Bill Moyers -- 'conscience of American TV'?

"Why don't you run for office yourself?" I asked Bill Moyers the other day during an interview at his WNET/PBS office in New York. "You're falling into the same trap as millions of other Americans," he said sadly, shaking his head. "Just because a person is glib on TV appearances does not mean that he will make a good political servant."

It would have been laboring the issue for me to point out that Bill Moyers, host of WNET/NY's "Bill Moyers Journal" (PBS, Fridays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) has a long list of qualifications, other than the fact, on his current "Election 80" special journals, he has been doing the bes job on the air of clarifying issues and candidates. Often acclaimed as "the conscience of American TV," in addition to his service on both PBS and CBS, this personable born-again Baptist minister served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretary and publisher of one of the nation's largest newspapers, Newsday, of Long Island.

Mr. Moyers is concerned that so many citizens are planning to use their vote negatively to prevent one or the other candidates from winning. "Who is to say that Reagan would be a worse president than Carter," he asks. "Or vice versa. The fact is that this is an election when the citizen can vote his conscience. If you don't like any of the major candidates, one way to use your vote for a positive statement is to vote for some alternative candidate -- minority parties need 5 percent of the vote on election day to qualify for retroactive federal funds. I think our political system needs other parties to keep the major parties honest, to force the major parties to think about ideas they would normally disavow out of hand, and to bring into the system those people who feel they have no particular stake in the process any more. Strongly, as opposed to weak, minority or alternative parties will be like yeast in the bread of American politics.

"So I step of my journalistic role there, without saying who one should vote for, to say there is a positive way to use your vote this year if you don't like the major candidates. And it is to help the minority candidates become a third force."

But Mr. Moyers is sounding like a politician again. There have been rumors that he has been urged to run for senator, for vice-president, etc. Why isn't he in politics?

"I love politics. It's what I was doing when I was 26 years old, 2 years ago. There isn't any hidden reason why I'm not in it now. I find the Moyers Journal a better forum than most members of the Senate or House have.Also, I have been away so long from my constituency, that I've passed into a national role that has no particular roots.

"The fact that I am perceived as a potential candidate is part of the deception of electronic politics. Being good on TV does not necessarily make one a good politician. My work ends with the performance; theirs only begins.

"I worry about the fact that so many people receive broadcasters like Cronkite and myself as a more legitimate political force than politicians. We don't raise taxes; we don't vote to send men to war."

Are political TV commercials part of the problem?

"Yes -- they force politicians to sell themselves in the same manner that any other commodity in a materialistic commodity society must be packaged for sale. Democracy is not merely consumption. It is a process. It takes time and patience and requires shades of judgment. The useof 30- and 60-second political commercials are confusing the political art."

Mr. moyers agrees that perhaps it might help viewers perceive the article if each political commercial help viewers perceive to list credits -- such as "writer," "director," "producer," "make-up artist," etc.

"That would surely do it," he laughs.

Mr. Moyers indicates that he enjoys what he is doing on PBS. The only thing which could draw him away would be if he could do the same thing on a commercial network like CBS or NBC, where he would be reaching much larger audiences, and where there would not be the constant financial pressure of finding underwriters. He has been offered positions at all three commercial networks -- but none are exactly what he wants -- yet.

Meantime, he will once again be on CBS as election-night commentator. And he will be doing a special election-eve last-chance-to-decide broadcast on PBS.

"Sometime after the election," he says thoughtfully, "I'll have to sit down and face the issue of what I want to do. But it will be television, not politics.

Three-way debate; fourth network

The rookie Cable News Network made it to the major leagues with one imaginative, innovatice move on the night of the Great Presidential Debate Oct. 28.

Presidential candidate John Anderson, snubbed by the League of Women Voters, was invited by Cable News president Reese Schonfeld to participate in an electronic three-way debate and took part from Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., by way of tape delays and live intercutting. It is estimated that more than 5 million people probably saw the CNN coverage, either on the cable channel itself for on several independent and PBS stations which accepted the coverage.In New York, the PBS station, WNET, ran the CNN coverage at midnight. (But, why didn't Public Broadcasting Service itself originate coverage?)

CNN also commissioned QUBE, the Columbis, Ohio, experimental two-way cable system, to take an instant poll of listeners. According to QUBE, its survey of 1,800 Columbus subscribers (who tend to be Republican and upper income) revealed that 71 percent felt Reagan had won; 29 percent Carter. When all three candidates were included, 30 percent of the QUBE respondents felt that the debate had been a tie between Anderson and Reagan, with 11 percent choosing Carter as the debate winner and 18 percent insisting there was no winner at all.

While Ted Turner's Cable News Network has been in existence only since June 1 , this unusual participation in the debate has focused attention on its existence for millions of people who were not previously aware of it. allegedly still in deep financial trouble, with rumors circulating in the industry that it is about to be sold to a major over-the-air broadcaster, gadfly owner Ted Turner (who also owns the Atlanta "superstation") still insists that he will carry CNN financially (with the aid of anticipated bank loans) until it is self-sufficient.

All in the US family . . .

Norman Lear has turned to full-time do-gooding.

The producer of such popular series as "All In The Family," "The Jeffersons," and "One Day At A Time" withdrew from active participation in the production of those shows about two years ago. I talked to him the other day in his new chic New York City co-op apartment in the exclusive Ritz Towers.

He is determined to spend his supposed leisure time making a genuine personalized contribution to the health and vigor of the system which made it possible for him to acquire his weatlh. (He is now part-owner of several small cable systems, as well). And he believes strongly that the rise of the "evangelical right," who insist upon rating politicians' Christianity on the basis of their political records, is dangerous and un-American. He says he is concerned the time-honored principle of separation of church and state is in terrible jeopardy, not only in the forthcoming election but in future decades.

Therefore he has spent the past several months and hundreds of thousands of dollars of hiw own "seed money" organizing a "crusade" to do battle with what he calls "the far right religious extremists." Mr. Lear has been the prime mover behind those "People For The American Way" 60-second commercials you may soon be seeing and hearing on your local TV and radio stations. He has taken the initiative in organizing a wide-ranging group of secular and religious individuals who serve as an advisory committee and plan to raise as much as $3 million for a continuing campaign to counter the political propaganda of the religious far right.

Although Mr. Lear agreed to an interview, he urged us to play down his personal participation since he does not want this important movement to be perceived as a "show-biz" promotion. After all, he points out, such individuals as former US Rep. Barbara Jordan, former US Sen. Harold Hughes, and such organizations as the National Council of Churches and the Lutheran Council are also represented on the advisory board.

Ah, silence! It's golden

There are two pieces of good news for the anti-noise-pollutionists which one hopes mayindicate a new trend.

NBC has announced it will broadcast the December 20 Miami Dolphins-New York Jets NFL game without benefit of announcers, relying mainly upon public address system, scoreboard, crowd noises, graphics. Viewers will simply have the equivalent of the best seat in the house.

Second, the local Washington, DC, NBC affiliate is running unusual 10-second spot commercials during the "Today" show, advertising a new book. The commercials silently display a copy of the bookjacket with the following legend: "These ten seconds are brought to you by the author of the exciting new book "Inside The FBI."

And, oh yes, there is a third piece of noise-pollution news -- actually the most astounding of the three. When I called Howard Cosell to see if he had anything t say about the NBC football-game experiment, he said: "No comment."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.