At a time when TV news programs feature war in real time and talk
shows morph into shouting matches, there is one program going
against the grain - with lengthy interviews, philosophical insights,
and tireless coverage of domestic issues.
"Now With Bill Moyers," which airs Friday nights, debuted in
January last year in answer to what PBS felt was a need for
responsive, post-9/11 news programming.
Mr. Moyers, who aired a series of special reports after the Sept.
11 attacks, delayed a planned retirement in order to host the weekly
Viewers familiar with Moyers's special reports and documentaries,
such as the well-known "Power of Myth" series with Joseph Campbell,
or the recent "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," probably
aren't surprised to find Moyers's philosophically framed questions
and fireside-chat style on "Now."
What may set "Now" apart from previous Moyers programming is a
tone of urgency that offers not only hard-driven, alternative news,
but decidedly cutting-edge content.
"We're trying to get the truth behind the news," says Moyers, who
also credits his production staff, who are half his age, for the
edgy tone. "An official person speaks, and we as journalists often
act as stenographers for it ... when all too often what's actually
happening behind; the words is the real story. Someone once said
that news is what's hidden, everything else is advertising."
That may sound a little, well, radical for a man in a Mr. Rogers
sweater. In fact, while Moyers still comes across as empathetic and
engaged in interviews, his on-air style is more probing and direct:
"I've become impatient with the superfluous," Moyers admits.
The "Now" method of letting people finish their thought doesn't
always thrive in a sound-bite landscape. The future of the respected
in-depth program "Nightline" was called into question last year. At
the time, "Nightline" was drawing more than 4 million viewers -
almost double the 2.3 million who tune in each week for "Now."
Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public
Affairs, compares the investigative format of "Now" to "eating your
spinach," admitting that he has not watched the program enough to
form an opinion.
Speaking generally, "seriousness and sobriety don't make for good
television," Mr. Lichter explains. "The most popular talkers are
loud and more sure of themselves.... There needs to be a place for
serious discussion of real issues on television, and PBS is about
the only place to have it - except for Fox, of course," he quips.
Nor does this seem to be the best time to be a news commentator
with views to the left of Bill O'Reilly. Liberal analysis programs
hosted by Phil Donahue and Jeff Greenfield were canceled in the past
year - leaving Moyers one of the few liberal commentators on TV.
The more popular debate formula used by news-talk programs
involves what Lichter refers to as "rock 'em sock 'em" - pitting
people who don't agree against one another. Think "The O'Reilly
Factor" and "The McLaughlin Group" - or HBO's "Real Time" with Bill
The "he said, she said" debate styles that are the order of the
day are ineffective, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the
University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, who
has been a guest on "Now. …