The Conversation of Democracy

Written on Wednesday March 7, 2012

On the Record Blog

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He learned the lessons of a hardscrabble life in Hugo, Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Born into a working class family, he was raised by his mother and grandparents following his father's early death. He worked his way through college and divinity school, becoming an ordained Baptist minister. He served the poor through the Peace Corps. He went on to become editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, an advisor to the President of the United States and one of the most influential and decorated broadcast journalists in U.S. history. Known as an American who tells the truth, he is a champion for the common man, human dignity, fairness and American democracy. He has been married to the same woman, his professional partner, for 55 years.

In a paragraph, that is Bill Moyers. But, it hardly tells the story of this Oklahoma-born journalism icon. When I met Bill on October 26, 2011, we had less than an hour to get acquainted and tape On the Record, but within five minutes I felt an easy rapport with him. Starting with, "call me Bill," he did what the best communicators do – he asked questions, listened to the answers and showed empathy.

He asked me about my family and job and the show. He showed a sincere interest. Asking questions sometimes puts people off, but it gave us a few minutes to get a feel for each other, which is important in interviewing. It identifies how we form thoughts, how we talk and how we respond to questions. I had a chance to ask Bill about his early years in Hugo and how his parents and grandparents had influenced him even after his family moved across the Red River to Marshall, Texas. Through our "green room" conversation we established a comfortable familiarity. Clearly, Bill is a critical thinker, a communicator, and a person who likes people.

For those wondering, I found Bill to be approachable, very likeable, obviously caring, and a willing "giver." By "giver" I mean that he's the kind of person who is willing to give his time and talent to help others succeed. A "giver" provides strong, thoughtful answers in interviews, and makes others look good. In this case, I was the "other" whose program would depend on Bill's full-throated participation, responsive answers and thoughtful insight. He did not disappoint.

IMG_6883SMALLWe talked about his new public television program, Moyers & Company, scheduled to debut in January, 2012. He told me it would be similar to the long-running Bill Moyers Journal, but with a greater emphasis on in-studio interviews due to a smaller budget. We talked about why he keeps returning to public television. Answer: He was in the Johnson administration when public television was created, and he's always been a believer in the kind of experiences and service that public broadcasting provides.

Moyers prefers "news of the mind" that employs evidence, not ideology, and he is not afraid to challenge viewers to think. He told me that a different funding approach could help avoid the political pressure that looms constantly over public broadcasting; pressure that leads to "safe" programming.

We discussed what has informed his journalism and how he reacts to personal attacks rendered against him. And, we talked about the state of journalism today, the lack of civility in public discourse and how "big media" influences the news and information we, as citizen-viewers, receive.

Now, I know Moyers has his detractors, people who don't approve of his style and his views. Some see political motives behind what he does and detect a "liberal" agenda; others see him as an indispensible force in our public square - a man who asks questions that are not easily answered, exposes his viewers to different ideas, and uses his intellect and experience to reach informed opinions. He has a large group of loyal fans. And, despite his great accomplishments and high profile, he maintains his common touch. Indeed, I think it is his basic humanity that fuels his optimism and regard for America...and Americans.

IMG_6899SMALLHaving spent some time visiting with him, face to face, I see Bill Moyers as a man with a curious mind, who is not willing to accept conventional wisdom...or the status quo. He does what journalists are supposed to do: he questions, challenges and speaks truth to power. He produces programs that provide information and analysis relevant to all people, not just the majority or the privileged. He understands that professional journalists have an obligation to address issues affecting "under-served" audiences. He particularly relishes analysis of "corporate power" versus "people power."

His approach is not necessarily a formula for popularity. But, Bill knows that journalists are not players in a popularity contest. His speeches and writings clearly show that Bill takes journalism seriously and uses his programs to teach regular people about the policies and issues that affect their lives.

The over-arching goal of journalists is to seek the truth and hold people in power, including government officials, accountable. That may make some uncomfortable, but tension is to be expected in newsgathering and public discourse, and Bill is not afraid to jump into the middle of controversy. Moyers is able to poke and prod and peel back layers of issues and take guests to a personal place in order to achieve greater understanding, which he believes is essential in a robust, functioning democracy.

Moyers is passionate about journalism, the promise of America and our basic, shared humanity. While that can put him at odds with people who disagree with his worldview, his passion is what, in my opinion, drives his journalism. After a distinguished career in government and print journalism, he has produced high-quality television programs for more than 40 years – winning more than 30 Emmy Awards. Yet, he strikes me as a man who has not fallen victim to cynicism, but who thinks we will work better together when we understand each other better. Bill Moyers is committed to facilitating the personal growth that leads to greater understanding – what he calls "the conversation of democracy."

Moyers & Company can be seen Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. on OETA. The program repeats on Sundays at 5:00 a.m. on OETA and Sundays at 6:00 p.m. on OETA OKLA. Check OETA's program listings (http://main.oeta.tv/schedules.html) to find the next showing of Bill Moyers On the Record.