washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

Bill Moyers Gets In the Last Word

By Tom Shales
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page C01

Bill Moyers has always taken the high road, but it got a little lonely up there. In a country where political discourse grows ever more shrill, his voice was more and more easily drowned out. Last night, at the age of 70 and on the eve of his 50th wedding anniversary, Bill Moyers took the high road home.

Moyers said not goodbye but "farewell" as he took leave of "Now," the program he has hosted for the past three years on PBS. The show will continue in a few weeks with another host, but Moyers's presence will be an irreplaceable loss. Watching the final program, which consisted of a report on the dominance of right-wing ranting in TV and radio and an interview with Anthony Romero, head of the ACLU, one may have felt guilty about not having supported Moyers more loyally as he kept fighting the good fight.


Throughout his broadcast career, Moyers was a voice of reason. (Gino Domenico -- AP)

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His is one of the few liberal voices left in broadcasting, it seems, and his insistence on being armed with facts to support his opinions left him at something of a disadvantage when dealing with people who think the way to win an argument is to scream the loudest. Moyers represented reason, deliberation, serious questioning of the status quo and, especially, standing as firmly as possible against government encroachment into Americans' private lives.

Moyers may not have helped his own image as something of a pontificator, however, by mentioning "Mein Kampf" in a cautionary note about the Pentagon's use of deception and disinformation against enemies, real or imagined, abroad. Piety is one of the sins most common to those on the political left, and Moyers's career has hardly been devoid of it. In the grand scheme of things -- if there is a grand scheme of things -- it wasn't much of a character flaw.

After the preliminaries and the listing of what sounded like 75 underwriting foundations, Moyers last night introduced the first report, "A Matter of Opinion," by recalling a car trip he and wife Judith Davidson Moyers (a partner in his business) took and how shocked they were when they started scanning the radio dial. What he heard, Moyers said, was "a freak show of political pornography" on a scale he found "malignant."

The report, produced by Kathleen Hughes, documented conservative excesses on the "public" airwaves. Sean Hannity, a bullying buffoon on the "fair and balanced" Fox News network, spent much of his time this year campaigning for George W. Bush, telling an audience in one city that a vote for Democrat John Kerry would help "Osama get his way."

Sinclair Broadcasting, a major owner of TV and radio properties, tried to force its stations to air what was clearly a free political infomercial for Bush until protesters forced company executives, loyal Republicans all, to back down. Sinclair fired one journalist, Jon Leiberman, for his protests. He told Moyers he was dumped for "refusing to toe the party line." The "documentary" was eventually cut into sections and passed off as news on the stations' newscasts.

Equally conservative and arguably more powerful Clear Channel Communications also went all-out in supporting Bush's reelection and Iraq war. A popular talk-jock at one Clear Channel station argued against the war on his show and found himself exiled to a remote time slot. "Management directed me to shut up about the war," he said.

Moyers naturally dealt with radio personality Rush Limbaugh and Fox's noisiest loudmouth, Bill O'Reilly, during the report. But he never mentioned the personal yet very public problems that the two men went through during the past year -- tabloid stuff that Moyers and his producer obviously found irrelevant to the points they were trying to make. During the second half of the show, the ACLU executive did mention Limbaugh's addiction to prescription painkillers but only in illustrating how even conservatives benefit from the ACLU's vigilance in defending the right to privacy.

In a long goodbye to his viewers at the close of the show, Moyers said: "I've learned from you not to claim too much for my craft, but not to claim too little, either. You keep reminding me that the quality of journalism and the quality of democracy go hand in hand. Or as a character says in one of Tom Stoppard's plays, 'People do terrible things to each other, but it's worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark.' "

On "Now" and his other broadcast efforts over a three-decade career, Moyers has investigated subjects that mainstream media ignore, whether out of indifference or fear. We should have watched more often. We should have paid more attention. But Moyers can still leave "Now" with satisfaction and pride. He played by dignified and gentlemanly rules -- rules that now, alas, may be dangerously out of date.


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