I am a creature of habit. Routine gives me comfort and security. When I have a sure thing to look forward to, I find it easier to get through weekly challenges and let minor irritations roll off my back.
For the past several years, my Friday night routine has involved three things: take-out pizza, a Cosmopolitan, and Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. (Yes, my life really is that exciting.)
But tomorrow, April 30, 2010, marks the end of the healthiest and most socially redeeming part of my weekly routine.
As of tomorrow night, Bill Moyers is retiring from weekly television, and Bill Moyers Journal will be no more.
There are those who characterize Moyers as "too partisan". They say that the Journal is "too liberal". And while it is true that Moyers' point of view is decidedly left of center, I have to wonder if his critics have ever watched one episode. If not, then they definitely missed these memorable (and thoroughly non-partisan) pieces:
- Mark Johnson, Chairman of the Board of the Playing For Change Foundation. You might remember a viral video that made the rounds several months back - a version of "Stand By Me", played and sung by musicians from around the world. This was the beginning of the movement. Playing For Change seeks to unite the world and bring peace through music, by building music schools and supplying instruments and music education to people all over the globe. I first learned about it from this segment of the Journal.
- Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the first African-American woman to have an endowed professorship named in her honor at Harvard University. She was on the Journal discussing her recent book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, in which she posits that the period after age 50 can be the most productive and creative time of a person's life.
- Jane Goodall joined Moyers for an entire hour, discussing her fifty-year career studying Chimpanzees in the wild, and championing the causes of conservation and species preservation. She describes an early encounter with David Greybeard, one of the first Chimpanzees she ever made contact with, in the Gombe preserve: "This was this wonderful situation when right in the early days, I was following David Greybeard. And I thought I'd lost him in a tangle of undergrowth. And I found him sitting as though he was waiting, maybe he was. He was on his own. I don't know. And I picked up this red palm nut and held it out on my palm. And he turned his face away. So, I held my palm closer, and then he turned; he looked directly into my eyes. He reached out-- hold out your hand with a nut on it. He took it. He didn't want it. He dropped it. But at the same time, he very gently squeezed my fingers, which is how a chimp reassures. So, there was this communication. He understood that I was acting in good faith. He didn't want it, but he wanted me to reassure me that he understood. So, we understood each other without the use of words." This description brought tears to my eyes. She is a fascinating woman and a true pioneer in the field of primate research and conservation.
- An inspiring interview with humanitarian Greg Mortenson, author of the book "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School At a Time." Mortenson has helped establish over 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing for the education of nearly 60,000 children, three-quarters of them girls. You can watch the interview or read the transcript here.
- I almost didn't watch The Journal on February 12th. Moyers' guest was Bill T. Jones, dancer, choreographer, and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award. He was going to be discussing his latest work, a ballet about the life of Abraham Lincoln (believe me, I could hardly picture it either) called "Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray." (The title is taken from a line in Lincoln's second inaugural address.) I had my doubts about this one, but I'm so glad I ended up watching the entire broadcast. I encourage you to watch the video. There is a scene from the ballet, a very stylized slave auction, set to a reading of a portion of Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric", that is absolutely stunning.
- Poetry anyone? More time has been devoted to poets and poetry on the Journal than to any other art form. Guests have included W.S. Merwin, Nikki Giovanni, Robert Bly, and Coleman Barks (reading the works of Rumi), as well as a tribute to Lucille Clifton, segments on the Dodge Poetry Festival and the Poets House in New York City, and a very entertaining discussion about poetry with actor John Lithgow. You won't find a more passionate advocate for poetry than Bill Moyers.
- A discussion of global food and hunger issues with clergyman and economist David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World.
- A fascinating conversation with author Louise Erdrichabout everything from writing, to spirituality, to preserving the Ojibwe language, to a child's experience of shame. She read from one of her works, a passage which I think will resonate with all writers, but especially women writers: "Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator and earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor. Leave the black crumbs at the bottom of the toaster. Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup. Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins. Don't even sew in a button. Let the wind have its way, then the earth that invades as dust and then the dead foaming up in gray rolls under the couch. Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome. Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzle or the doll's tiny shoes, don't worry who uses whose toothbrush or if anything matches, at all. Except one word to another. Or a thought. Pursue the authentic. Go after it with all your heart. Your heart, that place you don't even think of cleaning out. That closet stuffed with savage mementoes. Don't sort the paperclips from screws from saved baby teeth or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner again. Don't answer the telephone, ever, or weep over anything that breaks. Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life and talk to the dead who drift in through screened windows, who collect patiently on tops of food jars and books. Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything except what destroys the insulation between yourself and your experience."
- An interview with Leymah Gbowee, who led the women of Liberia in the struggle to end to the civil war in that country. The recipient of a John F. Kennedy Profile In Courage Award, her story is told in the award-winning film, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell".
This list barely scratches the surface. (Seriously, if I listed every segment that affected me deeply in some way, this post would be ten times longer than it already is.) The breadth of issues discussed on the Journal, and the depth and intelligence with which they are presented, makes subsequent viewing of any network news program, CNN, and most especially Fox, almost unbearable. The list of authors, historians, journalists (real journalists - the kind who write for McClatchy or who have won Pulitzer prizes), humanitarians, activists, community organizers, filmmakers, scientists, labor leaders, educators, theologians, policy experts, media analysts, physicians, economists, artists and scholars who have appeared on the Journal is as dizzying as it is impressive. These are people you rarely see anywhere else on television, and I would encourage anyone reading here to explore the program's archive to see what you may have missed. Most of the guests on the Journal aren't particularly telegenic or "sexy", but damn they are smart and passionate, and they are the kind of people we need to hear from more often. (After they appeared on the show, Moyers asked each of his guests to summarize what the American dream means to them. A collection of those summaries, along with beautiful black and white portraits by Robin Holland, can be found here.)
I know that many conservatives were upset when Moyers welcomed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright as a guest before the 2008 presidential election. Wright certainly was a polarizing figure during the months leading up to that election. But was there any other broadcast journalist in America who actually had the courage to let us hear more from Reverend Wright than the same video clip that we saw over and over and over again? (And ask yourself this: Can anyone's entire worldview and philosophy be summed up in a short video clip? Can yours? If the answer is no, then why in the world would that be enough for you to form an opinion of anyone else?)
You could continue disagree with Jeremiah Wright all you want, but after watching the interview, at least you had enough information to make up your own mind, instead of being fed a pre-digested opinion by the mainstream media.
Moyers has also tackled issues on which liberals and conservatives can find common ground, as in this discussion featuring Ted Olson and David Boies, who were oppposing counsels before the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. They appeared together to talk about the case they are bringing in an effort to overturn Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.
I blogged last November about an appearance on the Journal by Richard Brookhiser, a conservative's conservative, and how refreshing it was to see these two men, from completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, sit at a table and have a challenging but respectful discussion. This is what is almost completely missing from broadcast journalism today, and with Moyers' retirement, there will be one less example of how it should be done.
And that's what I love most about the Journal. There are no "gotcha" moments, no shouting or bullying. Just civil, intelligent conversation that respects the viewer and that takes enough time to completely explore a subject. I suppose this might seem a little boring if one has become used to what passes for discussion on most "news" programs, but it's worth the effort and concentration.
I know that I have become a better-informed person - a better citizen too - by spending my Friday nights watching the Journal. The list of books I want to read has grown longer every week, and my understanding of the world has expanded in immeasurable ways.
But now I wonder if there is anyone else out there who will fill the void. I fear that a program like the Journal is considered old-fashioned, and that once it's gone, it will be just one more nail in the coffin of rational discourse and integrity in broadcast journalism. I hope that I am wrong.
(Photo from seattlemet.com)
And so I raise my glass one final time to you, Bill Moyers. May you enjoy a long, healthy and happy retirement!