Evan Smith: Why, at this time in your life, have you decided to call it quits at PBS?
Bill Moyers: I sensed the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been producing television for 32 years. I started in the fall of ’71, and while I feel in one sense that I’m at the top of my form, I also feel an unsatisfied hunger to do some things I have not done before. I want to seriously approach a book on the Johnson years, and I have some other writing that I would like to do. Mostly I want to remove myself from the implacable deadlines of the broadcast and its many moving parts, which leave me no time to do things outside that center of gravity. I presumed to do this a few years ago. At the time, the powers at PBS came to me and said, “We need to start a new program. You and Judith [his wife and longtime collaborator] are essential elements; if you’re involved, we can get this started without the usual jealousies and political battles.” That program turned out to be Now. It was going to be just one year. One year became two. Two became three.
ES: Three could easily become five or ten.
BM: Three could. It’s an important show within the realm of niche broadcasting—it has a following. The people who don’t like it really don’t like it, and they keep telling us so, and the people who do like it love it, and they tell us so. There’s no right way to end a marathon, which is what my career in broadcasting has been. I just thought the time was now—no pun intended.
ES: It’s really about you—it’s not about some dissatisfaction with the state of public broadcasting.
BM: Oh, no. A few weeks ago I ended the broadcast with an essay explaining why I was leaving. I had interviewed Maurice Sendak, who doesn’t want to write anymore, doesn’t want to draw anymore. So I asked him, “What do you want to do?” And he quoted Keats on the taste of a peach in your mouth and how he just wants to relish it. I’d been thinking about this, so after I finished editing Sendak’s interview, I took out my yellow pad and wrote a swan song. Nothing is pushing me, but something is pulling me. I have to stop doing what I’m doing in order to know what it is.
ES: So you plan to stay, from a distance, in the PBS family.
BM: I intend to become much more of an advocate for public broadcasting than when I am on the air and seem to be acting in self-interest. As a private citizen, I’ll be one of its most consistent and ardent supporters. We must get a $5 billion trust fund. We must sever our ties to federal funding. We pay a price when we’re even slightly tethered to the taxpayers, to the Congress, to the political process.
ES: What price?
BM: For years we’ve been looking over our shoulders, worried that a chairman of an appropriations committee is going to get angry over some piece of programming. Self-censorship comes unintentionally and even unknowingly to the person who is aware that he is obligated to the government, but this is one of those times when journalism needs to get as close to the verifiable truth as possible. And when I do that, there’s always a rumble. Every three or four years, critics of public broadcasting use my programming as the means to go after its funding.
ES: Do you subscribe to the popular view that all commercial news gatherers, whether on the big networks or the 24-hour cable channels, aren’t as good as they should be?
BM: There has never been a golden era of broadcasting. I have been in and around broadcasting for four decades, in and out of Washington. You always had to pick and choose, but you could find very good programming, public affairs programming in particular. One can still do that. 60 Minutes in the past few years has recovered its fighting spirit; they’ve been doing one good piece after another. When Dan Rather spent a week in Iraq recently, he did some great reporting. There’s Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, though that’s very much inside the Beltway. So there are islands—small islands.
ES: Is the problem that the networks are driven by commercial imperatives, or is it that there aren’t good journalists out there?
BM: There are plenty of good journalists: Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, at CNN. A lot of those correspondents at CBS. Tom Brokaw is a good journalist. But there aren’t plenty of opportunities to be a good journalist. Look what’s happened to the morning news shows. Look what’s happened to the newsmagazines—they’re all designed to get people to cry about lost children. The tragedy is that young people come in here and talk to me about how they want to be in broadcasting, but they don’t know where to go or whether they will ever have a chance to do serious work.
ES: How much of that has to do with the climate of hostility toward the media, beginning with the government’s dim view of what we do?
BM: John Dean said on my show that the secrecy today is worse than Watergate. It is certainly worse than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.
ES: And you’ve been inside the bubble.
BM: You know, I was the president’s press secretary at a time when it could have been worse than it is today. But there was a curious paradox about Lyndon Johnson. He hated the press—tipping our hands, getting ahead of us, reporting on who was going to be an ambassador before he was ready to announce it. He hated losing his options to the media. But at the same time, he spent more time with journalists than any president I’ve known. During Vietnam, he