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Bill Moyers Holds a Mirror Up to America : The veteran journalist airs his views on tabloid TV, celebrity journalism and dramatic reenactments

November 12, 1989|JANE HALL

Q: In your program about news, you interview CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl, who says that, without her knowledge, Reagan's advisers worked with her producers to set up pleasing pictures of Reagan that would make the evening news. How could that happen?

A: There's a new generation in TV who are driven by the lust for picture.

Q: But hasn't TV always been driven by visuals?

A: It wasn't always so. What Eric Sevareid said was every bit as important as any picture.

Q: You're not against pictures, are you?

A: No, of course not. Some pictures are news, and the visual image can give us a picture of reality. But journalists are supposed to gather, weigh, organize and evaluate information--not just put on pictures.

There's a subtle change that is going on in the role of the editor. Editors traditionally get up in the morning and say, "What's going on that people need to know about?"--some of it is what do they want to know about--but what do they need to know about too. When the advertising ethic takes over, and news becomes that which sells, you're not thinking about what people need to know--you're thinking about what it will take to sell them.

Q: Are you saying we should have (arms-control expert) Paul Nitze on TV and in magazines instead of Madonna?

A: Obviously, Madonna is a figure of enormous curiosity, but if people who want to be informed about arms control have no access to Paul Nitze in the mass media because it's all about Madonna, then we won't be able to make informed judgments about arms control.

Q: When you have re-creations on programs like CBS News' "Saturday Night with Connie Chung," what is being lost?

A: The distinction between what is real and what isn't. If Abbie Hoffman (the subject of a dramatization on the Chung program) didn't say it, he didn't say it. It's all right for the artist to create a fiction to convey a truth--but news either happened or it didn't. I thought the first dramatization on "Connie Chung" (about an early civil rights leader) was brilliantly done. But why not put it on under the aegis of CBS Entertainment? When you mix fiction and news, you diminish the distinction between truth and fiction, and you wear down the audience's own discriminating power to judge if that was so or not so. It's not just the networks who are doing this--it's all the other production centers.

Q: But network news executives might say, "What do you know? We're giving people what they want with re-creations."

A: Then get out of the news business altogether. Turn it all over to entertainment. But don't fly the flag of journalism to hide the consumer fraud you're perpetrating. Don't corrupt journalism in the name of journalism. Just put a pillow over its head and put it out of its misery.

Q: How is it that entertainment values seem to have grown in network news over the past few years?

A: It's happened in part because you no longer have the Bill Paleys (the longtime chairman of CBS), who, with their sense of stewardship, would protect the news division as a part of an organization whose main resources came from entertainment. But a lot of this has come from within, not from the top down. Network journalism has been destroyed from within, by producers and journalists who had no principle more important than satisfying their own ambition. They've created shows that succeed neither as entertainment nor journalism, and they've been willing to subvert journalism in the mistaken notion that nobody would notice.

But the American people are more discriminating than that. It's precisely that significant portion of Americans who've opted out of voting, who've opted out of watching commercial TV, who feel betrayed.

Q: You sound angry.

A: This is not a personal complaint. But part of me is angry over what commercial broadcasting is doing to reporting in general and journalists in particular. We are systematically being robbed of our credibility. Talented network journalists are paid enormous sums of money--but assigned trivial pursuits. Tabloid TV shows are polluting journalistic standards by hiring celebrities as "reporters." What happens to the basic standards of journalism when they are abandoned for the "celebrity" appeal of imposters? I remember when Phyllis George was hired to be the anchor on the "CBS Morning News," three young female researchers stopped me in the hall to ask whether this meant that if they wanted to be on-air journalists, they should forgo years of work and try out for Miss America instead.

Q: Why did you leave CBS?

A: There was less and less encouragement and fewer and fewer opportunities to do the traditional journalism that I think informs the public mind--not the whole public mind but those people who do act upon the information and news that they receive. That became increasingly difficult to accomplish.

Q: Would the people who watch you on PBS be available to watch you on a commercial network, Friday night at 9?

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