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News and Doc Emmys: Bill Moyers: A Voice of Conscience

Oct 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Following is the text of the acceptance speech that veteran newsman Bill Moyers delivered upon being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony held Sept. 25 in New York.

AAfter all those eulogies, I have to pause a moment to take my pulse and see if I’m still here.

I accept your generous award, but I do so in the spirit of the late actor George Allen, who said at a ceremony like this in Hollywood, “I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.”

I want to thank the academy and the staff led by Peter Price and Bill Small, who worked so hard to bring us all together tonight.

You should know that I owe Bill Small not just this event but one of the great breaks in my career. We had met in Washington in the mid-Sixties. He was the man in charge there for CBS News and I was the White House press secretary. You could not flatter, bribe or intimidate him-I tried all three techniques and failed. Look in the encyclopedia of broadcast news for the definition of “journalistic integrity” and you will find two words: Bill Small. He was Mr. Straight Arrow.

The Smalls gave the last dinner for Judith and me when we left Washington in January l967. I didn’t see him until some years later. I had become publisher of Newsday and moved on to PBS. One day Bill invited me to lunch at Patsy’s Restaurant on West 56th Street and asked if I would like to become senior correspondent for CBS Reports, the documentary unit started by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. I said to him, “I knew Murrow, and I’m no Murrow. I know Friendly, and I’m no Friendly.” He said, “That’s all right. You’ve been working at PBS and you come cheap.”

How right he was! My series on PBS was out of money and I wasn’t sure what lay ahead. I accepted his offer. There’s a story that when the word got around that I was coming to CBS, a colleague said to Bill, “Moyers is still atoning for his years at the White House.” And Bill reportedly said, “With sins of that magnitude he will be atoning for a long time to come.” Right again.

My thanks to you, Walter [Cronkite], for those extravagant words. Walter welcomed me at his side on many CBS broadcasts despite our differences when I had been on the other side. You may have heard about the famous spat that occurred when I thought something on the “CBS Evening News” had been unfair. I called Walter from my White House office to complain. We had quite an exchange. When word of it got back to LBJ, he called me and asked: “Did you tell Walter Cronkite he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about?” “Yes, Mr. President, I did.” “And did you accuse him of being a hired stooge for Bill Paley [chairman of CBS]?” “Yes, Mr. President, I did.” “And did you call him a liar?” “No, Mr. President, I forgot that.”

Cherished Memories

Walter the Magnanimous of course forgave me, and over the years we became friends as well as colleagues. Judith and I were privileged to spend New Year’s Eve with the Cronkites in Vienna last year, just a few months before Betsy’s death. What a celebration it was-fireworks at midnight, champagne, glorious music and long meals as the two of them regaled us with stories from their days at United Press. You heard it here, young journalists: Such moments of camaraderie last when the adrenaline and celebrity have disappeared. Cherish them.

My thanks to you, Tom Johnson, for your generous words. I picked Tom from the litter to work at my side in the White House when he was only 22. Some people thought I was impressed by his Harvard MBA. Not true. I was impressed by the fact that he had worked as a reporter for his hometown newspaper in Macon, Georgia. My first job in journalism came when I was l6 and was hired as a cub reporter on my local paper. I knew you learned a lot more about life there than in graduate school, and I wanted Tom Johnson on my team. Some people looked at that slender, intense young man and saw the acorn; I saw the oak. When he became the closest man to the president, then publisher of the Dallas Times-Herald and the Los Angeles Times and then president of CNN, I was not the least surprised. He never forgot his roots, or his friends.

Thank you, Paula Kerger [president of PBS], my colleague and friend for l5 years at WNET/Thirteen, for what you said. Your predecessor and also my friend, Pat Mitchell, is here, without whom there would have been no “Now With Bill Moyers.” Bill Baker, the president of Thirteen, our flagship station, is here, too; without him I might have wound up another journalist without a home.

I want to thank all the executives at CBS and PBS and Channel Thirteen who made a creative space for me all these years-and the producers, editors, researchers, camera crews and other colleagues who carried me on their shoulders. Without them I would have been just another voice in the wilderness.

I want to thank the First Amendment.

I want to thank John Henry Faulk. The legendary broadcaster was a friend of mine, a fellow Texan, who was targeted and tormented and driven from the air by the venomous Right but who fought back with courage to put them to shame. In the last interview he did before his death, John Henry told me the story of how he and Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken house when they were about l2 years old. They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. “All our frontier courage drained out of our boots,” John Henry told me. “Actually, it trickled down our overall legs, and Boots and I made a new door through the henhouse wall. Momma came out and, learning what all the fuss was about, said to us boys, `Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.”‘ And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, “Yes, ma’am, I know that. But they can scare you so bad it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.” John Henry Faulk told me he never forgot that lesson. When my knees grow weak, and my heart races, and I feel myself growing timid, I try not to forget it, either.

I especially want to thank my funders, the people who put up the money to make my journalism possible.

I chose to follow my bliss-to join the list of endangered species and become an independent journalist. Our country doesn’t particularly like independent journalists. They make you see things many prefer not to see and they say things many wish were left unsaid.

I have thought a great deal about this. I grew up in the South. We drove the truth about slavery from the newsroom, the classroom and the pulpit. It took a bloody civil war to bring the truth home.

I served in the LBJ White House. We circled our wagons and mocked the courageous reporting of the David Halberstams, the Peter Arnetts and the Morley Safers, with tragic consequences for America and Vietnam. Not to repeat that grievous error became the driving force of my work. When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to the truth. I have had to carve on the frontal lobe of my brain those words of the news photographer in the Tom Stoppard play “Night and Day”: “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse when everybody’s kept in the dark.”

Independent journalism, especially investigative documentaries, doesn’t come easily. Unless you are willing to drive the people you are working with nuts going over every last detail to get it right, and then take hit after hit accusing you of bias, there’s no use even trying it. You have to love it, and I do. I.F. Stone had something to say about this. He brought down on his head the sustained wrath of the high and mighty with his little four-page weekly of fact-based journalism. No matter how much the powers that be pummeled him, Izzy Stone said, “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.”

But just as it doesn’t come easily, journalism doesn’t come cheap. I remember when our oldest son turned l6 and asked for an increase in his allowance. I said, “Don’t you know there are some things more important than money?” And he answered, “Yes, Dad,
but it takes money to date them.”

It takes money to research, report, produce and edit. Without funding, the First Amendment is just an empty ATM machine; it whirrs but nothing happens. I lost three corporate funders early on who were happy with my work as long as it didn’t make anyone else unhappy. Losing your funding as an independent journalist can set the yellow light of caution flickering in the back of your mind. But I was one lucky fellow. When I left CBS for the independent life, invisible hands arrived to lift me. Mutual of America Insurance Co. became my sole corporate sponsor and has remained so for all these years, thanks to William Flynn and Tom Moran, who is here tonight. The Schumann Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Kohlberg Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and so many others over the years became faithful funders through thick and thin. I would not have made it without them.

Or without some remarkable women. One is Joan Konner, the co-founder of Public Affairs Television, who not only left me for another man-the indomitable Al Perlmutter-but to become dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

And Diana Warner, our comptroller all these years-and a soul sister to everyone who has passed through the place.

And Judy Doctoroff, who is sitting right over there. She joined us soon out of Yale, after a short stint at NBC, 20 years ago. She has done it all-from production assistant to producer to executive producer and now to the president of our company.

She has been extraordinary in assembling the most creative teams in this field to do the work you honor tonight.

And then there is Judith Davidson Moyers, my companion, partner and wife since I was 20 and she was l9. The co-creator of hundreds of hours of programming, my executive editor in all we do-our CEO and the strongest voice in the room for doing what’s right-a journalist in her own right. One fine September day 54 years ago I fell in love, and through all our ups and downs, through all the reviews good and bad, all the vicissitudes of the world and journalism and the raising of three children, she has been the constant in my life.

We are both honored to be among all of you who do the best work in our business.