Moyers hammers press for symbiotic relationship with elites

by Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

Two broadcasts this week mark Bill Moyers' return to weekly television, two years after he left the PBS series Now. After Wednesday's special, in its time-slot premiere Friday (9 ET/PT, PBS), Bill Moyers Journal talks to Daily Show host Jon Stewart and political blogger Josh Marshall of

Stewart was a guest on Moyers' old PBS gig, and "we had the greatest response to him (compared with) any other guest," Moyers says. "That he is outside the Beltway gives him an independence that enables him to speak truth to power even when he's winking at it. He has a credibility with the public that very few guys inside the Beltway have anymore."

As for Marshall, Moyers says that by tapping into "citizen journalists," he has excelled in reporting on the scandal surrounding the firing of several U.S. attorneys. "I'm in old media, but I take my hat off to new media," Moyers says. "When you get a journalist like Marshall committed to getting people as close to the certifiable truth as possible, you begin to realize the potential of this medium."

Journalists were "shocked and traumatized by the atrocities of 9/11, of people hurling themselves out of 50-story windows in the World Trade Center," PBS newsman Bill Moyers says. "Their natural response was to rally around the troops, make sure the commander-in-chief got the perpetrators."

But that led most news organizations to "suspend their skepticism" of an administration bent on war in Iraq, he says, and that contributed to the "great blunder."

"Vietnam cost more lives so far, but Iraq has probably had a greater, longer traumatic effect on world events," he says.

Moyers, 72, examines the media's shortcomings in "Buying the War," a 90-minute Bill Moyers Journal special Wednesday (9 ET/PT, PBS). Among those interviewed: former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon and The Washington Post's Walter Pincus.

The media-White House dance is familiar to Moyers, who once spun the Vietnam War as a special assistant to President Johnson. "We circled the wagons. We didn't want to listen to the (CBS') Morley Safers and (the Associated Press') Peter Arnetts and (The New York Times') David Halberstams reporting on the ground. There's a tendency in Washington government to deal with your own view of the world without being contradicted by mischief-making journalists."
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But during the buildup to Iraq, he says, very few journalists made mischief, and those who questioned the administration's motives were largely ignored.

Since his days in Washington power circles, Moyers says, the "symbiotic relationship between the political elites and media elites has grown. When media elites are aggressive in their interrogation of public officials, they are demonized and vilified by the president's party and cheerleaders."

And now that most media outlets are owned by corporations "with vested interests in Washington policy, it makes it hard on journalists to blow the whistle in Washington because it reverberates upstairs to the guys with their lobbyists who are trying to solicit favors from the government."

Moyer says the Bush administration was aided by vocal talk-show hosts and an organized network of bloggers. But he notes that the Times and the Post also bolstered claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in front-page pieces from mid-2002 to March 2003, when the U.S. military invaded Iraq. They had a huge effect on other news organizations.

"The New York Times is often the inspiration for much if not most of what winds up on the evening newscasts," Moyers says. "For media elites in broadcasting, the Times still drives their agenda."

A series of pieces by Times reporter Judith Miller making the case for war got huge media pickup, while stories by Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel were virtually ignored. "There was a lot of skepticism among our editors because what we were writing was so at odds with what most of the rest of the Washington press corps was reporting," Strobel tells Moyers.

In some ways, Moyers says, the firestorm over how much play NBC News should give video excerpts left by the Virginia Tech killer is emblematic of how controversies are discussed these days.

"All these opinions and clashing analysis about whether NBC should have aired it, instead of a debate and discussion about the sociopaths in our midst. What do we do about violence? You get a lot of distractions. You get the noise of the debate without the issues."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey