Bill Moyers was talking about his documentary on black ghetto families that CBS will air next Saturday. But first he gave a brief history lesson.
In 1965, Moyers said, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a Democratic senator from New York, sent the Johnson Administration a 78-page report that, among other things, said black families in America's inner-city ghettos were verging on disintegration.
This sad trend, the report said, was largely due to more than three centuries of slavery, discrimination, prejudice, inadequate education, a lack of economic opportunities and white prejudice, all leading to a sense of inferiority and futility among ghetto blacks.
Initially praised when used as the basis for a call for action by President Johnson, the full report later was sharply criticized by black leaders, then was shelved, Moyers said, and the black ghetto family has been a "taboo subject" until recently.
"That's the background--20 years in the works, in a way," he wryly added, referring to the impetus for "The Vanishing Family--Crisis in Black America." The 90-minute "CBS Reports" Saturday at 9 p.m. will be followed by a half-hour panel discussion.
A major reason the program was made, Moyers said, "was for television to acknowledge that the debate (about the report's assertions) still is going on and to try to get the issue back on the front burner of public consciousness."
The one-time Johnson aide spoke Friday at the Century Plaza Hotel to out-of-town TV writers who for two weeks have heard from all three networks on such matters as stars, co-anchors, ratings and megabuck miniseries. His thoughtful, often eloquent comments were indeed a refreshing change, several of the visitors remarked later.
Moyers said he expected that "Family" would be controversial in that black leaders might contend--as they once did with the Moynihan report--that it gives white racists ammunition for arguments that blacks are inherently inferior.
Indeed, he said, although the Rev. Jesse Jackson is "an old friend," "I can safely assume that he thinks it's probably racist in its premise."
Jackson is one of four leaders scheduled to see "Family" before it airs and comment on it for the half-hour taped panel discussion. The others are Newark, N.J., police chief Charles Knox; Eleanor Holmes Norton, former head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and Dr. Glenn C. Loury, an economist.
Despite his expectations of Jackson's criticism, Moyers said that while there is no question that there still are racists in America, "I think most Americans are beyond that. . . . I think it (the documentary) will be apppreciated for what it is . . . an honest experience, reported by television," dealing with the lives of ghetto blacks today.
The program primarily was filmed in Newark, for two reasons, Moyers said. That predominantly black city is "statistically representative of the inner cities of this country." And costs would have been prohibitive to film in a city farther away from New York, headquarters of CBS News.
A year in the making, the production was preceded by two months of research with black economists and sociologists, after which Moyers and his staff filmed scores of interviews last summer and fall in Newark.
"There is a lot in the film that is negative," he said. But he praised what he called the "extraordinary trust" shown his staff by the city's ghetto residents: "I came away optimistic because of the willingness of these people to discuss the issue and their willingness to trust white folks to talk to."
Despite moments of hope expressed in it, the program illustrates largely through its interviews that the the disintegration of black ghetto families continues, as do out-of-wedlock births from one generation to the next.
Unlike many documentaries, it makes no recommendations. Moyers was asked what could be done about the major questions "Family" raises. They have to be answered by American policy-makers, he suggested, adding that he is "discouraged, to some extent," about prospects for action. American society, he said, "has the capacity but not the will to fight a battle like this on many fronts."
Was it difficult for him to walk away from the misery he saw, to not get directly involved in working to change things?
Yes, Moyers said, "but I'm a journalist, not a public policy-maker . . . and our job is to throw that 'searching light' that (Walter) Lippmann) talked about on some sectors of society, in hope that where the light falls, others who are responsible will act."
The Oklahoma-born, Texas-raised son of a dirt farmer praised the ghetto blacks he met for their ability to cope with their bleak lot and even find cause for hope:
"These are casualties. But they're not victims. They don't have that self-pitying whine that you find in a lot of yuppies who can't figure out how they're going to pay the second mortgage on their third vacation house."
Those people in Newark's ghettos, he said, are "in touch with the realities of life . . . and I won't forget them."