Bill Moyers, celebrated journalist, author, and TV personality, started his career as a public servant during the Kennedy administration; as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, and later as Special Assistant to President Johnson, including two years as White House Press Secretary. Following this, Moyers pursued his life long passion for journalism first as the publisher of Newsday, a Long Island newspaper and then as the host of “This Week” on PBS.
In 1986, Moyers formed Public Affairs Television, Inc., with his wife and work partner, Judith. Their independent production company has created more than 300 hours of programming, including Bill Moyers: In Search of the Constitution (1987), Moyers: God and Politics (1987), Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas (1988), and Moyers: The Power of the Word (1989). Mr. Moyers is also responsible for Bill Moyers Reports, in-depth programs that focus on a variety of subjects, such as addiction, alternative medicine, and poetry. In 2002, he launched NOW with Bill Moyers, a weekly show dealing with current events. Throughout his career, Moyers has interviewed a diverse group of people, from academics such as Harvard professor Tu Wei-ming, to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Moyers has been recognized for his work with more than 30 Emmy Awards. In addition, he is also a best-selling author. Many people know of Bill Moyers through his landmark series The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell and his innovative series on death and dying, On Our Own Terms.
New York, May 2003
Moyers: Well, I welcome you here and I’m glad to meet your teacher Ward. We’ve corresponded, and I could tell this was a teacher who was not content to take the knowledge that was in the books and just regurgitate it to his students. I could see that he had his classes involved in the world beyond Mount Madonna. He used our work more brilliantly than anyone has used it.
At my small organization , we pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t simply produce television. We believe that television without legs has only lungs; it can speak, but it can’t travel. If you take television and turn it into educational tool, if you try to show that beyond the images on the screen, there’s a reality that young people can engage with, then television serves a double purpose. It both informs the viewers who are watching and transports the people who want to follow up on it to a different place and a different mind and a different idea. No one has done that better than your teacher, and I’m so glad to meet you in person.
Mr. Mailliard: I want to introduce one of the first graduates out of my program, PK Diffenbaugh. He went on to Stanford and got his Master’s there. He was selected as a Coro Fellow and now he’s talking about coming back to graduate school here in New York.
PK Diffenbaugh: It’s just such an honor to be able to be here, and when I reflect upon my life, I can see a crossroads even as young as I am, in high school, dealing with adolescence and dealing with the tremendous amount of change that’s going on. And it was your interviews and Ward’s teaching that really helped me find a sense of purpose and the notion that there is a community outside yourself and outside your immediate relations, and that a worthy purpose in life is to pursue your goals, but also to give back to that community.
I doubt if you ever question if your work has made a difference, because it has, but if you ever do, I hope you know what a tremendous impact it has had on all the students that go through Mount Madonna.
Moyers: Well, I appreciate that. The truth is that while I have an intuition, I don’t know for certain that it’s made a difference unless I hear from the people to whom it has signified. I think teachers don’t leave books on the shelves. They don’t leave monuments like architects do. All they have is the indelible mark that they leave on somebody who understood, appropriated and acted on what they heard or read from that teacher. We journalists are like teachers in a sense; we write on the wind and scribble in the sand. And the wind blows and it’s gone, and the sand moves and it disappears. It’s only in the imprint that you leave on somebody else’s life that a teacher knows he or she has signified.
I do not believe in monologues. I do not believe in filibusters. I do not want to dominate. I want to do what you want to do today.
Student: Margaret Wheatley, author of A Simpler Way wrote that “we create ourselves by what we choose to notice.” She goes on to say that “We can never direct a living system; we can only disturb it. We can nudge, titillate or provoke one another into new ways of seeing.” Does this in any way describe what you’re trying to do for our society with your work?
Moyers: I certainly would agree that it’s a consequence of what I do. Essentially I do what I do because it engages me. But I think usually it’s not what you notice, but what notices you. In some indescribable way there are ideas, there are certainly people, there are experiences, there are moments, there are encounters that shine their attention on you. I got my first job in journalism because my teacher in the 10th grade noticed that I had a certain facility, not so much for writing, but for listening, and for seeing details.
In a way she (Margaret Wheatley) is right in this sense. I have a classroom in television, and what I notice I can say to others, “Hey, pay attention, you too may be interested in this. This grabbed me.” Some book inspires me to want to talk to the author, or some incident compels me to want to do a story about it and find out the “why” behind what I have read. Once I do it, I’m able to put it in a forum that has an invisible audience out there that responds to it. I do believe that’s what life is all about, that it’s a constant interlocking of experience and ideas and personalities.
Something close to what Margaret Wheatley said has been something of a mandate of mine. The editor of the first newspaper in America was a man named Benjamin Harris. He published a newspaper in Boston called, Public Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic. And he said that his mandate was “to give an account of such considerable things as have come to my attention.” That’s what I do as a journalist. Considerable things come to my attention, and then I’m able to act on them and transpose them into a form of storytelling, a visual medium. I’m not a writer, I work with pictures, and there’s no greater revelatory picture than a human face. That’s why I do so many interviews, with these production values as we call it in our business, to give an account of these “considerable things,” and then hope that they touch other people who would never go there otherwise.
The root definition of television is ‘vision from afar.’ TV brings something to us that we might not go to ourselves. Then if it provokes us to get up off the couch or up out of the chair and go out into the world, then it has served its purpose. So, yes, I do resonate with what she’s saying, though I’d never thought about it that way.
Student: I was really inspired by your interview with Jacob Needleman. And when he said “meaning can come from the search for meaning,” and “questioning makes one open, makes one humble,” It made me want to engage in more thoughtful questions. And I was thinking that this is a good description of what you do, questioning, and I’m curious to know if the Needleman interview and the other interviews you have done have impacted you in a great way like that.
Moyers: I just did a six-hour series called Becoming American: The Chinese Experience in America. In that series, I interviewed a young woman named Michelle Ling. She’s 30 years old and a Chinese American, a graduate of Berkeley School of Journalism in fact, and she represents to me the quintessential American. When I started out to do this series, I wanted to find out, “What does it mean to be an American?” “What is different about this society, other than the material consumption, which is extraordinary?” When do you know that you’ve become an American if you’re from a Scottish background, as I am, or a Hispanic background or Greek or Vietnamese?
Michelle Ling answered it for me. She’s in the last part of the last documentary and we’re talking about her life and she tells me about how she likes to eat Chinese chicken feet. Not very pretty, not very attractive, but if you like that kind of delicacy, quite scintillating. She describes this to me in rich vernacular. And I asked her, “But what does that have to do with the American dream?” And she says, “It is the American dream–that I can eat chicken feet, but I don’t have to. Nobody is forcing me to and that’s not my only option, so I can eat at McDonald’s if I want to.”
Then she goes on to make the transition to a very powerful point. In America, if we are fortunate, we have the power to invent ourselves, to compose our own life. How do we compose that life? It is by what we’re exposed to and the choices we make of the possibilities that often and usually unintentionally open to us. We make a choice in the same way that a composer takes this note and puts it with that note and hears the sound in his head and moves to the next note, composing a piece of music. So we compose our lives. Your life will be different because you chose to come to New York this week. Who knows how it will be different? Who knows what tiny grain in outer space can deflect a missile or a meteor moving through the universe? So can a life be deflected by a bump that you don’t even feel at the moment. Choices put you in the trajectory of bumps you may never know about until you become a certain way, make a certain choice, emerge as a certain person.
Student: One of the areas of your work I was very interested in was your poetry series. I read your book, Fooling with Words, and you quoted Stanley Kuntiz as saying, “Poetry explores the depth of thought and feeling that civilization requires for survival.” I’m wondering what you think the relevance of poets is in our society today, because it seems they are not as prominent as they used to be. And I was also wondering if your work in the poetry series was an attempt to get people to acknowledge them more.
Moyers: Poets are not appreciated; poetry is. Poets are not appreciated because they don’t make money and our society usually celebrates people who make money. Essentially, our society is about the celebration of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and success. Poets are not about money. Because they are not about money, and because there is no market value placed on their poetry, they are free to speak the truth. They are free to say what they believe because they know there’s not a price tag on it. If they start writing for the market, they’re not writing from the heart. So they speak the truth all of us need to know. In journalism I call it the truth beyond the news.
The poets are trying to get at the truth of the human experience that comes from some very deep source and some keen way of seeing the world. They want you to know it whether or not you can pay for it. So I have a real passion to offer poets’ work to the public. We don’t get large audiences when we do that, but we get a deeply engaged and committed audience, who are appreciative of the chance to hear a poet.
Student: Martha Nussbaum said in an interview with you, “If you go into a situation with some fixed abstract principles and you think of the situation just as a scene for plugging in the principles, you very often are not going to see the new challenge and the characteristics of the person before you that you might have otherwise noticed.” She went on to say, “Aristotle’s directive is to think of yourself as though you were improvising.” He compares this idea to what a good navigator might do. In our preparation for an interview, we struggle a lot to plan and create a clear picture for our questions and at the same time seek improvisation and spontaneity. We were wondering how you navigate through those two things.
Moyers: That’s a very good question. There are always two interviews. There is the interview that the person with whom I’m talking wants to do, and there’s the interview I want to come out of the conversation.
An interview is a dance. It is a dance on which the success depends upon acknowledging your partner, going with your partner, and then bringing your partner back to the rhythm that you hear, which is slightly different from the rhythm in her ear. It’s like in every good dance there is what Martha Nussbaum calls “the principles.” I call it the music. When two parties are dancing to the music or when two parties are having a conversation based upon different principles, you nonetheless, by improvising, come to a place where both of you are happy with the results. I’ve never interviewed anyone who has not been happy with the results, even though they were surprised by what they heard when they watched.
I think the real phenomenon of life is change, is transition, and that everything else is background noise, everything–politics, the economy, education. Everything in our life is background noise to the fundamental reality that from the moment we emerge from the passion of our parents, and out of the womb into the world, and on through the rest of life; dust to dust and ashes to ashes, we’re in constant change. Everything else is background music and we compose our symphony, our music as we go along. That’s why you can have what Martha Nussbaum calls strong abstract ideas, or principles, but you always have to be responding to the world as it is. The challenge of an ethical life, I believe, is to respond to the world from your principles so that you remain true to who you are even though you’re dancing to music that you didn’t compose. To hold to your principles while responding to change, flux, transition, is the measure of an ethical mind.
Student: We were watching your interview with Paul Woodruff, and it sparked a conversation about why today’s youth are disenchanted by or shying away from traditional religion. Derek Wolcott says, “If you are stuck on a moral center, what you want to do is give lectures and to give sermons.” That made me think that the reason that we as youth are turning away from traditional religion is because we feel it is too much of a lecture and we are wanting more of a dialogue around religion. I know that you’ve talked to many thoughtful people about religion and I was just wondering what you think.
Moyers: Do you mind sharing with me your own religious journey, your own religious interest at the moment?
Student: Well, I’m Methodist and I am not sure what I believe in right now and I don’t think I’ve fully found it in the Methodist church. I don’t feel I have been fully able to interpret the message of the Methodist church as well as I’d like.
Moyers: And how old are you?
Moyers: You’re sixteen; I’m fifty-some odd years older than you and I haven’t found it yet, although I came out of a culture quite like the Methodists. In fact there were more Methodists and Baptists in the little town where I grew up than there were people. I started out as you have where the church organizes itself around a set of beliefs, “I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost,”so that religion becomes a series of assertions, a series of beliefs.
There are some people who in the midst of crisis or in the midst of frustration, or despair simply cannot wrestle themselves through to an insight that is comforting, encouraging, inspiriting, and they cling to what they have been told that sounds good. My father was very much that way, particularly after the death of my brother in 1966 at the age of 39. My older brother, my only brother, my only sibling, was really my father’s favorite and he died of cancer, and I don’t think my father would have survived if the church hadn’t given him such phrases as “in my father’s house there are many mansions” or “Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life.” Those were anchors to which my father could fasten his grief in a way that without exploring or without answering, gave him comfort and consolation, so I have a great deal of sympathy for people who cling to propositions, to assertions, to bumper stickers if you will.
But they get arrested there, and because they get arrested there, they never explore the deeper spiritual discoveries that are there for somebody who is open to experience. I said to Joseph Campbell in the series of interviews that I did, “Are you a man of faith?” And he said, “I don’t need faith. I have experience. I have experience in the discovery of a personal sense of the divinity in the universe that cannot be labeled, cannot be sculptured, cannot be marketed. It is an experience that you discover as you open yourself up.”
One of my favorite interviews in on this Friday night on NOW with the religious scholar Elaine Pagels. She’s just out now with a new book, The Gospel of Thomas: Beyond Belief. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 by a Bedouin boy who was out in the desert. He went into a cave and found these jars of ancient documents, going back a thousand years, which we now know were written in and around and just after the time of Jesus. Thomas allegedly was Jesus’ brother They are called “The Secret Sayings of Jesus.” Sayings like this for example, “If you bring out what is in you, what is in you will save you. If you do not bring out what is in you, what you do not bring out will destroy you.” Nobody knows what that means. They are like koans, like dilemmas in life with which you have to wrestle.
Well, Elaine Pagels joined an evangelical church, it may have been a Methodist church, when she was fourteen and a year later, she lost her best friend in a tragic accident. And she went back to that church and she heard people saying, “Well, isn’t it a shame he wasn’t born again, so he’s gone to hell.” She said, “I couldn’t accept that and I left the church.” So she went out into a life of the intellect; she became one of the leading scholars of religion. You saw her in “World of Ideas.”
Elaine Pagels lost a son, her only son, at age 16 months. Then two years later, her husband fell in a climbing accident in the Rockies and was killed. All of her beliefs were again shattered. First her beliefs had been shattered when her friend died, and she was told he’d gone to hell, and then her beliefs were shattered by the losing of her only son and the losing of her husband. And she said, “No proposition, no assertion of belief, would give me the consolation I needed. I had to find it in the Gospel of Thomas” which was not put in the official gospel because an Archbishop read it and said, “If you go this way, you don’t need the church,” and so he had it burned. But somebody didn’t burn it; the monks in Egypt hid it. Elaine Pagels gives the best articulation of the difference between ‘belief,’ which is, “I believe in this” and faith, which is in fact casting yourself into the experience and letting it shape you. Only by doing that, only by letting go, can you really learn to swim, and only by moving beyond the assertions you’ve been taught, to the experience of learning from your own experience can you really find that. So I think your generation is on a very good search.
Student: I’m curious. You’ve interviewed so many people of different cultural beliefs and religions. How have those interviews personally affected your faith?
Moyers: They have drawn me further into the adventure, the learning experience, the openness, the questing, the willingness to compose out of all that I’ve heard, what is seems to me to be a readable document for my life. Some people dismiss this as ‘cafeteria religion,’ you know going through the cafeteria line and taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I don’t believe that at all. I think that is in fact what we have to do, back to the earlier question of inventing our lives, composing our lives, dealing with principle while also greeting the experience that comes to us unexpected. Most of life comes to us unexpected, and so it’s kept me on a constant vigil for what seems to me pertinent to my experience, that seems to fit where I am at that particular moment.
When I was at the University of Texas, I had a wonderful anthropology professor, Gilbert McAllister, who spent his formative years working among the Apaches in West Texas. And one of the important things I remember learning from Professor McAllister was that the Apaches had one word for grandfather and for grandson. There was just one word. And the word means “interlocking” or “reciprocity.” The idea the Apaches were trying to suggest was that the generations have an obligation to each other; that a grandfather has to reach back and link to the grandson and they form a kind of DNA chain, a continuity of life and experience. In time the grandson, by looking out for the elders of the society, will reciprocate. So it was a lesson of reciprocity and I think that is what life is about. My generation has a reciprocal obligation to yours, to share with you what we have learned, what has come to our attention, and then you have obligation to our generation to carry on the civil threads of continuity to the next generation.
Student: When we went to Washington, DC last year to interview different people in the government, we asked them all a similar question which was, “How can we make America more of a learning culture than a teaching culture?”
Moyers: In a culture, a society, that is so filled with propaganda, in which everybody has a spin on things, it’s very hard to develop the capacity for learning, which is the capacity for listening, the capacity for growing in response to what you listen to, the rejecting of what you think isn’t valid for your life and accepting what is, and weaving it into the fabric of your own destiny. I don’t have an answer to that question of how we move from a teaching culture where everybody has something to tell somebody else, to move from a propaganda culture to where we have developed this capacity to learning. Obviously, without flattering you, I think that’s what you all are doing. You’re trying to create a learning culture in your life, where you receive, assess and weigh and organize what you hear. How we do that on a mass scale? How we do that in larger schools, or publicly funded schools where the kids have to bring all the unfinished business of home and street to the classroom? I don’t know. And how we do that in a society where money has become the chief measure of politics? I don’t know. This is one our generation hasn’t figured out, and perhaps yours will.
America is a society that thinks it has answers, and if you have answers, you want to give them to you class, your congregation, your readers or your audience. Learning really requires asking questions and we’re not very patient in America with questions, because we think we already know the answer. This is my problem with both left-wing ideology and right-wing ideology. They think that they have the answers, and so why do they need to have a learning culture, when we can just give you the answers, and you appropriate them and go and do likewise. It is frustrating.
In my own journey, people always say, “Moyers is a political liberal,” and people mean different things by that, for example that I believe in government progress. That’s not it at all, although I do believe in certain government progress. But for me, a liberal never accepts anything he hears from any authority uncritically. That means the church, that means the party, that means the government and that means the university. Any authority has its own ingrained goal and set of values, and it wants you to see the world through those goals and through that frame of values. Now they may be worthy and they may not be, but what makes us a truly thinking person is to understand that there’s a value in what you hear, but to never accept uncritically anything you hear from any authority. Because authority by its very name presupposes an investment of credibility that needs to be challenged before you accept it. And I think that ultimately creates a learner. A learner is someone who is willing to resist the temptation to accept uncritically what authority tells you. Now you can’t reject it altogether, because then you have a society of anarchy, but you need to really examine the propositions that are presented to you from the people who are trying to teach you.
PK Diffenbough: I’d like to ask you a question about your interviews with Joseph Campbell. Each time I watch them, it seems that I learn something new, but perhaps more importantly I realize that there’s so much more that I don’t know. It moves me to search. He talked about the need for America to create a “modern myth.” You pressed him about how could we do this, and it seemed that he said “It’s too hard in our fast paced society; we’re moving too fast to create new myths.” It seems that September 11th, at least for a brief moment, America stopped to reflect. I’m wondering what opportunities you feel September 11th has given us to recreate ourselves? Which leaders do you see taking advantage of those opportunities?
Moyers: When Joseph Campbell talked about myth, he meant, “What is the truth that people live by?” We need to arrive at a new truth for America, a new narrative, a new story about America. The old story doesn’t work any more. It was a story that was never resolved. Here was a nation born in liberty and yet cradling slavery in its birthplace. We never reconciled those irreconcilable differences between the Declaration of Independence and the reality of slavery. The proclamation of our abstract ideas or our basic truths with the reality of how we, both north and south, were exploiting the labor of others. We covered it up. The Civil War was a great renting of that mythology, and yet after the Civil War, in practical ways, we didn’t learn the lesson; we were not a learning culture, to go back to the earlier question.
9/11 gave us the chance once again to learn that we’re not invincible, that we’re not isolated, that we are in the world, in dangerous ways, and how do we connect to the world in a way that enables us to write a new narrative of America as part of the world, not apart from the world. And I see sketches of that, I see drafts of that being done in one book or another book. Others are doing the same thing. But, no one as yet has struck a note, which offers a common resonance to people. Bush has gone to “It’s us versus the world.” and “We must act militarily in order to defend ourselves,” and that has put the rest of the world on the defensive. We haven’t found the new story.
PK Diffenbough: How did you experience 9/11 personally?
Moyers: I did the only thing I know how to do and that’s work. My wife runs our production company as my co-executive editor, we live about a mile north of here, 75th and Central Park West, and I was dressing at 8:44 and she came in and said, “There’s been a plane that hit the World Trade Center. I thought immediately that some Piper Cub had wandered off course, or some neurotic individual had lost control of himself and flown into it. And we got into a cab 10 minutes later and in the cab heard about the second, and both of us knew instantly, as everybody else did, that this was a plan, a plot, an attack of some kind.
And we came down to the office. Our tower, the station’s tower, was atop the World Trade Center so we didn’t have our signal except a small back-up generator in New Jersey. And it took a while to get those generators out there up to full speed, so we were off the air for 24 hours except for a small signal to a certain number of places in the city on cable. So later in the afternoon PBS called and said, “We want to go on the air tomorrow with a nightly broadcast, beyond News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Would you just take 8:00 in the evening and talk to anybody you want to talk to about this? Anybody.”
So we started the next night; we were up then, we had a signal we could beam to PBS and they could deliver it to the country. I reached out first of all to my pastor. I go to the Riverside Cathedral up on the West Side. It’s a great church founded by the Rockefellers, a great progressive church. It is now pastored by one of the great ecumenists of our time, an African-American minister named James Forbes, one of the most powerful minds and divines in the country. I had him come for the first 15 minutes.
I asked James, “What are going to preach about on Sunday?” And he said, “I’m going to try to answer the question I think my congregation will be asking.” And I asked, “What is that question you think they’ll be asking?” He said, “Oh, I think they’ll come saying ‘Why should we be here?'” And he did. I went to that service and in fact it was so powerful that I called PBS and said we should do an ecumenical service based in this church, and we did a PBS broadcast. It was quite a moving experience. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, all kinds of people were there with music of different religions. It was a very powerful service.
Then I had Bill T. Jones, the African-American choreographer. I did a documentary about him a few years ago called “Still/Here” because Bill Jones is HIV positive and he’s been giving himself to seminars around the country in which dying people come to learn to dance their grief, to dance as a form of healing even in the face of dying. And I said to Bill T. Jones, “What did you do Tuesday night?” And he said, “I danced. I was alone in my apartment.” He said, “I stood up and I danced.” Then he stood and started moving; he’s a graceful man, a man of immense expression, and then he stopped and he said, “I would urge anybody at home who is feeling paralyzed and lonely and in agony to dance.” My own 37-year-old son told me later, “Dad, I was watching that.”
My own 37-year-old son alone in his apartment in his townhouse on A Street got up and danced! Movement is very often an amelioration of trauma and so what I did was to work. That’s my dance; that’s my response; that’s my political act. And I’ve long been fortunate to be able to ground my needs in my work, so I worked at that time. That was my personal response.
Student: What brought about the transition from your work inside the White House to doing interviews like the ones you did with Joseph Campbell, and what is it about Joseph Campbell that inspired you to delve so deeply into his work and ideas?
Moyers: Well, I’ve had a checkered life. For all the improvisation, and contingency of it, there has been a common theme. I knew when I was 15 that I wanted to be a journalist, and I went to work on June 5, 1952 on the local newspaper in my hometown. And a series of unexpected events led me on a circuitous route, that wound up with my working for the Kennedy-Johnson administration in the campaign of 1960 and in the Peace Corps for three years. Then I was in Texas at the time of the (Kennedy) assassination, came back on the new President Johnson’s plane and was for four years one of his closest associates.
But I never lost that unspeakable interest in journalism. I was White House Press Secretary for a period of 17 months and I kept thinking as I was conducting briefings at the White House, being asked questions, that I should be on the other side of the desk, asking the questions, not answering them. It goes back again to the question about teaching or learning.
Then an opportunity came up quite unexpectedly to become publisher of a newspaper in New York. How it happened, and again this is “who notices you” not “what you notice.” The owner of this newspaper, watching my briefings, took a liking to me. He was an older man, 80 years old he needed help, and for some reason thought that he and I would connect. I actually was looking forward to leaving the White House and getting back into journalism, so I came to new York to publish the paper. I published the paper for 3 years, and then it was sold. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Again, being noticed, an old friend of mine I hadn’t seen him in years was editing Harper’s Magazine. He called me up and said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know; I’m out of work.” And he said, “Why don’t you go on the road? Spend three months traveling the country, and I’ll give you the cover of the magazine, and we’ll call it Listening to America. And we did. If you look at Harper’s Magazine, November 1970, you’ll see the back of a bus, with Moyers as the license plate and the title of the piece called “Listening to America.” They turned that into a book, it became a best seller.
After that somebody at the old educational television station at 304 W. 56th in New York, called Channel 13 at that time, noticed me, noticed that article. They were starting a weekly broadcast called “This Week” and they needed a reporting host, so they reached out and asked me to do it. I hadn’t done television except the briefings at the White House but I said, “Yes,” on the spur of the moment. It was a weekly half-hour broadcast with produced reports and in the second season. I wasn’t very good in the first season; I was stiff, formal, still had on horn-rimmed glasses. I was still “Mr. Official” as I had been at the White House. And I said, “This is not for me; I’m not going to make it in television, but by God I’m not going to quit after a failed season.” So I said I’ll come back for one more year. I changed the name of the program to “Bill Moyers Journal.”
We ran out of money and I brought in a new executive producer, who had been the manager of the NBC Symphony when it was at its height. He was given to artistic issues. So he was sitting in front of my desk and we were trying to think how do we do inexpensive shows and finish this season on budget. He said, “You know, I’ve noticed that you listen to people well. I don’t know why that is, I could discuss that a little later, but you know, I’m looking over your shoulder, and I’m seeing a book by Barbara Tuchman.” Barbara Tuchman was one of the great historians of my time, and he said, “She lives over on Park Avenue. Why don’t we go interview her?” So I called her up and she said, “Sure.” And we took two clumsy old cameras, because we shot on film then, not on tape, we shot on film, and had to run the big wires the size of your body up the building and we did that interview and we put it on the air, and it clicked. It worked, got a great response. I liked doing it and I just kept doing it.
Joseph Campbell was not a particularly compelling figure for me. I had heard of him, read his book, “The Hero’s Journey” at the University of Texas. He taught 38 years at Sarah Lawrence, and he held his classes mesmerized by his teaching. He was a charismatic teacher; he believed in the sharing experience, and that’s what came through in the series. That’s a long-winded answer to your question is to say that there wasn’t any guided missile that lead me to Joseph Campbell. It was a life’s process, of being both open, unlucky–losing a job, losing a newspaper, and lucky–somebody noticing me.
Campbell was a great teacher and he taught me several things. One of which is that when you leap very often the universe responds with invisible hands that catch you and transfer you, transform your life, turn you in a different direction. That happened to me at a series of points. It wasn’t any great epiphany. There was no moment of revelation, no “aha,” no “Eureka!” but there was just a series of changes that were the result of my moving in this direction and somebody else moving me slightly in another direction.
And by the way, I don’t just do interviews; I’ve done actually as many documentaries and produced pieces as I have interviews. Somehow it’s the interviews that seem to engage people in a more enduring way. I believe that the best production value in television is a human face–the eyes, the eyebrows, the voice–and people love to listen to other people who have something to say. Now, they also love to listen to people who don’t have anything to say, or we wouldn’t have celebrity journalism with all these interviews with celebrities who never say anything, but one of the reasons I’ve done what I’ve done is that people who have nothing to say get the most airtime in America, whether it’s politicians or celebrities. The people who really have things to say, like Tu Wei-ming and Joseph Campbell and Barbara Tuchman and Martha Nussbaum, rarely get television time. Yet they can take you into a kingdom of thought that is so unexplored as to rivet you when you’re exposed to it, and that’s why I’ve kept doing it, even as I’ve kept doing documentaries.
Student: How does your experience in the White House during the Vietnam War affect your views on government, how it works or doesn’t work, and how does it affect your views on military action as a useful government tool?
Moyers: I learned less about government than I did about our society. It drove me back to a kind of journalism that I’ve been trying to practice. You know, I said earlier “news is what someone wants to keep hidden and all the rest is advertising.” I grew up in the South. The South I grew up in was still a deeply racist, segregated society, where people were in denial about race and slavery. Of course in the 1820’s and 1830’s and 1840’s and 50’s, anybody who tried to speak the truth about slavery was driven from the classroom, driven from the news room, driven from the pulpit. Southerners entered a kind of mass denial about slavery.
Politics failed because you can’t have effective democratic politics when people are in denial and we had to go to war to settle the issue of slavery. Then it took another hundred years because we really worked out the consequences of that war. In the Vietnam War, we drew our wagons together in a circle, we stopped listening to others, as we had done in the South, and both ended in tragedy. The denial of truth in the 1850’s to the Civil War, and the denial of reality in Southeast Asia to the Vietnam War. So that more than anything else, my White House experience has informed my journalism. I think it’s made me a better journalist than I would have been otherwise. It’s made me, as I said earlier, more critical of authority, not to take things that you’re told on face value, so it’s had that very powerful effect on my journalism.
Student: We were watching your series on addiction, and you interviewed a family in which the parents were addicted to drugs, and when I was watching that, I felt really angry at the parents and upset that they put their children in that kind of situation. And I was wondering if you have strong emotional reactions to the subjects that you cover, and how do you balance your own feelings with the responsibility to present that information impartially?
Moyers: That, too, is a good question and it’s not easy to answer. I do sometimes have very strong reactions and yet I am there not to react but to report. I am always responding emotionally, but I’m always trying not to pretend to be impartial. There are professional skills I bring to my work, and one of them is never to be surprised. Or if you are surprised, never to show that you’re surprised or you’ll lose the story. So yes, I get angry, and I used to get angry at people who are addicted, at alcoholics, until my own son turned out to be one.
That series was done because I had a 30-year-old son, a brilliant journalist in his own right, married, upstanding citizen, promising young man, and at 30 he disappeared. My wife found him in a crack house in Harlem, got him out, then he relapsed a second time and we almost lost him, and then the third time he relapsed, I had to spend 5 days searching for him, and finally found him in a crack house in Atlanta, and with policemen with their guns drawn, we went in and got him out. This time, treatment worked. That was 12 years ago. He’s vice-president of Hazelton, the rehabilitation center where he got his treatment. What I learned in that experience is that addiction is a disease. You don’t get angry at somebody if they have cancer or malaria or HIV. You don’t get angry at them because they’ve got a disease.
That’s why I began that series with the first hour called “The Hijacked Brain,” because chemicals change your brain. And they change your brain so that if you have a tendency to addiction, if your genes and chromosomes react to want more, then sooner than later, the chemical changes in your brain affect your behavior and you’re no longer responsible for it. You don’t get angry at the person, you get angry at the disease. That’s what I learned from my 10 year experience with my son, and that’s what we tried patiently to explain in that first hour, through the use of neuroscientists and science. We try to explain how the brain is hijacked by chemicals, whether alcohol or whatever. Why is it, I can have two drinks and stop; I never want more than 2 drinks. My son can’t have one and stop. So, his responsibility in the face of his disease is never to have that drink; that’s the meaning of sobriety and recovery. He says he just says no, and he does, because he knows that if he has just one beer even, he’s gone again, and for 12 years he’s been able to exercise that responsibility. So I do have to try to understand who they are and why they are in order not to get angry with them.
Student: Michael Josephson said in his interview with you, “The most moving moment was having a child. When I compare how I was approaching teaching ethics to the law students with how I wanted to teach my son ethics and what I wanted him to be, I saw an enormous inconsistency.” We know that your son affected your work quite a bit, but in what other ways has it affected your approach and also the choice of subject matter that you’ve shown to the public?
Moyers: Well, having a family has saved me from a toxic absorption with myself. It is very hard to put yourself first when you have four other people whose needs are equal to yours. The tendency to egoism is very powerful in our society, and it’s never more pronounced than it is when you’re on a public stage as I am. Having a family has provided me the empathy to see that other people’s needs are often quite more important than mine. So it’s kept a balance in my life. And I think it has affected many of the subjects that I’ve dealt with, such as addiction, and we did a wonderful documentary on a family’s first effort to establish adoption for a foster children’s program. I’ve done a number of things because of my experience as a father and a husband and a parent. Even my grandchildren save me from self-absorption, just because they are so indifferent to my public notoriety. And because they don’t even watch my television shows. One night, a long time ago, 25 years ago, the show was airing on Thursday night, you know I do the show and then go out and film for the next week’s show. I was traveling and was in the train station and I looked around and thought, “Look at all the people who are not watching my show.” That’s a constantly humbling reality.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom I’m sure you all have studied, said that “All of life is transference; it’s not creativity. Nothing is original, it is transference and we humans live out our destiny that way. We dive and reappear.” And I think that is true. I think ultimately it is all about a moral transaction. America is essentially a material transaction. You take $10 and you want to buy something; you want to get something of value. I think on the level of the moral exchange, that is also true, that when people sit and watch my program for an hour, they are giving me something the will never get back which is an hour of their lives. It is irreplaceable. It has been spent, and I owe them something of moral value in exchange.
I feel the same way about a gathering like this; you’ve given me two hours of your life, and you will never get those two hours back; they are gone. You spent them this way, and if there’s no investment, you’ve wasted them. And only time will tell, but I feel deeply as I know any teacher does, and I know as you do, that it is a moral exchange. If you spend two hours with somebody, you both have to take something away from it.
I assure you I take a lot of value away from this, the reassurance to an old man that, when he leaves the field, he’s not leaving it empty. That there are a lot of others he’ll never know, lives he’ll never see unfold, names he will never remember who are out there carrying on what I call the great transaction of democracy, and I wish all of you well.