On the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, PBS “NOW” host Bill Moyers said the ensuing “zeal for secrecy” in America has created “a victory for the terrorists.”
Moyers, speaking at the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Convention in New York City, criticized the Bush administration for what Moyers characterized as withholding information from the American public.
“We are witnessing new barriers imposed to public access to information and a rapid mutation of America’s political culture in favor of the secret rule of government,” said Moyers, whose long career includes a stint as White House press secretary during the Johnson administration.
“Never has there been an administration like the one in power today — so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and — in defiance of the Constitution — from their representatives in Congress,” he said.
The increasing secrecy plays into terrorists’ hands, Moyers said.
“They aimed their atrocity at possessing our psyche,” Moyers said. “It is as if they wanted to keep us from ever again believing in a safe, decent or just world and from working to bring it about.”
A White House spokeswoman responded to the criticism by calling the administration’s efforts “as transparent as possible.”
President George W. Bush “has taken necessary steps to protect the nation,” said spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo.
“There is great respect for the law and great respect for the American people knowing how their government is operating,” she said.
Moyers cited several examples of what he called secrecy.
He said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card asked for a review that removed more than 6,000 documents from government Web sites. Moyers also criticized the U.S. Department of Defense for not allowing photographs of American soldiers’ caskets. And he said the Central Intelligence Agency now asks potential hires if they have reporters as friends.
“Secrecy is contagious, scandalous and toxic,” Moyers said, referring to new public information restrictions from Notasulga, a small Alabama town, which requires residents to present written reasons for their requests to view public records, to Florida, where the state legislature recently added 14 more exemptions to its open records laws.
Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said Moyers is uniquely positioned to comment on the Bush administration’s public disclosure record.
Moyers has won more than 30 Emmy awards, including one for the PBS series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.” He is writing a book about former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Moyers also is a former publisher of Newsday and a former deputy director of the Peace Corps.
“Bill Moyers is in a special position because he conducts a program on public television that does express a point of view, and he has always expressed a point of view as the conductor of this program,” said Loory, editor of IPI Global Journalist magazine. “It would not be appropriate for a headline Washington correspondent or White House correspondent. It certainly is not inappropriate for Bill Moyers.”
Loory said there has been a trend toward less public disclosure dating back to, in his experience, John F. Kennedy’s administration. Loory said technology has made suppression easier, too.
“My feeling is that all of them (administrations) want to make sure that they are putting out information in a way that is going to best reflect the needs of the president at the time,” Loory said. “I think that there has been a progression over the years, and the progression has been toward more and more suppression of news and information.”
Moyers’ speech has been reprinted on several Web sites, including www.tompaine.com and www.commondreams.org. The speech also is posted on SPJ’s web site, www.spj.org.
In his speech, Moyers recounted his reporting experiences and said it is important “not how close you are to power, but how close you are to reality.”
Moyers said practicing journalism is becoming more difficult.
Referring to stories on climate change, Moyers mused, “How do we journalists get a handle on something of that enormity?”
Moyers said journalists who try to report on complicated political and religious issues risk being “driven to the margin.” Moyers warned against media consolidation and criticized what he called the “gee-whiz coverage ” of the America Online and Time Warner merger.
“Something profound is going on here,” Moyers said. “The framers of our nation never envisioned these huge media giants.”
Matthew Rodriguez is an English and journalism major at Boston University. The junior covered the SPJ National Convention in New York City for The Working Press.