the interests of politicians, rather than the general public.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] These are hard images of reality today: war and crime and punishment, pollution, deprivation, the deficit-problems that won’t go away.
[voice-over] These are the soft images of our politics today. They suggest a lot, but tell us nothing. We have seen them for years on the evening news.
[interviewing] Was it hard to get the media to go along with you on the use of those visions?
MICHAEL DEAVER, former Reagan Advisor: Not at all, because the media, while they won’t admit it, are not in the news business; they’re in the entertainment.
BILL MOYERS: They call themselves journalists — we call ourselves journalists.
MICHAEL DEAVER: I know you call yourselves journalists.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Video images are the new language of politics, brought to us by these men and women of the television news business. They determine what is to be embraced as reality. Often it’s the official version of reality they bring us, serving the politician more than the public.
LESLEY STAHL, CBS News Correspondent: The White House would get together with CBS producers to line up shots so the President would look good, and there would be balloons and flags. They sort of get together with our producers and say, “What kind of an angle would you like to have?”
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t know that?
LESLEY STAHL: No, I didn’t know that
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Many newspapers now conduct polls to decide what to publish. The market determines the news.
BILL KOVACH, Former Editor, “Atlanta Journal, Constitution”: The newspaper business is just doing the same thing a toothpaste vendor has done. They send their pollsters out in the field to find out what people want, what people like.
[Channel 7 News commercial]
ACTOR: Hey, it’s a news van!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To capture viewers, television executives create make believe and call it news.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Viewers are primed to be entertained.
Rep. DAVID OBEY, [D] Wisconsin: Well, I don’t regard network news organizations as being serious news organizations. I regard them as a public affairs entertainment division of a profit-making corporation, if you want me to be blunt about it.
ANNOUNCER: WCBS news time, 7:18.
BARBARA NEVINS, Newscaster: [voice-over] This is Channel Two News, Barbara Nevins. In overcrowded hospitals, often there’s limited room for serious cases. Yet these hospitals are doing unnecessary —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] There is an explosion of information in the United States today.
BARBARA NEVINS: — your tax dollars are paying for some breast jobs and tummy tucks.
ANNOUNCER: You’ve seen them in newspapers and magazines-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But how much offers a picture of reality on which the citizen can act?
NEWSCASTER: All on my special report for personals tonight on Eyewitness News at 11:00 on Channel 7.
BILL MOYERS: When George Bush took the oath of office as our 41st President, he did what most presidents do. He spoke in broad generalities of a wide vista of America’s promise. But about the same time, with no fanfare, no music, no balloons, the Government Accounting Office had produced a series of 2S reports on specific problems facing the government-from the billions of dollars needed to clean up our nuclear weapons facilities to the staggering cost of veterans’ care, from an approaching breakdown in our tax system to the congestion of our highways and airways. None of these had been addressed in the campaign, not by either candidate, and not by the mass media. We get most of our political news from our television and newspapers. But according to a new study by a private national commission, less than 10 percent of the campaign coverage in the presidential race dealt with issues of substance. [voice-over] The 1988 campaign gave us almost nothing resembling a realistic description of what is going on in the world, and very little that was important about Michael Dukakis or George Bush.
GEORGE BUSH: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America —
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: -and to the republic for which it stands
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Mostly we got images the candidates wanted us to see on the news. [images of Bush and Dukakis singing, throwing football; Dan Quayle judging cow show, etc.]
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A national study recently said that the most influential source of information in the election was not the press, but the Bush campaign, and the Bush people understood how to play the news.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, Political Analyst: You can always buy the press off with a good visual story with an image, with a good personality, with a great speech, with an effecl1ve television presentation. It’s always pretty easy to buy the press off.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The choreography in ’88 was dazzling. but it wasn’t original. Ronald Reagan in his two campaigns had manipulated press coverage into Hollywood spectacle. No one in politics ever understood better the power of the picture than Michael Deaver. [interviewing] In the competition between the ear and the eye, your judgment is —
MICHAEL DEAVER, former Reagan Advisor: The eye wins every time. The producers have to say, “Okay, we’re going to use it.” And we sit back after it’s on and say, “Aha, we did it again!
BEN BAGDIKIAN, Author, “Media Monopoly”: I think that the Reagan people recognized to a greater extent than those before them that you can entice television with just the kind of footage they love, which is the kind of footage that keeps an audience from turning the switch. Not too many words, not too many bothersome ideas, but some action, something pleasing and brief. And Reagan was not the first one to have that perception. They were simply better at It.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Deaver and company knew that television is the most powerful weapon in the political arsenal. Even the lowly jellybean can be dynamite. [interviewing] I think in early 1981, all of a sudden there were pictures everywhere of Ronald Reagan eating jellybeans, looking avuncular, everybody’s grand old uncle, people liked him-how could you not like a man who was eating jellybeans on television?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, they were better than peanuts.
BILL MOYERS: Jimmy Carter’s peanuts.
MICHAEL DEAVER: I think that was a prop that symbolized the kind of apple pie. And if it’s around, once again it’s the repetition of it. If you’ve got jellybeans in every picture. if you got an American flag in every picture and if you’ve got young people in every picture, all of those things say something.
LESLEY STAHL, CBS News Correspondent: We just didn’t get the enormity of the visual impact over the verbal. Many times we would run these pieces and say, “While the President went fishing today, back in the White House things were falling apart,” but no one wou1d hear us. And we didn’t know that. You know, it was a White House official who finally told me that.
BILL MOYERS: How did that happen?
LESLEY STAHL: Well, I did a piece that was-where I was quite negative, to be honest with you, about Reagan. And yet the pictures were terrific, and I thought they’d be mad at me, but they weren’t. They loved it. And the official outright said to me, “They didn’t hear you. Didn’t hear what you said. They only saw those pictures.” And what he really meant was it’s the visual impact that overrides the verbal. [1984 newscast] The orchestration of television coverage absorbs the White House. Their goal? To emphasize the President’s greatest asset, which his aides say is his personality.
[voice-over] They provide pictures of him looking like a leader, confident with his Marlborough Man walk, a good family man. They also aim to erase the negatives. Mr. Reagan tries to counter the memory of an unpopular issue with a carefully-chosen backdrop that actually contradicts the President’s policy. Look at the Handicapped Olympics. Or the opening ceremony of an old age home. No hint that he tried to cut the budgets for the disabled and for federally subsidized housing for the elderly.
MICHAEL DEAVER: The problem with it was that she had to put on during her piece all these wonderful visuals that we created. And if you really believe that the visuals are going to outlast the spoken word in the person’s mind, then we were delighted with it. We’d gotten one more shot of all the things that we created that we wanted on television.
BILL MOYERS: She had unwittingly accomplished the purpose of the White House in trying to be critical of the White House.
MICHAEL DEAVER: Right. That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Buying into those images sometimes won the praise of the front office.
LESLEY STAHL: If I did have a great visual I’d get a call. I’d get a pat on the back. And that – it wasn’t so much that that would get me on the air as much as, “That’s appreciated. We like that.” So you were driven to get more of it.
MARK HERTSGAARD, Author, “On Bended Knee”: People like Lesley Stahl or Sam Donaldson or Chris Wallace are smart reporters. It’s not that they don’t understand that a Michael Deaver is trying to manipulate them in a certain way. But at the same time, they’re also very highly-paid reporters and very competitive reporters, and they know that if they’re going to stay on that White House beat that they’ve got to get their stories on the air. And if that means that they have to accept the camera angles that the White House dictates, they’ll do it.
BILL MOYERS: When it comes to visuals, do you miss Ronald Reagan?
LESLEY STAHL: Well, I guess as a television reporter, yes. But as an American Citizen, no. Can I divide myself into two people?
BILL MOYERS: Sure. As a reporter, I like to be able to wallpaper, as we say in television, my pieces.
BILL MOYERS: Wallpaper?
LESLEY STAHL: Wallpaper. Put pretty pictures up while I’m talking behind it. Pretty, interesting pictures, pictures with movement. Pictures that will capture the audience eye. I shouldn’t want that, because I know that it’s deceptive and the audience won’t really hear what I’m saying. But I still like it. I like my pieces to have energy.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Often that energy is generated right from the White House. When President Reagan proposed cutting the corporate income tax.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: The corporate tax is very hard to justify its existence.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] On the news that same evening this picture from a Boston pub was the White House’s compensating image. There he was, just one of the boys. Jellybean journalism scores again.
MICHAEL DEAVER: The picture that was flashed around the world with Reagan hoisting a beer, with a bunch of the working stiffs-now, that picture was worth two weeks of rekindling those good feelings that people had about their President. He was a regular guy and be there to capture that for all us.
BILL MOYERS: So you found the bar and then suggested to the President that he go by?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Yes, yes. Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: And the television cameras followed?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Oh, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Even when there was legitimate news, an economic upswing, for example, the White House decided for maximum impact to take the show on the road.
MICHAEL DEAVER: We picked Fort Worth, Texas. We took the President of the United States out there with a plane load of press into a framed-out house with a bunch of hard hats. And the visual that night was, “What the hell is the President of the United States doing in Fort Worth, Texas, in that framed out house? Oh, housing starts are going up.”
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: I believe in the line. I look to the hills from whence cometh my strength.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The old Hollywood actor was now starring in political movies at the White House. This was a film to promote his reelection, but it was hard to distinguish it from news coverage, because the day-to-day pictures composed by the White House were so good.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: — chopping wood, spending time with Nancy —
MICHAEL DEAVER: We absolutely thought of ourselves when we got into the national campaigns as producers. We tried to create the most entertaining, visually attractive scene to fill that box, so that the cameras from the networks would have to use it. It would be so good that they’d say, “Boy, this is going to make our show tonight.” And that’s exactly-we became Hollywood producers.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] These made-for-TV movies were a hit at the box office, and the ‘press wasn’t writing bad reviews. They were buying what Deaver was giving away: Ronald Reagan pumping iron, tossing a football on the beach. No age problem here. The President was doing what every successful politician does: courting his different constituencies. Not with policies or promises, but with pictures. And television news was their conduit. Watch the Daytona 500.
MICHAEL DEAVER: It was that blue collar Democrat, it was that working stiff. And the Daytona 500 represents those people about as much as any event in this country. And he could have gone and sat up in the stands and been a part of it. It wouldn’t have been the same as him participating in it.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Gentlemen, start your engines.
MICHAEL DEAVER: It was an absolute dream, and television, of course, being an entertainment medium, the news people, even though they don’t admit it, loved every minute of the President of the United States the starter for the Daytona 500.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Somebody just went past somebody right out here in front of us.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember the Daytona 500 episode when the President, literally started the Daytona 500 grand race from the airplane?
LESLEY STAHL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: That was the lead story on all three networks.
LESLEY STAHL: Well, you know something, it probably still would be.
BILL MOYERS: Why? What news was it?
LESLEY STAHL: It’s a different kind of news. It’s a soft news. It’s a human interest story. We’re all things on the evening news. We’re not only the front page of the New York Times. We only have 26 minutes, whatever it is. But we’re the whole newspaper.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But television turns pictures into the whole story. Spectacle overwhelms analysis. So we go along with the politician as he woos Southern voters with symbols of affinity at the Grand ol’ Opry, and looking for Democrats in Ohio aboard Harry Truman’s train.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: I’ll be traveling on the same train that Harry Truman used, and all of us who remember what he said know that he spoke some very blunt truths.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Trumanesque, but not Truman. Whatever the news value, the network shot the story like it was one more Hollywood movie.
ROBERT SQUIER, Political Consultant: This is a very evil little minuet that takes place between candidates and especially electronic journalism. If you make a profound address on a serious subject in a forum that is prestigious, the chances of getting that maternal on television are about zero. But if you figure out a way to do a media event out of it, if you can tum it into a visual, and make it attractive so that it’s something that a camera’s really interested in, there’s a very great chance of getting that material on the air.
KEN BODE, Former NBC News Correspondent: I think it’s what they put the show on for. It’s why they go where they go where they go, it’s why they schedule things the way they schedule them. It’s why they manage their daily routine the way they manage the routine. This is going to be drugs week. So George Bush is off going to a crack house, Dan Quayle is off visiting a treatment center and so forth. That’s all for the cameras. It’s all done that way. And you can bet that everything on the daily schedule is going to be done according to when network news deadlines occur.
BILL MOYERS: How do you think the politicians would respond if the TV executives said, “We’re simply not going to run that photo opportunity, that image that you put out there for us, because it’s empty, it’s not true, it has no relationship to reality.”?
ROBERT SQUIER: I think that that would be a very refreshing change in our politics. I think that if that started to happen you would find candidates responding to that by pumping more reality and more content into what they do to a campaign.
TODD GITLIN, Sociologist: The problem is letting the politicians determine what the story is. And if you have very skilled people in the White House -Deaver and such -who are very good at scripting the story of the day, or the theme of the week, then you’re turning over to them the power to set the agenda. So reporters have to make an independent judgment, which they refuse to do.
BOB SCHEIFFER, BCS News Correspondent: [NBC Sunday Today] The news person’s business is to cover the news. And I suppose if the debate hasn’t been joined that’s part of the news. It is not our business to make the agenda or to make the debate.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] That position has allowed the politicians to do what we’ve just seen. They not only set the agenda for their campaigns -which is their right to do -they also set the agenda for the campaign coverage, especially for television, where good visuals sometimes are more valued than good journalism.
MARTIN KOUGHAN, Former CBS News Producer: It’s much easier to be a packager than a real reporter. A packager merely takes available information and puts it into an attractive forum and presents it as though it’s something important and insightful.
FRED FRIENDLY, Former President, CBS News: We elect people on the television pulpit, television platform. That’s the great soap box today, your cameras. And if you know that in a 21-1/2-minute nightly news program you’ve got to hold that audience or you lose your job -a rating point of a half percentage point can put you in third place -then you’re going to put on those items which politicians serve up to you every day that they know you will use.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] George Bush spent eight years as Ronald Reagan’s understudy. He had learned the power of the picture, and it was clear the press would oblige. In 1988 it was seduction as usual. When Bush traveled to Flag City -Findley, Ohio -and to a flag factory in Bloomfield, New Jersey, it was to wrap himself, to package his campaign, to hermetically seal it in red, white and blue.
BRIT HUME, ABC News: Politicians who campaign on their patriotism are sometimes described as wrapping themselves in the flag. It’s just a figure of speech, but today in New Jersey George Bush came close to actually doing it. The only event on the Vice President —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] ABC’s Brit Hume trying to expose the story behind the images.
BRIT HUME: Bush chatted with workers and smooched a couple. Whoops!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But like Lesley Stahl, Brit Hume found his words were no match for the visuals.
BRIT HUME: -wearing the red, white and blue, Bush tried to link the condition of the country with that of the flag business.
GEORGE BUSH: My friends, flag sales are doing well. And America is doing well.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It didn’t take long for Michael Dukakis to follow on stage with all the right props.
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I don’t know what some people see when they look at that flag. But I know what I see. I see a quarter of a billion faces of all ages and all colors and all shapes and all sizes.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] There had been a lot of soul-searching in the press after the ’84 campaign. Thoughtful television journalists debated whether they were supposed to carry whatever show the politicians staged…
MICHAEL GARTNER, President, NBC News: You basically have to, almost have to use that, because the fact that it’s a staged event, nevertheless it’s an event and you have to use it.
KEN BODE: You don’t have to take the day-to-day coverage. And I think that’s one of the big problems, is that the here-they-come-there-they-go business where the candidates’ press flaks are flakking New York’s news desk every day about what they have and what the theme of the day is and what Dukakis is going, to do that day, or what Bush is going to do that day. And instead of stepping back from some of these questions and putting them in context of an Issue, or putting them in context of the candidate’s record on an issue, we take day-to-day coverage, here-they-come-there-they-go. And therefore, we’re locked into the pictures that they plan for us on that day.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Those pictures can backfire. Whoever put this man into this tank was probably looking for work the next day. Michael Dukakis just didn’t look like George Patton.
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: So what’d you think, did I look like I belonged up there In that tank? Huh?
TODD GITLIN: We’re getting news by the blip, by the bite. The average bites have sunk to 10 seconds. And I do mean sunk. We’re getting units that are strictly images. They’re devoid of context, devoid of explanation. They come out of the moon. They might as well have just arrived from Mars. They cannot possibly explain things, they cannot possibly give us a sense of how things are connected to each other. And so these units, these chunks pass through us like cosmic rays.
GEORGE BUSH: I’m not questioning his patriotism, I’m questioning his Judgment.
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, I don’t question Mr. Bush’s patriotism, but I do question his judgment.
GEORGE BUSH: Just the facts, ma’am. That’s the way it’s gonna be. Just the facts.
Gov. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: The facts, ma’am, just the facts.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The blips and sound bites have shrunk. Twenty years ago even a heckler got to speak his peace on the news. When Senator Edmond Muskie, running for Vice President, invited this protestor to the microphone to tell .America what was on his mind, the evening news carried his words for over a minute.
PROTESTOR: All right, thank you. This is a chance that you usually don’t get. And that’s equal time. All right, you guys say we’re dirty and unwashed. We’re the true Americans, man, we love the flag just as much as anyone else. We want America to stand for what the Constitution says it stands for. And that’s that everyone is equal under the law, which is not true in this country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A minute. Imagine! A presidential candidate today would get about 10 seconds. Political dialogue on the news is so compressed that candidates are now judged by how effectively they speak the new shorthand.
DAN RATHER: I didn’t hear or see many sound bites for this. If you were trying to pick out maybe a minute sound bite. I suppose Michael Dukakis hit hard once on saying, “Listen, you favor these tax cuts for the rich, and if you say liberal one more time and I got a dollar for each time, they would have had enough money to qualify for one of those.” Were there any others, Bruce?
BRUCE: No, I see parts that Dukakis was trying to do throughout, and one of his problems in this whole campaign has been that his message doesn’t sound bite as easily, it doesn’t make-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But if television reduces language to sound bites, pictures can make stories out of nothing.
REPORTER: Is this your idea of a good time? I’m all soaked!
TODD GITLIN: I saw it on the NBC Nightly News just a little while ago, a shot of Bush out for a run. And then it starts to rain. And that’s the story. He went out for a run and it started to rain. He started getting wet, and he waved at the reporters. Is this a stunning surprise to the body politic, that the President himself gets wet? I mean, this is childish!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] President Bush joked last spring that these pictures of the new White House puppies probably saved his first hundred days. He was only joking, of course…
[on camera] As the lust for pictures drives the broadcast journalist into the arms of the image-makers, other forces have combined to compromise the news. The camera deprives the journalist of anonymity. Our front row seat in the audience has moved on stage, smack in the middle of the show. And a show it is! Network news exists at the pleasure of the parent corporation, whose big profits come from entertainment. So commercial news competes for ratings with the sitcoms, soap opera and Monday night football. All this means that journalists not only cover the news, they become news.
[voice-over] NBC News won big points for its coverage of the 1964 political conventions. The Republicans gathered at the Cow Palace outside San Francisco.
JOHN CHANCELLOR, NBC News: I’ve been promised bail, ladies and gentlemen, by my office. This way, officer, or up this way?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It became a knockdown, drag-out affair. And one of those dragged out was NBC’s John Chancellor, carried off for showing the acrimony.
DAVID BRINKLEY: I would think this is a first, a man broadcasting his own arrest on television.
CHET HUNT: Yes, and I hope a last.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We began to see something else that hot summer.
DAVID BRINKLEY: Absolutely complete credential to be in the aisle, and what they might charge him with, I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A self-conscious press, beginning to cover itself.
NEWSCASTER: It’s convention time for the Republicans in New Orleans, and last night the P in GOP stood for Party-Hearty.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Television news had become part of the show. Watch us watch them.
NEWSCASTER: Some of the party-goers were Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.
DAN RATHER: I love New Orleans. As you know, I was posted here for CBS News for a while in the early ’60s, and I know this city and love this city. There’s not a better place anywhere in the world to hold a convention.
MARTIN KOUGHAN: If you accept the fact that the institutional objective has become more show biz, more audience-generating than, you know, setting the important agenda for America, if you set that, it’s no surprise then that the stars, the front men, would become more important as well.
NEWSCASTER: Roseanne joins us live tonight.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] TV has transformed journalists into celebrities. Celebrities interviewing celebrities.
ANNOUNCER: Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Or interviewing themselves on the vital issues of the day. Can men and women be friends, they wonder.
DIANE SAWYER: [“Primetime Live”] Somebody’s always yearning or wishing-
SAM DONALDSON: [“Primetime Live”] Well, yeah, that’s the way the good Lord made it. But I do-I think I do agree that men often can have very deeper friendships-
LINDA ELLERBEE: [TV Commercial for Maxwell House] I’m Linda Ellerbe. A few months ago an independent research team conducted a national taste test in people’s homes. Maxwell House Coffee vs. Folgers Coffee.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And now this. The seasoned reporter trading celebrity value for top dollar.
LINDA ELLERBEE: — sitting here talking to you. Think about that.
TODD GITLIN: Reporters who become themselves, the story, and who trade on their face to get where they go are part of it, and they get rewarded for it. It works. It makes them famous, it makes them something that people want to reach out and touch.
LESLEY STAHL: First, Mike, tell us what the spin doctors are saying on both sides.
MIKE ORESKES, “New York Times”: Well, of course, both sides won. George Bush, and his spin people are saying that Dukakis failed to move to the center, that they have Dukakis right where they want him-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As television journalists have become personalities in the news, how they cover the story becomes the story, and our debate analysis as important as the debate itself.
LESLEY STAHL: There was a pre-debate spin. But that was only by the Democrats: I didn’t see any Republicans in here really trying to influence your mindset ahead of time.
WOMAN: No, they were here. They came—
TODD GITLIN: I think there’s a new thing going on. I think they are still doing a lot of the race track coverage. Who’s ahead, who’s behind. But now they’ve started to do handicapping coverage. What is the importance of ourselves talking about this? What’s the role of the press? How are the handlers playing it? What’s the strategy? How are they going to handle the debate? How do they do after the debate? How should we think they did during the debate? What are they telling us to conclude from the debate? There’s an insider backstage quality here, where I think a lot of the reporters are — and producers and so on — are wrestling with the fact that how they call the shots. becomes an important part of the story.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Iran-contra was perhaps the most important story going into the ’88 campaign. But once again, how journalism covered it became the story. What advice had George Bush offered the President? Reporters were asking, but the lid was on. Then on live television Dan Rather tried to pry the cover off.
DAN RATHER: — anti-terrorist expert. Iran was officially a terrorist state. You went around telling— [crosstalk]
Vice Pres. GEORGE BUSH: I can explain that, Dan-[crosstalk]
DAN RATHER: -the question is-but— you made us hypocrites in the face of the world. How could you sign onto such a policy?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It was a battle of titans. George Bush was spoiling for a fight.
GEORGE BUSH: — the President signed on to it. When a CIA agent is being— accuracies or it’s incomplete. And when you have that, I think you have a population that is burdened by despair and apathy and confusion.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Vice President vs. not his political opponent, but the anchor man.
GEORGE BUSH: Everybody’s admitted mistakes. I’ve admitted mistakes, and you want to dwell on them. And I want to talk about the values we believe in, and experience, and —
MARTIN KOUGHAN: What we attempted to do in that interview was to pose a few of those questions and allow candidate Bush to provide any answers he cared to to a national audience, and let them decide whether he was being responsive or not. The end result was he wasn’t responsive at all. He didn’t answer the questions, he attacked CBS. He attacked Dan Rather. He made Dan Rather’s record the issue, not George Bush’s record.
GEORGE BUSH: It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I Judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set In New York? Would you like that? I have respect for you-
DAN RATHER: Well, Mr. Vice President —
GEORGE BUSH: but I don’t have respect for what you’re doing here, tonight.
DAN RATHER: Mr. Vice President, I think you would agree that your qualifications for President and what kind of leadership you’d bring the country, what kind of government you’d have, what kind of people you’d have around you is much more important than what you just referred to. I’d be happy to —
GEORGE BUSH: Well, I want to be judged on the whole record, though. And you are not…
DAN RATHER: And I’m trying to set the record straight —
GEORGE BUSH: You invited me to come here to talk about, I thought, the whole record.
DAN RATHER: I want you to talk about the record. You said in a meeting with George Shultz he got apoplectic when he found out that you-
MARTIN KOUGHAN: I have no trouble defending him in his journalism. But did it succeed? I think the answer is no, because the theatre of television overtook the content. In fact, candidate Bush was no more responsive to Dan Rather’s questions than he had been to anyone else’s prior to that. But that’s not what got the attention the next day. The heat and not the light got the attention the next day. The confrontation that candidate Bush fabricated got the attention the next day not the fact that he was totally unresponsive to questions about a very critical foreign policy failure of the Reagan Administration.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Bush/Rather interview became known as the Bush/Rather debate, and it captured the nation’s attention.
BARBARA KOPPEL: I’m not sure whether you see it as a long-term benefit for George Bush, or is possibly Dan Rather going to have the last laugh on us?
WILLIAM SAFIRE, “New York Times” Columnist: We’ll, I don’t see it… as who won and who lost. Certainly, short-term the Vice President came out looking fine. And a lot of people at CBS and within the journalism community are worried that maybe we’re making anti-media waves with this sort of interview that Dan Rather did.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Now it was the reporter who had to answer questions. By helping to create a furious backlash against CBS, Bush had turned the news to his advantage.
DAN RATHER: I’m not the story. How the interview was conducted, or for that matter, how the interview – skirted as it was – went through is not the important story. The important story is that there are unanswered questions.
BILL MOYERS: The unanswered questions remain unanswered. The challenge had been unusual. Now official truth prevailed.
MARK HERTSGAARD: Television is so easily manipulated and so transient in its attention that you have a situation where the public has its head filled with accuracies, or it’s incomplete. And when you have that, I think you have a population that is burdened by despair and apathy and confusion.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Our national leaders have become much too used to a conforming standard media, and regard the media going elsewhere for serious contrary views or information as somehow treasonable, or the result of bias.
MARK HERTSGAARD: The problem when you bring it into television is that you have not just words, but words and images. I think that far too often our Washington press corps is too worried about being fair to the President, and not worried enough about being fair to the public.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s the pressure to please that exacts the toll. If you’re trying to thrive in an entertainment culture, journalism can get in the way of popularity and profits.
MARK HERTSGAARD: Editors and executive producers decide not to pursue certain stories because they don’t want to go after a popular president, they don’t want to look like they’re trying to bring down Ronald Reagan. And what that means is that he gets treated better by the press.
BILL MOYERS: The rumor went around that you were pressured to soften your pieces on Ronald Reagan, not because of the editorial judgment or content, but because Reagan was so popular with the public that CBS would lose viewers if they saw you as hostile toward the President.
LESLEY STAHL: A lot of my pieces were diluted, and I never knew why. But they were approved in Washington first, and they’d be approved, and then sent to New York, where they would be diluted and sent back. And then there’d be many arguments.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] I remember the occasion when a CBS news executive told you that he didn’t want you to talk harshly, or critically, or even factually, about the President on the air. He wanted you to put your ideas over pictures.
LESLEY STAHL: That’s right. And he was okay if I said something that was somewhat critical as long as it was covered with pictures. But when I was shown -now, this is during Reagan -when I was shown on camera, it was to be innocuous, whatever I was saying. And that was quite disturbing to me.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We must be popular, the reasoning goes, to ensure that we will be watched and read.
NEWSCASTER: While President Bush is away this week, Vice President-,
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] So when a local anchor from New York drops by the White House, it is to promote his news show, not to ask tough questions.
NEWSCASTER: In person with Dan Quayle…
[interviewing] It has to be a thrill for you in many ways to realize that here you are, the Vice President, you put together a staff-I mean, this is happening for you. How does it feel?
DAN QUAYLE: Well, I’ve been on the job now almost six months. I feel very comfortable in it.
NEWSCASTER: [voice-over] A very different Dan Quayle walked with me from the. West Wing of the White House. A long way from Indiana. No longer the senator, he walks with an air of confidence that seems genuine.
TODD GITLIN: Politicians clearly want reporters to be, as somebody once said, stenographers with amnesia. And the problem is that a lot of the reporters especially, but not only on television, have a similar interest. They want to deliver to their editors, to their producers, good pictures, nice scoops, etc. That’s the goods that they have to deliver within their organizations.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Increasingly those organizations now serve business and entertainment interests, which have little commitment to the calling of journalism.
MARK HERTSGAARD: The Reagan people came to power at a time when network was in particular was both more interested in doing the kinds of questions, things that would boost ratings -that is to say, putting in the pretty pictures – this sort of television equivalent of cotton candy. They were more interested in doing that because of the increasing corporate control of the networks. And they were more able to do it, because of Reagan’s deregulation of television. The FCC basically said to television broadcasters of all stripes, local and network level, ìDo whatever the hell you want and pursue whatever free market forces you wish, and we’re not going to demand that you have any sort of public responsibility.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Their expectations of profit have become almost limitless. And you are then confronted with this very simple fact, which I think is unlimited greed. And I don’t mean by unlimited greed that they are not entitled to a reasonable profit. They have to have that. But if you look at the profits of affiliated television stations, if you look at the profits of individual newspapers, you will find that their expectations of those profit levels have almost doubled in 20 years. And that they are now at extremely high levels -between 20 and 40 percent pre-tax a year for newspapers and probably between 20 and 50 percent pre-tax for television stations. That is an enormous profit.
MARTIN KOUGHAN: Everything is being judged on the same audience-attracting ratings base as entertainment programs. Everything in network news is that how big your audience is, how popular your newscasts are— is more important than what’s in it now.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: You do whatever you can to condition your television news by the same standards with which you produce a primetime entertainment program. Lots of action, lots of familiar figures, don’t introduce troublesome ideas, you do stress conflict, because that makes good action on the screen. Lots of fast cuts. You don’t let anybody speak too long. And you will then impose the standards of mass entertainment on the standards of news. And what you do with that is probably you do keep a larger audience, because it’s all designed to keep people from moving their hand to the switch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bowing to the public taste is the occupational hazard of the corporate journalist. Today’s reporter invariably labors at a television station or a network where the bottom line is the last word. And newspapers, too, now increasingly march to the drumbeat of quarterly profits. In broadcasting and print, the media are great concentrations of private power -private governments, they’ve been called -and they have other goals than the dialogue of democracy. As big change by more and more papers and each other, they’re changing the look of the newspaper’s most sacred place -the front page.
BILL KOVACH: The president of a newspaper division of the chain recently wrote a letter to the advertising association about the ideal newspaper in current terms. And the letter said that we don’t have room for editors anymore who “use up our newsprint to fill the front page with serious stories, stories about government and all its convoluted work. What we need are more stories about puberty, about sex, about marriage. That’s what people want to read, and that’s how you increase your circulation.” That’s what’s happening when market forces drive editorial decisions.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: When you have a relatively small number of corporations which own most of the main media that goes to most of the public, even if they were all enlightened, unselfish, moderate in their desire for profit, respectful of opinions different from themselves, even if that were true, that’s too much power in the hands of a small group. But it’s a small group that does not necessarily have all of those encouraging qualities.
BILL KOVACH: The problems with a newspaper that in effect panders, is it’s a newspaper that’s going to give people the wrong kind of information about their elected officials. They’re not going to give people information about foreign policy problems -they don’t want to hear that. You’re not going to give people information about children starving in Africa -they don’t want to hear that. What you’re going to do is produce an entertainment device. It may make a lot of money, 11 may do very well with its circulation, but it’s not a newspaper.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Boston Globe, considered a good paper, is independently owned, but the competitive pressure to grow is always there. And so the tension. What part of the paper is defined as Journalism, what part marketing?
THOMAS MULVOY, Managing Editor, “Boston Globe”: It’s 99.44 journalism and maybe a little bit of the size of a headline as opposed to what we’re doing there.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Even the Globe does regular market research.
BEN TAYLOR, Executive Editor, “Boston Globe”: And part of the function of a newspaper is to make sure that people continue to read you. And so we want to make sure that we keep growing so that we can sell the advertising, and attract the advertising that allows us to do what we want to do in the newsroom.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s a tough balancing act for editors, giving readers news that’s important and relevant to them as citizens, and giving them what they want to hear as consumers.
BILL KOVACH: There are a certain number of stories each day that in discharging the obligation the press has. And don’t forget there is an obligation. It’s the only private business protected in the Constitution, and it’s protected for a reason. It has an obligation to be the ongoing educational tool of a democratic society. It has a responsibility to give the people the information they need on which to base the decisions they make in governing themselves.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: I was a reporter and editor for many, many years. And for good papers and occasionally for a poor paper. And have seen it come and go. And it always had flaws, because this is a human institution that has to be a private enterprise. And there’s always that tension between the two. And r think there’s no help for that, it has to be. But what’s happened is that the pressure of ownership ideas and of maximum profit-making has pushed that line, has pushed that wall between church and state, between integrity to the news and making as much money as fast as possible farther away than I have seen it in my whole career.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This, we are told, is the newspaper of the future, created in the image of television: news that pleases, many short reports, lots of visuals, news on the run.
BILL KOVACH: The main influence of USA Today is television reduced to newsprint, color and graphics and photographs and image, image, image. Form. The form of the product determines the acceptance of the newspaper. And the form does not allow in-depth, serious analysis and connection and discussion of issues.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As image replaces the word as the grammar of our culture, pictures are found even when they do not exist.
ANCHOR: [“Entertainment Tonight,” July 21, 1989] ABC News had a major coup last week. They were first to break the story on the spy scandal involving a career diplomat. But instead of praise, ABC is facing a storm of protests over the way it reported the story, using a recreation.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It was an odd sight. Entertainment Tonight criticizing ABC News for counterfeit journalism, for failing to label a recreation in a news story about a spy scandal-as if it should have been done at all.
NARRATOR: [voice-over] It was here that Bloch was videotaped handing over a briefcase to a known Soviet agent on the streets of a European capital.
NEWSCASTER: Now, this looks like surveillance videotape, right down to the digital time reading in the corner. But it’s really two actors simulating what happened.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As news scurries to compete with entertainment, it borrows from entertainment. Other networks have used recreations for news this season. Reality’s not enough. If the news is not entertaining, it’s not on the news. So there is less and less appetite for the basic diet of democracy, the news of politics and government.
MARTIN KOUGHAN: There is increasingly now a perception that, you know, some news is boring and not worth the air time. Political news certainly falls into that category.
KEN BODE: It’s almost a metaphysical feeling that they had. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that at all. But some people began to feel that, and it became the sort of credo that kind of governed how we proceeded.
MARTIN KOUGHAN: Decisions were made not on the basis of how important the political story was for the public to understand, but how interesting it was as television. The result was that a lot of very important stories in the campaign did not get covered, and the stories that did get covered got covered because they were sexy and interesting, not because they were important.
FRED FRIENDLY: We are a great power. Whoever is President is the biggest story in the world. You can’t cover that except by covering Washington well. And if a network is so stupid as to think that Washington is dull and people will turn it off, that just again proves my theory that they’re not interested in covering the news or portraying a picture of reality on which the citizen can act-Walter Lippmann’s description of what journalism is, “a portrait of reality on which the citizen can act.” If you’re not going to cover Washington well, then you’re misleading the American people, and you’re not reporting the most important story of our time.
MOYERS: [voice-over] That story is the future of America. But what draws the press in our nation’s capital is conflict, corruption and scandal. Those serious issues are debated each day in Washington.
Rep. DAVID OBEY: The problem is that if the public is encouraged to oversimplify its view of these Issues, because the main source of their information does the same thing, then I think it’s very difficult to expect that the public is ever going to be in a better position to understand some of the really tough issues that a democratic society has to understand if their leaders are going to be able to lead.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] John Tower’s personal life got plenty of coverage. It was often bitter.
Sen. JOHN TOWER: I have broken wedding bonds. I think I’m probably not alone in that connection.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But his ties to the defense industry and his views on the arms race received little attention.
Rep. DAVID OBEY: I think that when issues are so complicated, when arms control issues are so complicated, when managing the economy is so complicated, I think that in the case of television you have an institution that has almost given up trying to cover those issues. Issues of personal morality, issues of political collapse, I think those are easier to follow, and I suspect that’s one of the reasons that they follow them.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, I think right now we’re in an era of trash politics. That is, Americans are fascinated by all the stories they’re hearing about politicians and about wrongdoing in high places, ethics scandals and malfeasance. That really all started with Watergate. And it’s like trash television, you know, these so-called exposes that we’re seeing on television all the time. We’re going to-the bad drives out the good. And people are fascinated by this.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But trash television deals with our leisure time. Trash politics, trash government deals with life and death issues: your pocketbook, your future, the education and the housing, the transportation system, our ability to cope in the world and in a new global economy. We’re talking about real stuff here.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Therefore I am both optimistic and pessimistic. If I’m pessimistic it’s because look at the 1988 campaign. It was all images and symbols and manipulated ads. It wasn’t about anything serious or substantive. It was about judgment and values and personal qualities. That’s very bad news. You know, if I had to draw one conclusion for the 1988 campaign, what did we learn from the 1988 campaign, it’s a very pessimistic conclusion. The message of that campaign was negative campaigns work. The good news from that campaign is the public didn’t t like it very much. They complained about it, they said it didn’t address the issues. They were perfectly aware of what was going on. It worked, so people are going to continue to watch it. But now we’re approaching the point where people are saying about politics what they once said a long time ago about television.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Fifty years ago Hollywood showed us how easily the public mind can be fooled by the creation of unreality. [film clip from’ ‘The Wizard of Oz”]
WIZARD OF OZ: Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A small pup was the watchdog, exposing the illusion that the people of Oz didn’t want to know. There was, alas, no wizard.
WIZARD OF OZ: The great Oz has spoken! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] There was only an ordinary man pulling levers.
JUDY GARLAND: Who are you?
BILL MOYERS: Should we be proud of what we’ve done in this regard?
MICHAEL DEAVER: Well, I couldn’t change that. If I had tried to do what I thought was the, say, the right way to go about it, we would have lost the campaign. People would have been bored to tears. In a democracy that’s interested in where their leaders are going to stand and what they’re going to do on issues, that would have been the right thing to do. But this country isn’t interested in it. They don’t want-they want feel-good and fuzz and to not be upset about all of this. They just want to sit in their living rooms and be entertained. And, no, I don’t feel good about that at all.
BILL MOYERS: I think Michael Deaver’s got it about right. Illusions of news pay off — in victory for the politician and profits for the corporation. So they keep on crowding out the real thing. I’ve been a player in this game. I’ve seen it from just about every angle of the field, in presidential politics, as a journalist for CBS and as a newspaper publisher. I’ve done my share of image-making, used my share of sound bites, fought my share of circulation battles and felt my share of desperation over that picture not quite perfect. But along the way I’ve worked with journalists who’ve managed to inform and nurture the public mind, despite pressures to the contrary. Good journalism pays, too, when given the chance. The role of the journalist is a modest one, but it’s indispensable. We know, after all, said, Albert Einstein, “that people are ruled by being told tall stories.” So the rulers constantly test and see what they can get away with. Well, our role as journalists is not to pass along the tall tales unexamined. We can balance the scales. We can point out the nuances and contradictions, hold conventional wisdom to public scrutiny and look for the concrete example that tests the abstraction of public rhetoric. Journalism can be the picture of reality on which the citizen can act. It’s not a noble calling, but it’s a necessary calling. Without it, we’re at the mercy of politicians whose sole aim is to win, and those corporations whose aim is profit only. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 15, 2015.