Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

MOYERS, BILL (b. 1934)

Bill Moyers was born Billy Don in Hugo, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1934. He grew up in Marshall, Texas. Marshall was a small town, and books were Moyers's entry into the larger world outside his home. He attributes his love of the spoken and written word to growing up among storytellers in East Texas, including his father, who had only a fourth-grade education but was a well-known spinner of yarns.

Moyers's own first stories were as a print journalist, beginning with a part-time job at the age of fifteen on the local Marshall Messenger. He later attended the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and became a fully ordained Baptist minister. Journalistic and ministerial careers were followed by a third one in politics. At twenty-seven he joined the staff of Texas senator Lyndon Johnson, and he served Johnson in one capacity or another from 1959 to 1966. He was on Johnson's staff through the Texas politician's first year as vice president and his first three years as president after John F. Kennedy's assassination. As Johnson's press secretary during the early part of the Vietnam War, Moyers later joked that the administration faced a credibility gap "so bad we didn't believe our own press releases." It was an ironic position for him to be in, considering his later image as journalistic truth seeker, and it occasioned some bitter controversies with critics in later years.

After leaving the Johnson administration Moyers reentered the newspaper business for three years as publisher of Long Island's Newsday. In 1970 the paper was bought by the Los Angeles Times, and Moyers was replaced. Moyers then began his distinguished career as a journalist and reporter on public television.

More familiar with the worlds of politics and publishing than television when he first appeared on WNET-TV, New York's pbs station, in 1970, Bill Moyers worked alternately out of the Public Broadcasting Service and cbs in a variety of settings and with a wide range of producers. He extended the "think-piece" tradition of Edward R. Murrow in filmed and taped interviews. His dedication to the written word, his ability to provide historical context for central themes in American life, and his moral passion recalled Murrow at his best. In interviews with artists, scientists, politicians, and provocative thinkers of all kinds, Moyers brought to television what he called the "conversation of democracy." The foundation support and funding Moyers elicited in the 1970s and early 1980s gave him degrees of freedom few broadcasters possessed, and he was constantly working to consolidate his position of independence from both network and governmental control. Never a talk-show host in conventional terms, he produced 600 hours of programming (filmed and videotaped conversations and documentary interviews) between 1971 and 1989 alone, or the equivalent of more than half an hour of programming a week for eighteen years.

Many of Moyers's programs have also had significant afterlives. Filmed conversations with mythology scholar Joseph Campbell and poet Robert Bly sold tens of thousands of copies in videocassette after they were aired. One of Moyers's programs, "Marshall, Texas," in the Creativity series, celebrated his own hometown. Produced by David Grubin, many consider it one of his finest pieces of work. Moyers also produced books to accompany many of his most successful television series, for example, The Secret Government (1988), A World of Ideas (1989), A World of Ideas II (1990), and Healing the Mind (1992). These books consistently placed Moyers on the New York Times best-seller list.

What Bill Moyers proved, beginning in the 1970s and then into the 1980s and 1990s, was that television talk could be both subtle and profound–and much more versatile than most people thought. He showed that despite limitations imposed on televised talk by the "commodification" of most talk-show formats, the range of what could be said on television need not be limited to superficialities. From early Great Plains roots, Moyers rose to be considered one of the people who most faithfully followed Edward R. Murrow in raising the standards of journalism, public debate, and inquiry on the most powerful medium of public presentation in the United States: television.

See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Johnson, Lyndon Baines.

Bernard M. Timberg Johnson C. Smith University

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