Monday, May 3, 2010

A Breather for Moyers; Next Step Is Unclear

Bill Moyers Journal,” first broadcast in 1971, came to a close on Friday, with Mr. Moyers warning viewers that “plutocracy and democracy don’t mix,” as he compared past eras of populist insurgency to the present moment in America.

“Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs,” he said from his desk in New York.

Given those stakes, it might seem like an odd time for Mr. Moyers to sign off from PBS. The end of the “Journal” is a milestone both for public broadcasting and for Mr. Moyers, whose explorations of corporate power versus people power were unlike anything else on television.

Those close to Mr. Moyers, 75, say he is not fully retiring but merely catching his breath after three tiring years of weekly deadline demands. His next step is unknown, even to him, they said.

To his viewers Mr. Moyers and the “Journal” represented a rare place on television where experts, academics and public interest advocates could talk at length about public affairs. True to form, the final broadcast opened with a case study about community organizers in Iowa.

Mr. Moyers, a press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, was first the host of the “Journal” from 1971 to 1981 (with one hiatus). He worked for CBS and NBC on separate occasions, but most of his professional career has been with PBS. He was the host of the weekly PBS series “Now” between 2002 and 2004, but left to write a book and produce documentaries.

Mr. Moyers resurrected the “Journal” in 2007, and since announcing the program’s end last November, he has made it clear that he was leaving on his own terms. PBS asked him to stay for four more months while it prepared a replacement for his time slot, and he agreed. (The new show, “Need to Know,” begins next Friday.)

Mr. Moyers did not respond to an interview request over the weekend. In a blog post last month he said: “There are some things left to do that the deadlines and demands of a weekly broadcast don’t permit. At 76, it’s now or never.”

At a farewell party on Friday night Mr. Moyers recalled that the former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite once told him that he “made a terrible mistake retiring at 65.” He added, “I have had 10 more years than Walter to commit to journalism,” according to several staffers who were there. Amid a backdrop of financial misdeeds and bailouts, the dominant theme of the 2007-10 “Journal” was corporate power.

Judy Doctoroff O’Neill, an executive producer of the “Journal” and the president of Public Affairs Television, the production company of Mr. Moyers and his wife, Judith, said, “We really tried to look at how corporate power is affecting our democracy, but also the efforts of people to take back the government and have it be the government of the people.”

That has been a major theme of Mr. Moyers’s journalism career. In his final weekly broadcast he said that “democracy only works when we claim it as our own.”

Neal Shapiro, the chief executive of in New York, said that Mr. Moyers “gave voice to the voiceless in a way that PBS is charged with doing.”

Mr. Moyers has long been a controversial figure. In a column in the May 10 issue of The Nation, the media columnist Eric Alterman called Mr. Moyers the “last unapologetic liberal anywhere in broadcast television.” Conservative critics have long accused Mr. Moyers and his programs of being one-sided.

“To our critics,” he said on Friday’s finale, “I’m glad you paid attention; the second most important thing to journalists is to know we’re not being ignored.” (The only thing more important, he said, is independence.)

The “Journal” was financed on a year-to-year basis by foundations and one corporation, the Mutual of America life insurance company. Mr. Moyers has not yet sought funds for new projects, indicating that he “has not been thinking about what’s next logistically,” Mr. Moyers’s executive assistant, Karen Kimball, said in an e-mail message on Sunday. “He has said that he intends to take the next three months to finish the move, take some deep breaths and read.”

Ms. Doctoroff O’Neill said, “I’m pretty confident that after a bit of a break we’ll figure out the next project that makes sense for us.”

Some of the “Journal” staff members will work for “Need to Know.” A few will move to the new offices of Mr. Moyers’s production company. Others are looking for new jobs.

“It’s a hard time to be going off the air because there’s a lot of work to be done,” Ms. Doctoroff O’Neill noted, citing topics like “inequality, financial reform, health reform, war.” She added, “We’re hopeful that ‘Need to Know’ will keep the pressure on.”

At a dinner for underwriters of the program on Saturday, she said she observed that about 1,000 people have been employed by Mr. Moyers’s production company at various times.

“That means there are a lot of people who have been shaped by Bill’s brand of journalism,” she said, “who know it’s our job to uncover and not just cover.”


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