Tonight marks the airing of the last edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS stations nationwide.
An online tribute page prepared by Thirteen/WNET features thoughts on Moyers’s legacy from Dan Rather, Tavis Smiley, Stephen Colbert, and others, and allows viewers to add their own comments. It’s a fond gesture to mark the departure of the iconic journalist from his regularly scheduled weekly television show.
Such a caveat seems necessary, given that we don’t expect Moyers to vanish from the public stage. He’s long been a prolific author, speech-maker, and host of TV specials, and there’s every reason to think, and hope, that will continue.
Moyers is a long-time friend of CJR. A few years ago, the Schumann Foundation, with which he is affiliated, was a major funder of the magazine.
He was also the subject of a short profile in our 40th anniversary issue, published in November/December 2001, which featured a close look at forty seminal journalists—one for each year of CJR’s existence to that point. Moyers was chosen to represent 1974; the piece, headlined “A Serious Voice” and written by Scott Sherman, is republished below.
In 1948, when he was fourteen years old, Bill Moyers heard Lyndon Johnson give a rousing speech at a courthouse in Marshall, Texas. Without a megaphone or a loudspeaker, LBJ mesmerized the crowd. “I remember the sheer presence of the man,” Moyers has recalled. “And I thought, ‘That’s what power is. And this man is reaching this audience. And he’s got this audience. And he’s telling this audience something that’s very important.’ ” Years later, through a different medium—television—Moyers would achieve a similar kind of power, and he has yet to abuse it. Moyers’s conversational ease, his earnest delivery, his fierce intelligence—all of it has transformed him into our leading television intellectual, and a worthy successor to Edward R. Murrow.
From a modest upbringing in Hugo, Oklahoma, Moyers rose to become deputy director of the Peace Corps, special assistant and press secretary to President Johnson (who once referred to Moyers as “my vice president in charge of everything”), and publisher of Newsday. In the early 1970s, Moyers launched his national television career, first with Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS, and then in 1974 as a special correspondent with CBS Reports. Moyers eventually wanted greater editorial freedom, and in 1986 he founded his own company, Public Affairs Television. His oeuvre includes Bill Moyers’ A World of Ideas, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Amazing Grace, The Secret Government, Marshall, Texas: Marshall, Texas, The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America, The Arab World, Sports for Sale, and Facing Hate with Elie Wiesel.
Many of these programs were accompanied by books on the subjects. If Moyers has been an invaluable presence on television, he has also been one of our most astute press critics. “The biggest change in my thirty years in broadcasting,” he said at a recent speech at the National Press Club, “has been the shift of content from news about government to consumer-driven information and celebrity features.” “It matters,” Moyers affirmed, “whether we’re over at the Puffy Combs trial, checking out what Jennifer Lopez was wearing the night she ditched him, or whether we’re on the Hill, seeing who’s writing the new bankruptcy law, or overturning workplace safety rules, or buying back standards for allowable levels of arsenic in our drinking water.” Concluded Moyers, quoting the late Martha Gellhorn: “Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior.” Serious journalism is Moyers’s legacy to us. — S.S.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.