Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 26, 2007

Bill Moyers versus the lapdog media

Filed under: Iraq,media,television — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

Last night the Public Broadcasting System aired a searing documentary on media complicity with the Bush administration leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It marks the return of Bill Moyers’s Journal and represents the kind of groundbreaking reporting that the nonprofit network was expected to deliver when it was launched in 1969, during the height of another imperialist war.

Bill Moyers is an interesting figure. As press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, he turned against the kind of party politics that produces such wars and hooked up with PBS in 1971. Like Ramsey Clark, LBJ’s attorney general, he has been an effective voice for the left even if his ideas stop short of the anti-capitalist conclusions that are implicit in their dynamic. Along with Ralph Nader, these three elder statesmen of the liberal-left know how the system operates from inside and often have unique insights about the rot contained in its heart, as last night’s documentary demonstrates.

The show was constructed as a kind of morality tale with people like Judith Miller, the editors of the Washington Post and the NY Times, Fox TV and Tim Russert serving as villains. The good guys, who come across as much more likable and much more effective versions of Woodward and Bernstein, are Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight-Ridder press. Knight-Ridder newspapers are distinctly outside-the-beltway and serve the communities that offer up their sons and daughters as cannon fodder for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that the paper must be a bit more vigilant in examining the justifications for war, as editor John Walcott explained to Moyers:

Our readers aren’t here in Washington. They aren’t up in New York. They aren’t the people who send other people’s kids to war. They’re the people who get sent to war.

And we felt an obligation to them, to explain why that might happen. We were determined to scrutinize the administration’s case for war as closely as we possibly could. And that’s what we set out to do.

Although Moyers has a very genial manner, his questions to people like Dan Rather were unsparing. He also relied on testimony from some of the more trenchant press critics on the scene today, like Michael Massing, Norman Solomon and Eric Boehlert. Moyers has been working closely with such people, including former Monthly Review editor Robert McChesney on a project called The National Conference for Media Reform. In a speech to the last conference, he said:

Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it “the plantation mentality.”

That’s what struck me as I flew into Memphis for this gathering. Even in 1968, the civil rights movement was still battling the plantation mentality, based on race, gender and power, which permeated Southern culture long before, and even after, the groundbreaking legislation of the 1960s.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker’s heart — “I am a man” — voiced the long-suppressed outrage of people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality is a phenomenon deeply insinuated in the American experience early on, and it has permeated and corrupted our course as a nation.

Bill Moyers page at PBS (contains transcript and complete video of last night’s show)

The National Conference for Media Reform website


  1. I would also recommend checking out “Gangs of Iraq” which details how thoroughly infiltrated the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces are:


    I think it’s a great picture of why the war is unwinnable, but the conclusion of the documentary seems to be that a combination of American stupidity/incompetence/ignorance/unwillingness to face reality and duplicity by SCIRI is what has produced the tragedy in Iraq, not the invasion and occupation itself (not to mention imperialism).

    Comment by Binh — April 26, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

  2. Moyers recently covered some of the same ground in a radio broadcast to a community-media group. In it, he quoted “the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci” concerning pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, which I thought really said something about the unenviable cultural contradictions of one strain of left-liberalism. But the thing that really struck me in the TV program was that we were confronted with some “sad sacks” deposed from their positions, Phil Donahue and Dan Rather. These are people one would have thought were untouchable *in the Reagan era*. Compare with the younger generation of “moderate” media personality, personified by slick shithead Peter Beinart, and the depressing shift towards total shilldom is really evident.

    Comment by Jeff Rubard — April 28, 2007 @ 12:24 am

  3. […] by Jack Stephens on April 28th, 2007 Louis Proyect writes: Bill Moyers is an interesting figure. As press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, he turned against the […]

    Pingback by Bill Moyers on the Media « The Blog and the Bullet — April 29, 2007 @ 12:45 am

  4. Mr Rubard: the main reason for the downfall of Donahue and Rather is that they took a pretty clear stand against some of Bush’s policies before his massive unpopularity as expressed at the polls in Nov. 2006. They didn’t do anything of the sort during the Reagan era (correct me if I’m wrong here).

    Comment by Binh — May 1, 2007 @ 7:20 pm

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