'Mr. Rogers' of news gets edgy

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

The "he said, she said" debate styles that are the order of the day are ineffective, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, who has been a guest on "Now."

"Moyers presents a framework through which you see something from an ideologically coherent perspective," says Ms. Jamieson, coauthor of "The Press Effect," "and if you don't like what you're seeing, there are places you can go to listen to the other side.... What makes 'Now' important is that it provides a regular menu of the unexpected, presented in a complex fashion by a good interviewer."

As for Lichter's "spinach," Jamieson adds, "There are people who like spinach - and you can develop a taste for it."

An average interview on "Now" runs a lengthy 16 minutes, and some have been stretched to 20. "Now" executive producer John Siceloff admits that the program makes larger demands of its viewers, but believes it's a matter of adjusting to the high level of discussion: "We've grown an audience that delights in that complexity and that insight because they don't get it anywhere else."

Funded by taxpayers

Not everyone watching "Now" is delighting in its complexity. The conservative Media Research Center awarded Moyers with the quote of the year at their annual "dishonor" awards in March, for a November statement criticizing the Bush administration: "... If you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture."

Conservatives' main objection is that Moyers delivers liberal commentary on PBS - publicly funded television. "Even if he's marshaling facts," says Media Research's Tim Graham, "he's marshaling facts at the service of his agenda ... and he's got this enormous tax-payer-funded megaphone."

"Now" - which has had a number of conservative guests - sees its programming not as liberal but as alternative. "We don't say, 'How can we beat up on Bush this week?' " says Mr. Siceloff. "We think it is indeed the duty of good journalists to say, 'OK, let's understand this issue in a deep way.'... Sometimes that will be in praise of what's going on and sometimes in criticism - we do think that just because Bush said it, doesn't make it right."

In addition to stints at Newsday and the CBS evening news, Moyers's early career included working for Lyndon Johnson from 1963-1967, with two years as White House press secretary. Moyers says that what he learned in those early years has helped to shape his interests as a journalist. Of his time in the White House during the Vietnam War, Moyers remembers: "Our credibility was so bad that we couldn't believe our own leaks, and I decided right then that I should've been on the other side."

Moyers feels the pressure of challenging the official line in a politically charged post-9/11 atmosphere. "It's a time when exercising your normal civil liberties brings an abnormal and excessive response to them," Moyers says.

In this atmosphere, he's felt a degree of personal attack, which - though he is considering retiring after 2003 - only seems to add fuel to his fire.

"Unless you're prepared to take hit after unfair hit accusing you of bias and even of having an opinion," he explains, "you have to love it. And I do."

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