Bias Crimes

Bill Moyers leaves PBS in the middle of a rebalancing act

PBS president Pat Mitchell tried to make peace this summer, defending Moyers's First Amendment right to express his opinion, while noting that the network must be "all the more vigilant about ensuring balance and objectivity in this role as host and interviewer," according to the public-broadcasting magazine Current.

"Balance" and "diversity" have long been watchwords at PBS, but they have come to mean something very different from gender or ethnicity: These days diversity seems to mean making sure you have enough white Republican males on board to dodge accusations of being too liberal. Just how many conservatives does it take to balance out one wily progressive? And now that Moyers is gone, do they really need all this firepower to balance out . . . David Brancaccio?

This so-called "rebalancing" of the news media is clearly the latest front of the culture wars. "The right is on a long march through the cultural institutions one by one," argues Jay Rosen, chair of NYU's journalism department and author of But he also believes that PBS's effort to incorporate different political perspectives is a positive move. "I'd actually like to see an even broader range of voices, not just the standard ones. If PBS really wants diverse voices that don't find a foothold on commercial TV, why not a libertarian show? And how about a communitarian show!"

Of course, if the American public really is more conservative than many East Coasters realized, then it makes sense—both practically and philosophically—for a public- broadcasting station to broaden its programming. "It's all perfectly rational," argues Richard Wald, a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and a former senior vice president of ABC News. "The networks look to reality TV for ratings, and PBS looks to different constituencies for its numbers." Now it's "looking to conservatives," he says, to expand its range of viewers and donors. On the other hand, if PBS is to fulfill its original mission of providing an alternative to mainstream media, it'll have to do more than provide an additional platform for the same faces already ubiquitous on commercial networks and newspapers.

Moyers's departure from PBS is a poignant moment. Like that other great homespun PBS icon, Mister Rogers, Moyers represented a kinder, gentler view of this country. He earned Middle America's trust over the last 30 years with his series on topics like the Bible, alternative medicine, poetry, and death. And as Jay Rosen points out, "It's definitely the end of an era, because the kind of liberalism he came out of does not exist anymore."

Moyers has sometimes been accused of being preachy (that Baptist minister background, maybe) but his aim has always been clear: to reach beyond the converted and speak to the mainstream. In the last year, though, he has given a number of lectures designed to inspire the next generation of activists and investigative journalists. Brancaccio, meanwhile, seems well aware that he's working in an ideological minefield. Although his style is less strident, he vows to carry on the Moyers style of "unflinching journalism," as he puts it. "Bill is a journalist at heart, but he has life experience that allows him to say, 'I have all this experience, and here's my conclusion I'd like to share with you.' I would rather bring people along with me on the journey and say, 'I have a question you probably have, let me go out using our resources and see what's up, and we can all figure out what's going on.' "

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