Moyers Writes Letter to PBS Ombud: You Requested My One-Sided Impeachment Hour

In a letter sent far and wide to anyone (including the MRC) who criticized his hour-long tantrum tub-thumping for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on July 13, PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers lectured PBS ombudsman Michael Getler that PBS was created to disturb the "official consensus" and praised his two pro-impeachment guests, a "liberal" and a "conservative scholar who reveres the Constitution," for "they made a valuable contribution to the public dialogue, as confirmed by the roughly 20:1 positive response to the broadcast. Of course I could have aired a Beltway-like 'debate' between a Democrat and a Republican, or a conservative and a liberal, but that’s usually conventional wisdom and standard practice, and public broadcasting was meant to be an alternative, not an echo."

He told Getler he was only following a letter that Getler had written in January arguing for more aggressive PBS coverage of the Iraq war, including more coverage of impeachment talk. A look at Getler’s letter shows that he did urge producers in January to rise above programs that go "straight down the middle" and get involved in changing the political dynamic against Bush and his Iraq surge: "PBS needs to rise, in some new and timely fashion, to meet the immediate demands of this special time."

Moyers communications director Rick Byrne sent the following letter to NewsBusters, as well as other media sites which featured Getler’s impeachment-show critique:

Dear Mr. Getler:

I respect your work and your role, but I disagree with you about "balance." The journalist’s job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect -- sometimes, alas, reverence -- for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist’s job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story. That’s what I did regarding the argument for impeachment. Official Washington may not want to hear the best arguments for impeachment -- or any at all -- but a lot of America does. More than four out of ten people indicated in that recent national poll that they favor impeaching President Bush and more than five out of ten, Vice President Cheney. They’re talking impeachment out there and that dynamic in public opinion is news. There’s a movement for impeachment, not one against impeachment, and to fail to explore the arguments driving that movement would be as foolish as when Washington journalists in the months before the invasion of Iraq dared not talk about "occupation" because official sources only wanted to talk about "liberation." Letting the official consensus govern the conversation is also to let it decide the subject.

So to hear the best arguments driving public sentiment, I invited on my broadcast a conservative scholar who reveres the Constitution, Bruce Fein, and a liberal political journalist, John Nichols, who has written a fine book on the historical roots of impeachment. That two men of different philosophies come to the same conclusion on this issue is in itself newsworthy, and they made a valuable contribution to the public dialogue, as confirmed by the roughly 20:1 positive response to the broadcast. Of course I could have aired a Beltway-like "debate" between a Democrat and a Republican, or a conservative and a liberal, but that’s usually conventional wisdom and standard practice, and public broadcasting was meant to be an alternative, not an echo. If a debate about impeachment becomes the story, I’ll come back with different guests to explore it. Right now it’s the argument for impeachment that is shaping public opinion, and that’s why I chose to interview two informed thinkers who have arrived at the same destination from very different directions.

A personal note: Pinned to the bulletin board on the wall behind my computer -- I am looking at it now -- is the column you wrote in January calling on public broadcasting to "be more…aggressive," including on the issue of, yes, impeachment. I took encouragement from that column over these months as I tracked grassroots activity and the growing public conversation on the subject across the country. I was cheered by your assertion in the same column that "‘on-the-one-hand/on-the-other hand’ type of journalism that is much more common can be less than enlightening at times such as these..." In thinking that you imagined public broadcasting as a service, not a sedative, I trust I wasn’t misreading your New Year’s resolution.

By the way, we did not remove any controversial postings from our Web site, as indicated in your critique. We welcome all points of view and responses to our programs on our blog.


Bill Moyers

Perhaps Moyers was exaggerating about Getler writing warmly of more "aggressive" tub-thumping for impeachment? No, Getler’s January 5 letter is titled "Be More, um, Aggressive?" It reads like an official request for Bush-stinks programming that abandons the idea of balance. It begins by talking about New Year’s resolutions, and how at this "troubling time in our history" that

"...journalists and producers of news and public affairs programs who have access to the nation's airwaves need to ratchet up their determination to challenge, to explore and to cut through spin. And, it seems to me, that public television and its 350 independent but affiliated stations may be able to play a special role, both in making lots of voices, including new ones, heard and in stirring some sort of national dialogue about these troubles, broadcast soon and in real time.

At the heart of this troubling time, and proposal, is, of course, Iraq. No matter what your politics, we are in one heck of a mess. There is no end in sight to this conflict and no seemingly good way out of it. Soon, there will be official proposals for a new strategy; presumably, according to news reports, with more troops and more money. The administration will get plenty of print and on-air time to lay out its case.

Sadly, however, it is hard to argue with critics who say there is no real reason to believe, or have confidence in, whatever the administration says because so much of what it said before the war and for a long time after it started, turned out not to be the case. The human, military, financial, reputational and homeland security aspects of having started this war are huge and will probably be with us for many, many years to come. Perhaps there is a way to end it that will benefit from a more open process than the one that started it.

The press did not do a good job before this war started and it needs to do a better job if the country is going to find a way out or ahead. It may be that adding troops, as the president is expected to do, will turn out to be the right thing, or it may not. History may yet vindicate President Bush's decisions, or it may not. But all future steps should be vigorously explored in public by an independent press in a way that goes well beyond a Democrat saying this and a Republican saying that on a talk show, or the panel discussions of predictable on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand specialists. The failures, misstatements and miscalculations of the past should be a lesson that more and better reporting is necessary for whatever future course is ultimately settled upon.

At the letter’s end, Getler also pressed the idea of talking up a Bush impeachment as an example of more aggressive PBS coverage:

That same ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 52 percent of those polled think the administration "intentionally" misled the American public in making the case for war. That leads to another extreme angle of these times. Tom Felt, a viewer in Arizona, writes to say that "PBS doesn't present all sides of the issue. The corporate media propaganda outlets greatly under-reported the anti-war movement in this country — just like they are now doing the grassroots effort to impeach Bush. The point is the American public needs to hear the other voice, the other perspective on these issues we face, on the public airwaves where it is available to all people because that is what shapes the public dialogue. One of the problems is that no one is conducting polls — not like they did for impeaching Clinton."

A Newsweek poll conducted in October was one of the few that I found that dealt with the issue of impeachment. It showed that, in fact, there wasn't much support for such a move. Some 28 percent of those polled felt it should be a "top priority." Still, 28 percent is not nothing, and maybe it would clear the air to hear it reported on.

PBS has some excellent news and public affairs programs, including the five-nights-a-week NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week, the weekly news magazine NOW, and the highly regarded and the hard-hitting Frontline documentary series. But the documentaries, however good, are naturally always looking back. NOW is more timely and also hard-hitting but just half an hour once a week. The NewsHour is straight down the middle. Washington Week is much the same with its journalist guests.

In the end, PBS probably does a better job than the commercial broadcast networks in presenting a more comprehensive nightly news program, and nothing matches Frontline for top documentaries. But we are at a crucial moment and, as a whole, it seems to me that PBS needs to rise, in some new and timely fashion, to meet the immediate demands of this special time.

Getler was clearly saying that PBS needs to bring its megaphone to talking up impeachment – and Moyers is right to wonder why Getler believes in balance now, when in January he was lamenting "predictable on-the-one-hand / on-the-other hand specialists." This is what happens when liberal PBS hires liberal ombudsmen from the Washington Post to critique liberal programs. Getler was two-faced. Moyers liked his January face, and conservatives liked his July face.

The idea that PBS is needed to "shake up" supposedly sleepy liberal media outlets and come at Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats from a hard-left direction, lamenting their failure to start impeaching Bush, is a far cry from the language of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that insisted on "objectivity and balance in all programming of a controversial nature." It's certainly not fair and balanced compared to PBS's sleepy reaction to impeachment talk of Bill Clinton. Then, apparently, it was not their "special time" to be aggressive.

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