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So Long, Bill Moyers: Television Will Be Poorer Without You
April 29, 2010  | By David Bianculli

[UPDATE: Today's Fresh Air with Terry Gross will include Terry's past interviews with Bill Moyers -- as well as my new review of the Tom Lehrer CD/DVD collection.]

Friday night at 9 ET on PBS (check local listings), the host of Bill Moyers' Journal presents an expanded 90-minute edition of his superb program, then says goodbye -- putting a self-imposed end to a stellar TV career that began 40 years ago. It's safe to say, given Moyers' reliable excellence and the qualitative demise of most network news and public affairs shows, we're unlikely to see his equal again...

In television, Moyers is ending as he began, thoughtfully dissecting important issues and interviewing inspirational people on Bill Moyers' Journal for PBS. The first time he presented and hosted his Journal, both he and PBS were young: It was 1971. Midway through that decade, Moyers also served at CBS, where he rose to senior news analyst and commentator for CBS -- the last person at that network to hold that post.

I still remember Moyers, commenting on Ronald Reagan's rise at the Republican National Convention of 1980, noting that we were witnessing a giant sea change in our national political mood. He was dead on -- but there was a sea change occurring in network news at about the same time. For the first time, news programs were seen as profit centers, at the same time there was a shift to giving viewers what they wanted, instead of what they might have needed.

Moyers clocked some time at NBC, then, with wife Judith Davidson Moyers, devoted his full energies to the creation of Public Affairs Television, which allowed him to follow his instincts and his passions, with audiences gladly following along.


One of his first efforts for his new production company stands, to this day, as one of the finest TV interview series ever presented: the six-part Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, which took a brilliant teacher's lifetime of study and, in the end, boiled it down to its unforgettable three-word essence: "Follow your bliss."

Arguably, Moyers has done that ever since, interviewing poets, leaders, philosophers, activists, workers -- anyone he finds of interest. And if he found them of interest, we did, too.

"I know television's potential," Moyers told me once, explaining that he knew it because of the thousands of letters he got, from ordinary people, after broadcasting challenging series on religion, politics and other topics. "One of the great myths of our time," he said, "is that public broadcasting only reaches the elite."


Moyers explained, on last week's show, that he wasn't being forced out of his job -- but simply that, as he's about to turn 76, he has other activities he wants to pursue, which the demands of a weekly TV series make impossible. So, of course, he's earned the time off, having served the viewing public admirably for, count 'em, five decades. And that's after his previous careers, as, among other things, publisher of Newsday and press representative for President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

So go off and enjoy yourself, Mr. Moyers. Television is poorer without you, but is richer because of you.

My only regret is that -- and I guess I can tell this backstage story now -- Tom Smothers and I were booked to appear on an installment of Bill Moyers' Journal at the start of the year, when my book was first released, to talk about CBS and censorship and LBJ and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.


It would have been a very proud moment for me, and a nice bit of full-circle harmony, after having covered, interviewed and praised Moyers for more than 30 years. But then some guy tried to set off an explosive in his underwear on that plane on Christmas Day, and Moyers and company chose to pursue the breaking news story of airline safety and terrorism instead.

The passengers thwarted that particular attempt, and no one was harmed. But from my very selfish and limited perspective, the terrorists won.

Oh, well. Even to have been considered interesting by Bill Moyers, I guess, is honor enough.

So thanks, Bill. Enjoy your final show. I know I will.

Then enjoy life after television. Someone has to...




Eileen said:

I'm very happy for Bill Moyers, but very sad for us, his viewing public.

Few have educated so many in a thoughtful, easy going manner. He's one of those rare commodities on tv that I thought would always be there for us to savor.

God Speed, Mr. Moyers. Enjoy your well-earned time off. You will be missed more than you can possibly comprehend.

And, David, if you tell me Charles Osgood is next, I'm going into a corner & cry...

Comment posted on April 29, 2010 1:46 PM

Omer Tomlinson said:

I am grateful to have been introduced to people like Simon Johnson or Kathleen Hall Jamieson on Moyers' program, for their insights into finance and media, respectively, making difficult subjects much simpler to understand. I wish Fox News would interview some of these guests on their programs to give truth to "Fair and Balanced" and truly inform the American Public.

I wasn't always interested in all of Moyers' guests, but I never missed a show. I even saved his in-depth discussion with David Simon on the travails of the inner city to review many months later. I will miss this thoughtful look into the other side of what most of the media now focus on. Main Stream Media is definitely not Liberal, if this is one of the few places I could find this programming. Thanks for the intellectual stimulation, Bill Moyers.

Comment posted on April 30, 2010 9:07 AM

Robert said:

there was a shift from giving viewers what they wanted instead of what they might have needed.

Do you mean "there was a shift TO giving viewers what they wanted..."

[Yes, that's what I meant. Good catch. I'll correct it now. Thanks. -- David B.]

Comment posted on April 30, 2010 11:36 AM

Davey said:

"Poorer without you" is a massive understatement. Bill Moyers hosted an oasis that reminded us of what "news" is supposed to be like. Moyers has a nose for finding people who actually know and care about what they're talking about, people who spend more time thinking than yapping. He's interested in why things happen -- the underlying perceptions and beliefs that lead us into the actions we take and the policies we create. He is "liberal" only by his willingness to look deeply at any credible idea.

I wish him the great fulfillment he deserves in his new life, but it breaks my heart to see him leave us. He set a standard, a reference point, by which to judge the other TV "news" attempts, and they all come up miserably lacking. If the US designated National Treasures, Moyers would be the shoo-in obvious choice. So long, Mr Moyers, and thanks for all the hope.

Comment posted on April 30, 2010 12:13 PM

monte montgomery said:

Goodbye, Bill Moyers.

Glad to see you go. I am sick and tired of PBS and NPR taking taxpayer money to promote a big goverment Liberal agenda. I hope Diane Rehm is soon to follow.

[Hmm. As someone who draws a paycheck, however meager, from NPR, I politely disagree with your thesis. I'll also point out that taxpayer money supports an absurdly small percentage of the operating budgets for public TV and radio. Pledge drives -- volunteer donations -- count for most of it.

But liberal or conservative, you're welcome here, so long as you care about quality TV. And you're civil. -- David B.]

Comment posted on May 1, 2010 7:45 AM

monte montgomery said:

Is this a Liberal only BLOG ???

Yes I am a living humanoid organism.

[Not at all -- But celebrating Moyers and his work, in my view, is an acknowledgment of excellence, not politics. Watch his Joseph Campbell interview, then get back to me. -- David B.]

Comment posted on May 1, 2010 11:57 PM

Monte montgomery said:

We are talking about Bill Moyers of LBJ's great society, right? Give me a break. I watched B.M.'s show many times. A Ron Paul he is not. He is on the left as Rush Limbaugh is on the right.

[Perhaps. But he is right much more often... -- David B.]

Comment posted on May 3, 2010 1:50 PM
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