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'Mr. Rogers' of news gets edgy

Bill Moyers combines fireside chat style with penchant for in-depth news.

By Janet SaidiSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2003



At a time when TV news programs feature war in real time and talk shows morph into shouting matches, there is one program going against the grain - with lengthy interviews, philosophical insights, and tireless coverage of domestic issues.

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"Now With Bill Moyers," which airs Friday nights, debuted in January last year in answer to what PBS felt was a need for responsive, post-9/11 news programming.

Mr. Moyers, who aired a series of special reports after the Sept. 11 attacks, delayed a planned retirement in order to host the weekly newsmagazine.

Viewers familiar with Moyers's special reports and documentaries, such as the well-known "Power of Myth" series with Joseph Campbell, or the recent "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," probably aren't surprised to find Moyers's philosophically framed questions and fireside-chat style on "Now."

What may set "Now" apart from previous Moyers programming is a tone of urgency that offers not only hard-driven, alternative news, but decidedly cutting-edge content.

"We're trying to get the truth behind the news," says Moyers, who also credits his production staff, who are half his age, for the edgy tone. "An official person speaks, and we as journalists often act as stenographers for it ... when all too often what's actually happening behind; the words is the real story. Someone once said that news is what's hidden, everything else is advertising."

That may sound a little, well, radical for a man in a Mr. Rogers sweater. In fact, while Moyers still comes across as empathetic and engaged in interviews, his on-air style is more probing and direct: "I've become impatient with the superfluous," Moyers admits.

'Spinach' TV

The "Now" method of letting people finish their thought doesn't always thrive in a sound-bite landscape. The future of the respected in-depth program "Nightline" was called into question last year. At the time, "Nightline" was drawing more than 4 million viewers - almost double the 2.3 million who tune in each week for "Now."

Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, compares the investigative format of "Now" to "eating your spinach," admitting that he has not watched the program enough to form an opinion.

Speaking generally, "seriousness and sobriety don't make for good television," Mr. Lichter explains. "The most popular talkers are loud and more sure of themselves.... There needs to be a place for serious discussion of real issues on television, and PBS is about the only place to have it - except for Fox, of course," he quips.

Nor does this seem to be the best time to be a news commentator with views to the left of Bill O'Reilly. Liberal analysis programs hosted by Phil Donahue and Jeff Greenfield were canceled in the past year - leaving Moyers one of the few liberal commentators on TV.

The more popular debate formula used by news-talk programs involves what Lichter refers to as "rock 'em sock 'em" - pitting people who don't agree against one another. Think "The O'Reilly Factor" and "The McLaughlin Group" - or HBO's "Real Time" with Bill Maher.

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