Published on Wednesday, November 12, 2003 by

Keynote Address to the National Conference on Media Reform

by Bill Moyers
Founding Director, Public Affairs Television
President, The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy
November 8, 2003
Madison, Wisconsin

Thank you for inviting me tonight. I’m flattered to be speaking to a gathering as high-powered as this one that’s come together with an objective as compelling as “media reform.” I must confess, however, to a certain discomfort, shared with other journalists, about the very term “media.” Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Case Western Reserve, articulated my concerns better than I could when he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 23, 2001)

that the very concept of media is insulting to some of us within the press who find ourselves lumped in with so many disparate elements, as if everyone with a pen, a microphone, a camera, or just a loud voice were all one and the same. …David Broder is not Matt Drudge. “Meet the Press” is not “Temptation Island.” And I am not Jerry Springer. I do not speak for him. He does not speak for me. Yet ‘the media” speaks for us all.

That’s how I felt when I saw Oliver North reporting on Fox from Iraq, pressing our embattled troops to respond to his repetitive and belittling question, “Does Fox Rock? Does Fox Rock?” Oliver North and I may be in the same “media” but we are not part of the same message. Nonetheless, I accept that I work and all of us live in “medialand,” and God knows we need some “media reform.” I’m sure you know those two words are really an incomplete description of the job ahead. Taken alone, they suggest that you’ve assembled a convention of efficiency experts, tightening the bolts and boosting the output of the machinery of public enlightenment, or else a conclave of high-minded do-gooders applauding each other’s sermons. But we need to be — and we will be — much more than that. Because what we’re talking about is nothing less than rescuing a democracy that is so polarized it is in danger of being paralyzed and pulverized.

Alarming words, I know. But the realities we face should trigger alarms. Free and responsible government by popular consent just can’t exist without an informed public. That’s a cliché, I know, but I agree with the presidential candidate who once said that truisms are true and clichés mean what they say (an observation that no doubt helped to lose him the election.) It’s a reality: democracy can’t exist without an informed public. Here’s an example: Only 13% of eligible young people cast ballots in the last presidential election. A recent National Youth Survey revealed that only half of the fifteen hundred young people polled believe that voting is important, and only 46% think they can make a difference in solving community problems. We’re talking here about one quarter of the electorate. The Carnegie Corporation conducted a youth challenge quiz of l5-24 year-olds and asked them, “Why don’t more young people vote or get involved?” Of the nearly two thousand respondents, the main answer was that they did not have enough information about issues and candidates. Let me rewind and say it again: democracy can’t exist without an informed public. So I say without qualification that it’s not simply the cause of journalism that’s at stake today, but the cause of American liberty itself. As Tom Paine put it, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” He was talking about the cause of a revolutionary America in 1776. But that revolution ran in good part on the energies of a rambunctious, though tiny press. Freedom and freedom of communications were birth-twins in the future United States. They grew up together, and neither has fared very well in the other’s absence. Boom times for the one have been boom times for the other.

Yet today, despite plenty of lip service on every ritual occasion to freedom of the press radio and TV, three powerful forces are undermining that very freedom, damming the streams of significant public interest news that irrigate and nourish the flowering of self-determination. The first of these is the centuries-old reluctance of governments — even elected governments — to operate in the sunshine of disclosure and criticism. The second is more subtle and more recent. It’s the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value. That is, to run what Edward R. Murrow forty-five years ago called broadcasting’s “money-making machine” at full throttle. In so doing they are squeezing out the journalism that tries to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth; they are isolating serious coverage of public affairs into ever-dwindling “news holes” or far from prime- time; and they are gobbling up small and independent publications competing for the attention of the American people.

It’s hardly a new or surprising story. But there are fresh and disturbing chapters.

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