I’ve watched a lot of television and in doing so I’ve heard a lot of things I knew not to be true. But only once have I actually written to a producer as a result. The producer was Bill Moyers, host, as of last week, of Bill Moyers Journal. My complaint was a technical, almost abstruse one about the way in which Moyers had, in an editorial, conflated a Karaite belief with a position that might be held by an Orthodox Jew. Certainly I have heard more egregious mistakes in more popular forums but it had never occurred to me to actually say something. For the most part I figure that all TV personalities were making similar mistakes about all things all of the time and that’s just how it is. Moyers, however, is the type of journalist, editorialist and intellectual who gets things right and who, when he errs, seems to really care about making the correction. Not only do I have faith that Moyers was interested in being corrected, but I also think he’s the kind of guy who would either know what a Karaite is or at least take the time to look it up. The next week he did in fact read an email by a viewer (not me) that more or less addressed my concern. And he did it right up front on the show, taking both criticism and praise with the sort of professionalism and confidence that only derives from years of real professional accomplishment.
Last week Moyers wrapped up his PBS program The Journal, this time, it seems, for good. He has left and returned twice previously, but, at 76, Moyers seems done with weekly TV. He will be missed. The Journal was, quite simply, outstanding public affairs television. It combined long-form documentaries with in-depth interviews and, uniquely, it succeeded in discussing ideas without forgetting the people they impact. This, more than anything, is Moyers’ true virtue. He’s a public intellectual who places equal emphasis on both the adjective and the noun, a populist in the best possible sense.
Although moving from network to public television left him with a relatively small audience, Moyers’ recession from public life nonetheless marks a major loss for liberal America. No, not every television liberal is either self-righteous or ironic bordering on nihilistic, but a lot are. Moyers is never either. For him truly believing in things is neither a show nor a quaint old-fashioned gesture; it’s the only way he can make meaning out the endlessly complex times his life and career have spanned.
A minor example: during the Obama-Reverend Wright controversy, Moyers was the only interviewer and commentator I heard who really, truly cared to understand Wright’s theology and its related politics. He thought that his viewers should understand what the man believed and why he believed it before making an evaluation. It wasn’t enough to break things down on party lines, call the Republicans racist and/or make a joke. He wanted us to really see the ways in which Wright’s Christianity and social experience shaped his controversial view of American life. It was the part of the story that no one else seemed to have the forum (a commercial free hour broadcast into a huge number of American homes) or interest in pursuing. The Stewarts and Olbermanns of the world have their places but I hope there is also room for another Moyers and that, sooner than later, we find someone to fill it.