Providing Perspective On the News -- in One Minute, 45 Seconds
NEW YORK — 'It's a little bit of back to the future,'' Bill Moyers says, leaning back in his chair as he reflects on his return to commercial TV as a twice-a-week commentator on the ''NBC Nightly News.''
''I've done this before,'' Mr. Moyers says in his gentle Texas inflection, ''but ... commercial television today is not the way it was when I left in 1976 or went back in 1981. The language of television, the grammar, the medium keeps changing.
''For one thing, it's driven more by the visuals than it used to be,'' he notes, and the pace is much faster.
But according to Jesse Huxman, news producer for CBS affiliate KWCH-TV in Wichita, Kan., ''It seems a perfect suit for [Moyers] to wear.'' Mr. Huxman, who also teaches broadcast journalism at Wichita State University, adds that, ''A guy like me who's 37 years old wouldn't be able to do it. But Bill Moyers can do it.... [He has] the wisdom and he certainly has the eloquence to make his comments in a way that all of us will be able to understand.''
Moyers's credentials reach back to when he was press assistant to President Johnson, where his skill and insight were widely noted. He went on to become publisher of Newsday (1967-'70); chief correspondent for the documentary series ''CBS Reports''; and, from 1981-'86, news analyst on the ''CBS Evening News.''
In between and for years afterward, Moyers became one of public TV's most visible figures with programs like ''Bill Moyers' Journal,'' ''Creativity,'' and ''A Walk Through the 20th Century.''
On NBC, Moyers's comments range from national issues to small-town concerns he thinks deserve national attention. Politically, his stance seems to be reasonably even-handed, what some observers have called a populist approach.
''What I was doing before in commercial news wouldn't work today,'' he says. ''I find myself thinking differently and writing differently. [CBS commentator] Eric Sevareid had 3-1/2 minutes just to talk into the camera. I now take a minute 45.'' He cites Churchill's point about how much longer it takes to write a short letter than a long one. ''It took me three or four hours this morning to get a piece that was 3-1/2 minutes when I first put it in the machine,'' down to the shorter length.
Arriving at the subjects for his commentaries is a complicated process, he says. He often thinks about an idea for a long time until he finds the right angle. Moyers likens the network evening news to viewers' ''opening the window for a few minutes and letting in the outside world, then closing it.'' He sees his task as providing them a different angle on the news.
''The nice thing about him,'' Huxman says, ''is that his stuff is interesting even from an elementary school level, and certainly those of us in academia ... also get something meaningful.''
Moyers recently announced that, for health reasons, he was going on leave from NBC for up to a year.