Bill Moyers and Tavis Smiley on Public TV’s Elite Bias

Bill Moyers on the Tavis Smiley Show (5/13/11), talking about the elite bias in the media:

Television, including public television, rarely gives a venue to people who have refused to buy into the ruling ideology of Washington. The ruling ideology of Washington is we have two parties, they do their job, they do their job pretty well. The differences between them limit the terms of the debate. But we know that real change comes from outside the consensus. Real change comes from people making history, challenging history, dissenting, protesting, agitating, organizing.

Those voices that challenge the ruling ideology–two parties, the best of all worlds, do a pretty good job–those voices get constantly pushed back to the areas of the stage you canâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢t see or hear. You got voices like those on your show. You got them on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! and a few other places like that, but not as a steady presence in the public discourse.

Later in the program came this exchange about the mission of public broadcasting:

Smiley: I say this–and this might be politically incorrect to say on PBS–but we are not living up to that charter. We’re not living up to it on public television; we’re not living up to it on public radio when it comes to a diversity and inclusion of other voices. We’re not living up to that. So I wonder whether or not, in some ways, we deserve being pricked a little bit, pushed a little bit, if we’re not living up to the charter, but you tell me.

Moyers: I don’t think weâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢re living up to that charter that Lyndon Johnson proclaimed. No, I don’t. The conservatives have won to this extent. Too many people in public television and public radio are looking over their shoulders, fearing that the right is after them. We don’t really have a left in this country. There’s no organized left that comes after journalists the way that the right comes after journalists who offer a different alternative.

This is an old story, Tavis. Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan, his communications director, tried to do it in public broadcasting back in the early ’70s when they accused us of being liberal when, in fact, we were just offering an alternative view of reality, something they donâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢t want.

Then Bob Dole when he was Senate minority leader came after public broadcasting. Newt Gingrich came after public broadcasting and, of course, under the George W. Bush administration, you had a Republican Corporation for Public Broadcasting more responsive to Karl Rove than they were to the stations out here.

So that constant harassment creates a kind of caution and self-censorship on the part of people who just don’t want to–you know, we donâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢t get but about 17 percent of the total budget from the Congress, but that’s enough to leave a big hole in what the local stations do if we don’t have it.

But it creates almost a Pavlovian response, and I think there is an unintended, but inevitable, censorship that takes place on the part of people who are running the programs, booking the programs, lining up guests, to make sure that we don’t give the right wing another opportunity to come in and accuse us of being liberal.

Read FAIR’s recent study of public television, or FAIR’s response to the news about Jim Lehrer’s semi-retirement.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.