America's Socrates: Bill Moyers

“Bill Moyers Journal” is possibly the best show on television, so I was depressed by Bill Moyers' decision to retire from the show in April. What makes it so great? Neal Gabler’s analysis of why Bill Moyers is uniquely wonderful explains far more thoughtfully than I ever could:

If Moyers has been more interested in morality than in politics, he has also been more interested in the ways one arrives at moral conclusions than in the conclusions themselves, which is another quality that makes his programs so distinctive. For Moyers, real morality isn’t posited; it is arrived at, so that debate itself is a moral process and ideas part of an ongoing moral exploration. No one on television has centralized the discussion of ideas as much as Moyers…

Moyers has always sought the most interesting thinkers, people who would never otherwise be on television, and then discussed their ideas in search of timeless truths. In the last two months alone, he has interviewed naturalist Jane Goodall, playwright Anna Deavere Smith, economist James K. Galbraith and U.N. human rights investigator Richard Goldstone — a disparate group, none of them exactly headliners. In a sense, then, the title of one of his series, “Now,” was a misnomer. Moyers has never been about now. He has always been about something beyond the moment. Or put another way, while everyone else in the media has been exploring topography, Moyers has been exploring geology.

This belief in the efficacy of ideas in the service of good is also what has made him such an extraordinary interviewer. In a world of certainty that forecloses investigation, Moyers has curiosity. In a world of glibness and superficiality, he has a rare temerity of mind. In a world of ego and bombast, he has always been modest and self-effacing. He not only gives a forum to unusual thinkers, he is truly, visibly, interested in what they have to say and in who they are because he believes that their ideas really matter. It is clear that for Moyers, these interviews aren’t a way to fill time or amuse an audience or aggrandize himself, and he obviously has no interest in the “get” — the hot interview. Instead, they have always been a way to learn how, once again, to make things better by accumulating the wisdom of people who are trying to do just that — people who are engaging the world. In short, they are a search for moral prescriptions…

He has both a goodness and a gravitas [his right-wing enemies] lack. We know that he doesn’t need or want attention, that there is nothing for him to gain personally by battling corporate America or fundamentalist America or our government or the media that so often enable these other forces or any of what he has called “the apologists for people in power,” and that there is much to be lost…

With depressing accuracy, the article notes that “There really is no place for quiet truth on television anymore, only shouted opinions; no place for speaking truth to power, only repeating what power dictates; no place for morality, only strict, self-righteous moralism.”

Whatever happened to Socrates, anyhow? Oh, that’s right. The people voted to poison him to death.

Posted by James on Tuesday, December 15, 2009