Bill Moyers has devoted his career to educating, informing and inspiring the American public, in the conviction that, as he put it, “the gravediggers of democracy will not have the last word.” He is best known for his groundbreaking television documentaries, which have earned him more than 40 Emmy and Peabody awards, including lifetime achievement honors from both, and virtually every other major television journalism award. But he has also helped make history. Moyers grew up in Texas, earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (he was ordained as a minister at the age of 20), and worked on then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960 presidential campaign. He helped found the Peace Corps under President John F. Kennedy and ultimately became its deputy director. He served President Lyndon B. Johnson as special assistant and press secretary from 1963 to 1967 and played a key role in many of Johnson's innovative anti-poverty and civil rights intiatives. that came out of the LBJ’s Great Society. The American Journalism Review named him “the best White House press secretary ever."
After leaving the White House, Moyers became publisher of the Long Island newspaper Newsday. He first appeared on public television in 1971 with the first iteration of Bill Moyers Journal. It ranged beyond the politics of the day to explore ethics, philosophy, and spirituality. Moyers ranged even further in his subsequent series, Creativity and A Walk Through the Twentieth Century, and several programs on American poets.
Moyers became a news analyst and correspondent for CBS News, but resigned in 1986 to form his own production company, Public Affairs Television. With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, he has produced Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home, Genesis: A Living Conversation, Healing and the Mind, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, What Can We Do About Violence?, On Our Own Times: Moyers on Death and Dying, Moyers on Faith and Reason, NOW with Bill Moyers, and, once again, Bill Moyers Journal. His books include volumes based on those series as well as Listening to America, A World of Ideas I and II, The Language of Life, Fooling with Words, Moyers on America, and Moyers on Democracy.
Moyers’s work is fueled by a deep knowledge of history, a passion for justice and public service, a profound concern for his fellow citizens, a love of language, and an appreciation of the ethical underpinnings of the issues he tackles. His deft storytelling and prodigious research and erudition provide context and analysis that are sadly lacking in much of what passes for journalism. As one observer noted, Moyers has dared to imagine that members of his audience are willing to think and learn.
Despite his ostensible retirement, Moyers, now 77, continues to lend his unique voice to the national conversation and, inevitably, to speak truth to power. In his new book Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues (The New Press), he presents more than 40 engaging interviews from the program's 2007 through 2010 seasons, from the waning days of the George W. Bush administration to the dawn of the Obama era. His subjects include satirist Jon Stewart, historian Howard Zinn, novelists Louise Erdrich and John Grisham, anthropologist/activist Jane Goodall, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, actor-author John Lithgow, economist James K. Galbraith, scientist E.O. Wilson, poets W.S. Merwin and Nikki Giovanni, and many more. The topics range from democracy, justice, poverty, race, war, and predatory capitalism to religion, science and creativity. New introductions provide historical context for each conversation.
Moyers recently agreed to an exclusive interview for the History News Network. Over the course of two weeks he responded by email to questions about his new book, his career, his brushes with history, his writing process, and more.
Robin Lindley: You are a masterful interviewer and — unlike many journalists today — always scrupulous about providing historical context for each interview subject, as evidenced in your new book. How do you choose interview subjects and prepare for interviews?
Bill Moyers: Thanks for the compliment. Truth is, I’m okay at interviewing but better at editing. I prefer a long conversation that I then trim to essentials. It’s the closest I ever get as a journalist to craftsmanship. Remember Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth? Those six broadcasts came from 26 rambling hours of conversation during which I got lost more than once. I enjoyed the lengthy sessions with him but they would have been incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the lingo of mythology. By leaving the excess, including much of the lingo, on the cutting room floor — well, it was a cutting room floor before digital editing came along — we got to the essence of his ideas, to the stories, and the series became one of the most popular ever on public television.
There’s a figure in every stone, if only the sculptor can pare away the excess, right? Well, there’s a shape in every conversation. You carve a little, step back and look at it, then take the scalpel and carve again until — eureka! That’s the part of my work I most enjoy. Over all these years, I’m pleased to say, not a single guest has complained about the result. Now I’m jealous of my peers who do live interviews so well. But I’m not nimble on the high wire with the clock ticking. I need to listen at length, then sit with my team and edit as faithfully as possible until we find the inner arc of the experience.
How do I choose my guests? By preparation, intuition, and convergence. I read widely — magazines of every stripe. By midnight my bedside is strewn with clippings from the stack on the floor. There are books in various stages of reading all over the place — some by my chair, some on the floor, a couple on my desk, always a paperback at the ready if there’s a traffic jam or the train is slow. I scour Web sites.
Newspapers are my daily bread. I started as a cub reporter on my local paper. The publisher paid me extra to help him prepare a widely circulated newsletter called “News Tips” — gleanings from many sources — so it became a habit for me to read and rip. Now I read six or seven papers a day — at least two from abroad, two or three big ones here at home, as well as the weekly in the small town where we retreat on the weekends. Not every story in every paper, obviously. Every newspaper is full of surprises. The article you didn’t intend to read — right next to the one you felt you must read — turns out to be the most interesting of all, and you weren’t even looking for it.
I also watch several newscasts, mainly out of habit but also because I want to know what several million other people are watching. I listen to public radio. Especially programs like Planet Money, Radio Lab, On Being with Krista Tippet, On The Media, and some of the local interview shows on our first-rate public radio station here in New York. You can’t beat these people for story telling. Their radio does for the ear what 3-D movies do for the eye. And I tune in to a right-wing radio show occasionally. Most of them use the same talking points so you don’t have to listen long to get the conservative line of the day.
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