Progressive TV Journalism: Moyers & Company, Media, and Vietnam

bill moyers susan crawfordI have long admired Bill Moyers. Since his days as the publisher of Newsday (1967-1970), after serving as President Johnson’s press secretary, he has been a consistent voice of progressive journalism. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications stated, Moyers is “one of the few broadcast journalists who might be said to approach the stature of Edward R. Murrow. If Murrow founded broadcast journalism, Moyers significantly extended its traditions.” This quote is taken from a Huffington Post bio on him, which provides the essentials of his distinguished career.

Like all of us, he has made his mistakes and he has his critics. The latter are mainly on the Right but there are even some on the Left (see, e.g., the 2009 essay “Bill Moyers’ Memory: Why You Can’t Trust It”). But amidst the polluted TV waters, filled with all sorts of inanities, his programs have been isles of reason and sanity. In 1961 FCC chairman Newton Minow, in his speech comparing TV to a “vast wasteland,” stated: “You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.  And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending.  And most of all, boredom.” A half-century later, we have more choices, especially if we have money for premium cable; but if not, we still get much of what Minow observed in 1961, especially the commercials, as Super Bowl Sunday reminded us—average commercial cost: $3.8 million. And these Minow reminders bring us back to Moyers and one of the two guests he conversed with on Moyers & Company the Sunday after the Super Bowl. For she was Susan Crawford, who many Progressives, including Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, believe should follow in Minow’s footsteps and become the next FCC chairman.

Moyers and Crawford discussed her recent book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. As she told Moyers: Enormous telecommunications companies, Comcast and Time Warner on the wired side, Verizon and AT&T on the wireless side, have divided up markets, put themselves in the position where they’re subject to no competition and no oversight from any regulatory authority. And they’re charging us a lot for internet access and giving us second class access. For 19 million Americans, many in rural areas, you can’t get access to a high speed connection at any price, it’s just not there. For a third of Americans, they don’t subscribe often because it’s too expensive. So the rich are getting gouged, the poor are very often left out. And this means that we’re creating yet again two Americas and deepening inequality through this communications inequality.

As an example, she mentioned an “article about kids needing to go to McDonald’s to do their homework because they don’t have an internet connection at home.”

Moyers then provided some figures of his own: “only four out of ten households with annual household incomes below $25,000 reported having wired internet access at home compared with 93 percent of households with incomes exceeding $100,000.”

Crawford responded that “the U.S. at the best is in the middle of the pack [of nations] when it comes to both the speed and cost of high speed internet access connections. So in Hong Kong right now you can get a 500 megabit symmetric connection that’s unimaginably fast from our standpoint for about 25 bucks a month.”

Crawford blames our middling performance mainly on politics: “Instead of ensuring that everyone in America can compete in a global economy, instead of narrowing the divide between rich and poor, instead of supporting competitive free markets for American inventions that use information, instead . . . U.S. politicians have chosen to keep Comcast and its fellow giants happy. They “believe that it’s better to have government stay out of industry. In this particular place no government intervention is actually disaster for the country because we leave so many people behind, we subject ourselves to the informational control of just a few giants. . . . It is in fact government’s role to stand up against the ethic that might makes right. In most of America there is no government factor keeping these bullies from charging us whatever they want.

Moyers asked her what she would do if she were made head of the FCC, and she provided some insightful answers, including ensuring that municipalities exercise their maximum authority to further the common communications good. What the likelihood of President Obama ever appointing her is, it is difficult to say. But at present, there is a petition on the whitehouse.gov site that asks him to do just that. As Progressives, we can at least sign it.

nick turse bill moyersMoyers’ second guest that same night was Nick Turse, who talked about his book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Moyers confessed to him, “your book is very important to me. I was there at the White House in the 1960s, when President Johnson escalated the war. My own great regret is that I didn’t see the truth of the war in time didn’t see what was happening there.”

Turse described his book as “the story of Vietnam veterans told by Vietnam veterans,” but it is mainly their account of U.S. atrocities in the war. One of the most interesting exchanges between Moyars and Turse was as follows:

BILL MOYERS: But let me play for you what John Kerry said back in 1971, when he returned from Vietnam and he joined with other Vietnam veterans to talk about the kind of war they had experienced. Here’s what he said.

JOHN KERRY TALKING BEFORE THE SENATE: Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: All these years later, this book you’ve been working on for ten years, based upon these documents buried at the National Archives, confirmed what John Kerry was saying then.

NICK TURSE: All the atrocities that Kerry mentions by name there I found evidence of all of those types of crimes represented in the records of this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group in the government’s own files. So at the same time that–you know, that Kerry and the veterans that he was referring to there were being smeared as fake veterans or as liars, the military had all these records that proved that these were just the very crimes that were going on in Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: And the military had these records in 2004, when John Kerry was being swiftboated.

NICK TURSE: That’s right. You know, these records existed then. There was proof at the time that the military they knew about it and they didn’t disclose it to the public.

During the Vietnam War, we often heard a running total of U.S. deaths in the war and eventually that a little under 60,000 had died.  But Vietnamese deaths?  No one seemed to care much. President Richard Nixon apparently didn’t, as he told his national security adviser Henry Kissinger in 1972 when the latter manifested some concern over civilian deaths from U.S. bombing : ”You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don’t give a damn.  I don’t care.”

But Turse told Moyers of the “almost unfathomable suffering on the part of the Vietnamese people. You know, the best estimates that we have are 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths overall, combatants and noncombatants, two million of them civilians. 5.3 million civilians wounded using a very conservative method of estimation. . . . [plus] “11 million Vietnamese who were made refugees during the war. And the latest studies show that up to four million Vietnamese were exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. So this is–it’s suffering on a scale that I don’t think that most Americans can fully wrap their head around.”

At the end of his interview, Moyers asked Turse what good he thought might come from his book. Turse replied that he hoped it might influence present U.S. policies. He mentioned our military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, but added that he didn’t “think that Americans really have a clear picture of those wars. And what they’ve meant for people overseas, what they’ve meant to civilians around the world. So I hope that my book might be able to, you know, to add to that conversation, to open America’s eyes to what wars mean for people overseas. And if we’re asked to send our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters to war, I think we should have some idea of what it means for the sons and daughters of people overseas.” Progressives can only applaud such a goal.

Those two interviews just about completed the hour of Moyers & Company that I watched. But Moyers did add a brief comment critical of  President Obama’s drone policy. That policy had been the main subject of his previous week’s show. Two weeks ago the subjects for discussion were “Senate favoritism for the world’s largest biotech firm” and “abortion rights activism.” walter moss

I do not always agree with everything Moyers or his guests say. But coupled with his web site, which offers full episodes, transcripts, and more of and about his show, Moyers & Company offers some of the most thoughtful progressive commentary now on television.

Walter G. Moss

Monday, 11 February 2013

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