NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
In 2007, Bill Moyers returned to PBS to revive his long-running public-affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal." His first show back featured Comedy Central funnyman Jon Stewart, who satirizes the news business Moyers has been part of ever since he left Lyndon Johnson's White House.
Over the next three years, guests included poets, politicians, philosophers and preachers. Many have now been collected in a new book that will remind fans of what they've missed since Moyers signed off a little over a year ago and give critics fresh ammunition.
If you have a question for Bill Moyers, our number is 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, as rescue efforts continue after yesterday's tornado in Joplin, Missouri, lessons on recovery from Tuscaloosa and from Greensburg.
But first, Bill Moyers. His new book is called "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in today.
Mr. BILL MOYERS (Author, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues"): Thanks for having me, Neal. I can't imagine being anywhere else right now.
CONAN: Oh, well, that's nice of you to say. And as you - it's interesting. You clearly picked who you started with. Why Jon Stewart?
Mr. MOYERS: Because Mark Twain wasn't available.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: I think Stewart is the closest we've come, in a long time, to Mark Twain. And both of them understood a very important point about American politics, which is that the truth goes down easier if it's marinated in humor.
CONAN: There's an interesting point that Stewart makes - he makes many interesting points in the interview, but among them he says: People don't understand we are not warriors for their cause. We're a group of people who write jokes about the absurdity that we see in government and the world and all that, and that's it. And I wonder if you've noticed that in your reporting, too?
Mr. MOYERS: If I've noticed that about Stewart?
CONAN: No, noticed that about - people assume that about you, too. How could you possibly say something nasty about somebody...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I come out of a background of having spent seven years in Democratic politics in the 1960s in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. So in the eyes of many people, I have an inherent bias from that experience.
But, you know, once I left the White House, became publisher of Newsday and then spent the next 40 years in public television, I realized that what's important is not how close a journalist gets to power, but how close the journalist gets to the truth.
And that - I think our job is to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth, and that hurts sometimes, hurts your friends and your kindred spirits. It also, especially hurts the people who already think that you're biased against them.
But I believe our job is to try to get our viewers and our listeners as close as possible to the verifiable truth and then let the consequences fall as they do.
CONAN: One of your interviews, you talked with James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, and asked him if President Obama is black enough.
Mr. MOYERS: And he said none of us are ever black enough. In fact, the counter-argument to what James Cone says is an argument made also in the book by Shelby Steele, who's a conservative essayist who happens to be black who is at the Hoover Institute.
And he says that Obama may not be black enough to satisfy African-Americans, but he is white enough in the way he regards the power structure. That is, he is a bargainer, and that's what the power structure wants from black politicians, is that they bargain with them that they not come in and assume you're a racist because you're white.
Those two interviews together, you put your finger on a very important point in the book, which is between Cone and Shelby Steele, you get two different African-American perspectives on our first black president.
CONAN: But I wonder, is there some point where you have to overcome a degree of personal discomfort in asking questions like that?
Mr. MOYERS: No, I don't. I think conversation between people who disagree goes to the heart of our experience. Growing up in the South, I learned to listen to people I disagree with.
No, I don't feel uncomfortable asking tough questions or bare questions, as long as I'm not being hostile about it. I mean, some people make me hostile or angry at times, when I know they're misleading me.
The worst interview I ever did in my career was with Henry Kissinger. I could not get him to say one thing that was close to candid. And I got angry at that, but I tried to suppress it, as you do, I'm sure.
CONAN: Well hardly ever.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But as you go through the process of this, I wonder: How much time did you spend in preparation for each of these interviews?
Mr. MOYERS: Oh, I'll always spend at least four or five hours for every interview I do, and much more, often, than that. I mean, I don't interview somebody who's written a book without reading that book. Sometimes that doesn't take an hour. Sometimes it takes four, five hours.
But preparation is 90 percent of what I do, Neal. It's the only way I know to do it. I'm not good on live television. I'm not good spontaneously. I really do like to study, read, compare what this person said 10 years ago to what this person is saying today.
So that's part of the problem of a weekly broadcast when you treat it this way because it takes a whole lot of time to prepare.
CONAN: And then do you think it through with producers and editors and that sort of thing: What do you think of this? What do you think of that?
Mr. MOYERS: Once I finish my preparation, I sit and have a back-and-forth with my producer, my editors, my wife, who runs our business, Judy Doctoroff, who's our CEO. Everybody is invited in to say give me - let's have a brainstorming session about what you think is interesting in this person.
And then of course we usually tape two to one. That is, we tape twice as long as the amount of information we use. And that's where the ethical imperative comes in. You have to edit most people, but you have to do so in a way that gets to the essence of what they think and what they believe.
And in 40 years, can you believe I've only had a couple people who ever said they wouldn't come back on the show or who believed we took them out of context?
CONAN: That's not easy to - everybody thinks - I think it was Charles Barkley who once asked a question about something in his autobiography, said he'd been misquoted.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: The hardest thing, of course, is when you know somebody is telling you a lie. It's hard to call them a liar on the air, and sometimes you're not thinking fast enough to bring up the contextual material, which, like Stewart does, would expose the hypocrisy.
Jon Stewart and his team of writers and his team of editors and his video researchers, they're phenomenal for the journalism of juxtaposition. Jon Stewart does not have to call anyone a liar because the way he puts the video up against the previous video makes the lie conspicuous.
It's just a brilliant form of - he says he's not a journalist, and that's true. Mark Twain was a satirist, a parodist, but he got close to the verifiable truth.
But, you know, a few years ago, right before I had Jon Stewart on my first show in 2007, there was a poll of Americans asking: Who are your favorite journalists? And, you know, Dan Rather was still on the air, and he was one of them, and Brian Williams and Barbara Walters and Anderson Cooper. And right there in the top seven was Jon Stewart.
Something he does makes people think of him as practicing journalism, and I think it's the juxtaposition of then and now, that and this, that give his broadcasts such power.
CONAN: We're talking with Bill Moyers today, and it's your opportunity to turn the tables on one of America's most prolific and interesting interviewers. Give us a call, 800-989-8255 if you have a question for Bill Moyers. Email us, email@example.com. Again, you can join the conversation at our website, too. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we'll start with Rayid(ph), Rayid with us from North Canton in Ohio.
RAYID (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon, gentlemen. My question for Bill is about: What issues are there that you think journalists today are scared to touch, maybe, you know, the third rail of journalism, if you would, things that they're scared to look at critically?
I mean, one issue that I think about is the Palestinian-Israeli issue all the time. And it seems like journalists sometimes handle that with kid gloves, especially when it comes to the Israeli perspective. And I'd appreciate your thoughts.
Mr. MOYERS: I think the one overriding issue - that's one, but the one overriding issue of concern to me is the whole question of rich and poor, the issue of who really is governing America now.
It goes to the word oligarchy and the word plutocracy. I want to read you, very quickly, if it's permissible, Neal...
Mr. MOYERS: An excerpt from an interview I did with Simon Johnson, the former economist at the IMF who's become one of the leading bright young stars in the world of economics today.
And I say to him - I had him on the show because he'd written on his website, basescenario.com: "High noon, Geithner Versus the American Oligarchs." And I wanted to know more, I said.
So my first question to him was: What are you signaling with that headline, Geithner Versus the American Oligarchs? Simon Johnson says: I'm signaling something a bit shocking to Americans and to myself. The situation we find ourselves in at this moment, is very strongly reminiscent of the situations we've seen many times in other places but places we don't like to think are similar to us - emerging markets, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea - not comfortable comparisons.
We somehow find ourselves in the grip of the same sort of crisis and the same sort - here it comes - the same sort of oligarchs as in those countries. Moyers: Oligarchy is an un-American term, as you know. It means a government by a small number of people. We don't like to think of ourselves as that way.
Johnson: I know people react negatively when we use this term oligarchy. It's a way of governing, as you say. It comes from a system tied - tried in Greece and Athens from time to time, a very simple, straightforward idea from Aristotle.
It's political power based on economic power, and it was actually an antithesis to democracy in that context: a small group of people with a lot of wealth and a lot of power. They pull the strings, they had the confidence, they called the shots, it's disproportionate, it's unfair, it's very unproductive, and it undermines business in America.
It's the rise of the banks and economic terms that translates into political power. They then exercise that political power back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and capture huge amounts of money. It's going to happen again, he says, because the oligarchy is running American government.
That's one, Raoul(ph), that doesn't get much mention.
CONAN: I think it's Rayid, but that's one of the...
Mr. MOYERS: Rayid, thank you.
RAYID: Yeah, can I just follow up? I'm curious: Is it a matter of journalists being intimidated to ask the question, or are they simply not doing due diligence in educating themselves about the issues?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, there's been some world-class journalism on this subject. Right here in the United States, Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times has a new book out today on the subject of what happened at Fannie Mae.
And no, and there are other journalists and writers like Stiglitz and Bob Reich and people like that. But on the whole, it's because most of the journalists in Washington buy into the ruling ideology: two parties, they're the best we can do, let's live with them.
CONAN: Rayid, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And more with Bill Moyers when we come back from a short break, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Bill Moyers first took to the air with "Bill Moyers Journal" nearly 40 years ago. The PBS standard-bearer covered everything from politics and public controversy to poetry.
He shares some of those conversations in a new book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," one of those with the legal team of David Boies and Ted Olson, who have defended same-sex marriage together in court. He calls the pair one of the most unusual and intriguing in American judicial history.
You can read selections from his interview with the courtroom titans in an excerpt from the book at npr.org. If you have a question for Bill Moyers, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Bill Moyers is at our bureau in New York. I'd like to continue you left off, with another reading from your book, this an interview you did with Andrew Bacevich, the military historian. And he says: One of the great lies about American politics is that Democrats genuinely subscribe to a core - a set of core convictions that make Democrats different from Republicans. And the same thing, of course, applies to the other party.
It's not true. I happen to define myself as a conservative, but when you look back over the last 30-or-so years, said to have been a conservative era in American politics, did we get small government? Did we get balanced budgets? Do we have serious, as opposed to simply rhetorical, attention to traditional societal values? The answer is no.
The truth is that conservative principles have been eyewash, part of a package of tactics that Republicans employ to get elected and then to stay in office.
Do you believe that there are any significant distinctions any more between the two parties?
Mr. MOYERS: There are distinctions on ideology. Democrats, as a - in essence believe in a social contract, believe in a government that's supposed to be about workaday people.
They forfeited that commitment a long time ago, when in the 1980s they begin to take money from the same corporate sources that are the main funders of the Republican Party. And while there are exceptions to the rule, the Democratic Party as a whole does its obeisance to Wall Street and to corporations and to other wealth interests.
The big change in the parties in my time, since I was in the Kennedy-Johnson administration in the 1960s to 1967, is that the Republican Party has become the conservative party. The Democratic Party has not become the progressive or liberal party because it's so beholden for its funding from so many of very wealthy sources.
In most respects, neither part has a great deal of empathy for working people or for poor people, and as a result of that, Neal, I think over the last 30 years, we've become a society divided between winners and losers, with little pity for the latter.
And that's the - if there's a message to the book of all of these interviews, although they're all on different subjects, it is that democracy's in trouble. Oligarchy, as Simon Johnson said, looms. The odds are against us, but as Howard Zinn, the great late historian says in the interview I did with him right before his death, we cannot give up.
Democracy is a struggle that demands - is a life that demands contract struggle against the powers that be.
CONAN: Let's go next to Sharon(ph), Sharon with us from Wenatchee in Wisconsin - or Washington, excuse me.
SHARON (Caller): Yes, thank you for letting me on the air.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SHARON: I wanted to say it's a privilege to be able to speak with Mr. Moyers, to ask him what it was like interviewing Joseph Campbell and the various institutions over that long interview, the most intriguing and thought-provoking interview I think I've seen of all of Bill Moyers' work. And I'll take my - listen to his comments off the air.
CONAN: Sharon, thanks very much.
SHARON: Okay, thank you.
Mr. MOYERS: That's clearly, Sharon, the most popular series of interviews I've done in these 40 years. It was 25 years ago that Joseph Campbell and I sat down to talk about mythology, the power of myth in literature, religion and our lives.
And to this day, people like you stop me on the street and say: That interview changed my life. I don't quite know why, except that Campbell was a superb teacher, and teachers do change our lives.
It's also the fact that he understood religion for its poetic meanings. If you take religion literally, you get into trouble, he said, but if you think of religion as metaphors for whatever it is that we experience in the transcendence of our own individual lives, then religion becomes liberating, it becomes affirming, it becomes something else. And he helped people understand.
My favorite question to him, I said: Are you - what's the meaning of life? He said: I don't know that life has a meaning. What's the meaning of a flea? What's the meaning of a flower? He said: I don't think most people are looking for meaning in life. I think they're looking for the rapture of being alive.
And that touched people in a way that still resonates with them today. Somebody asked me yesterday: What's the greatest gift you've ever received? And from Campbell and others, I learned it's today. It's this moment. It's what we're doing right now.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Scott(ph), Scott with us from Benton, Arkansas.
SCOTT (Caller): Yes, Mr. Campbell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: No, it's not Mr. Campbell, it's Mr. Moyers.
Mr. MOYERS: Some people make that mistake.
SCOTT: Yeah, forgive me. I've admired your career for years and had the pleasure of meeting you at the Philosophical Society of Texas meeting in 1995. And I wanted to ask you, since one will probably not be enough, if you could tell us the two times that you've felt that you've had to be very courageous as a journalist.
Mr. MOYERS: Oh, I don't - you know, it's hard to think of yourself that way. Of course, I've been attacked many times. Richard Nixon tried to do away with public broadcasting, the funding of public television back in the mid-'70s, when he came after me and Bob - Robert MacNeil, who had come on the air, and Sander Vanocur because of the Watergate investigations and other investigative work going on at that time.
And then, of course, Newt Gingrich came after me and after us, us being public television, in 1994 and 1995 and then under George W. Bush, his -the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting singled me out as a nemesis because I was trying to report what was going on in Iraq and trying to look at what was happening behind the scenes as they spun the propaganda on invading Iraq.
Those don't take particular courage. They take independence, and they take an organization that will stand behind you when you are attacked. And it took courage for Pat Mitchell, then the president of PBS, to stand behind me, until it turned out the chairman of CPB had to resign for a lot of reasons, many of which were uncovered by his own inspector general at the CPB.
It took - in the mid-'70s, when the Nixon White House, with Pat Buchanan, came after public broadcasting, it didn't take us courage. It took courage for Ralph Rogers, who was a Republican industrialist from Dallas, to stand and defend public broadcasting and beat back that challenge from his own party.
It's the people who defend independent media, the board of National Public Radio, the CEO of National Public Radio, that make it possible for Neal and people like me to do our work as journalists, with the chips falling where they may. It doesn't take particular courage on our part.
SCOTT: Thank you, Mr. Moyers.
CONAN: Thanks, Scott, for the call, which leads to a question: public television. We'll deal with public radio later, maybe, but public television is struggling financially. It has not been able to replicate the kinds of successes that it has had in the past. It does not play the kind of role many would like it to see it play in American broadcasting. Do you see much of a future for public television?
Mr. MOYERS: I think all television is changing radically under the rise of, you know, Internet and all the digital venues and so forth. I think public radio has a far more promising future than public television because: A, public television is expensive, I mean television is expensive to produce; B, people's habits are changing.
Look at the grid in the New York Times or the Washington Post or any other newspaper every day, and you see so much that's offered there, it's hard for public television to find its identity.
But it's still very important, Neal. I was present at the creation of public broadcasting in - the Carnegie Commission on Public Broadcasting was delivered to my desk when I was a policy advisor to Lyndon Johnson. And when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, I had gone. I was publisher of Newsday then.
But he made one of the great speeches about the media in American history, talking about the need for there to be one channel free of commercial values and free of commercials so that the integrity of the artist, the credibility of the journalist, could be protected.
We need public television more than ever because it is free, on the whole, of commercial values and commercials. But unless we can find an independent source of revenue, a trust fund of $1 to $2 billion, we're not going to be able to survive because it takes money to create television programs.
So the amount we get from Congress, from the taxpayers, is really very small, 17, 18 percent. We pay a big price for that because of the heavy breathing on our necks any time we do something that's controversial.
But we've got to find a way to create this medium, which mingles the visual and the lingual, the linguistic, in a unique way. There is no substitute for the dance of the image and the word when you get them right on television.
CONAN: We'll let one of these through, this from Marilee(ph) in Oakland, California: You are missed. You can imagine there's been many more like that. Let's see if we could get another caller in. Let's go to - this is Andrew(ph), Andrew with us from Portland, Oregon.
ANDREW (Caller): Yes, Mr. Moyers. It's an incredible honor to talk to you. I - you inspired me to pursue a career in journalism, although I don't have one. I'm unemployed. I want to ask...
CONAN: So are a lot of journalists, so you're in good company.
ANDREW: I want to ask him a very broad question that you've touched on over the past few minutes. I recently - I have a bachelor's in broadcast journalism, and recently my adviser from college said she thinks the news business is dying. What do you think is the future of broadcast journalism? I know that's very broad.
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I'm a - thank you for your kind words, by the way, your generous words. I miss the audience on Friday nights. I couldn't see them, but I could feel their presence. It's as if people had crept in out of the darkness to sit around the campfire, kindred spirits. But I miss you, too, Andrew.
I'm a reporter, not a prophet. I don't know what the future of journalism is. Many people I talk to say that the Internet is going to open creative - has opened creative opportunities for independent journalists in a way that we haven't seen since the independent press of the 1840s and '90s. Well, I can see evidence of that, but no business models that support them. In fact, when young people come to me today and say, should I go into journalism? I say, if you got a fire in your belly, yes. But I don't know how you're going to be able to pay the bills.
I do think that this is another reason for the importance of National Public Radio, which has been seeing a large increase in its audience and has been able to offer opportunities to more and more journalists. I think it's also that there will be fiercely independent journalism on the Web if we can protect the, you know, what's called Net neutrality so that we don't put tollbooths on the Internet to enable some corporations to charge a higher fee for using it to those who can afford it.
But I don't know what the future of journalism is, except that democracy can't survive without disinterested people who are willing to speak truth to power. And so, therefore, we have to all work together to try to create ways to - for this new generation of journalists to come along. I meet them every day. They still have a curiosity and a determination that is so impressive we have got to - all of us have to make sure that there are places for them to serve their calling.
CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much.
ANDREW: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And here's an email from Courtney(ph) in Denver: A caller just mentioned Mr. Moyers' interview with Joseph Campbell. I'd like to thank Mr. Moyers for the PBS series he did on poetry, "Living Language." It was a beautiful series that gets at the essence of poetry, its function, purpose and the poets themselves. I teach English at a community college. I use it all the time with my students. I only wish there was a DVD. Hint, hint, hint.
Mr. MOYERS: There is. There are DVDs. I'm not here to promote pbs.org -sales.org, but there are DVDs of every poetry series we've done: "Language of Life," "Power of the Word," "Fooling with Word - Fooling with Words." So I've done four major series, big series on poetry over the years, and they're all available at pbs.org.
But there are also some poets in "Listening to America" in "Bill Moyers Journal," the book we're talking about, Neal, because I can't - I mean, I couldn't survive psychologically, emotionally if I only dealt with politics and economics. I'd go out of my head.
So in the course of the journal, Nikki Giovanni comes with her poetry. Martin Espada comes with his poetry, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, who is now the poet laureate. And I find sustenance myself in those poets, and I'm able to share that substance - sustenance with other people.
CONAN: Just a brief quote from Mr. Merwin's interview: "Your star or the star that has lighted your life. It's also the morning, you know? The star fades in the morning, and you watch the star fade. Finally, you don't see it, but you can think further than that, further than the star. You can think further. But finally your thought comes to an end, lost in the what, we don't know, in the vast emptiness and unknown of the universe.
And that's him talking, not him writing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's see if we'd get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Mike, and Mike is with us from Ann Arbor.
MIKE (Caller): Hello. My question is about the historic speech you gave at the Take Back America conference. Would you now change anything in that speech, add or subtract to it?
Mr. MOYERS: No, of course. Any speech I do is a rewrite, in a sense, of other speeches because we usually know one thing on life and if we get a chance to talk about that, we keep repeating it. But, no, that - the essence of that speech is there are two great stories in American history. One is the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the fulfillment of the individual. The other is the protection of property and the Constitution, which said, yes, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but not for women, not for slaves, not for workers, not for immigrants, and not for Native Americans.
So the struggle has been to imply the promise of America that is implicit in the Declaration of Independence to all of us. And there have always been powerful people of property and wealth fighting back because their first commitment is to the preservation of their privilege and their power. So the story in America has always been a fight between these two forces of individual dignity and fulfillment and the powers that are organized to resist that.
CONAN: We just have a minute or so with you left, and you've described just a few of the things you did in a career in politics, and then, much longer, a career in journalism. I know you must have been asked this many times, but why did you never decide to run for office?
Mr. MOYERS: I was too embedded in journalism. I started in journalism at the age of 16 as a cub reporter on the Marshall News Messenger in my hometown in East Texas, and I loved it. I remember when I decided to - I was only, by accident, coincidence, in the White House and wound up for two years as Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, where our credibility was so bad we couldn't believe our own leaks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: But I remember standing there one day and Merriman Smith of UPI was asking me a question. And I had learned to smoke cigars from Pierre Salinger, my predecessor, because he said, you're always going to need 30 seconds to figure out how to answer a difficult question, so take that 30 seconds, light your cigar.
And this time, when Merriman Smith was asking me a tough question, I thought, I don't belong on this side of this briefing. I belong on the other side, asking questions. And it was then and there I decided to leave government, leave the White House and come back to journalism.
CONAN: Bill Moyers, thank you very much for your time. Good luck with the book.
Mr. MOYERS: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues" is the name of the book that collects many of his more recent interviews. Bill Moyers was kind of enough to join us today from out bureau in New York.
Coming up, we'll look back to two previous devastating tornadoes for lessons in the aftermath of storms that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, over the weekend. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.