Moyers, Tavis Smiley Discuss Fall of the 'American Empire' on PBS

Bill Moyers appeared not only on The Daily Show Tuesday, but on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, where he repeated all his lines in defense of Jeremiah Wright. Moyers also declared that while "I believe in capitalism...the tension between capitalism and democracy is that capitalism breeds inequality while democracy aims for more equality," and the media serves only the rich. When Smiley asked if were "witnessing the fall of the American empire," Moyers said yes, and that "it's probably a good thing that our empire has reached the extent of it -- has extended itself so far that it's beginning to have to have some second thoughts about it."The talk of America's "empire," as if America were no different than ancient Rome, came near the end of the segment:

SMILEY: How would you respond if I said to you, Bill Moyers, that we are witnessing the fall of the American empire? You are a student of history. You know that every empire eventually falls. And what if I said to you that our democracy is so dysfunctional that it is irreparable, and that what you and I are witnessing, sad to say, is the fall of the American empire?MOYERS: This is exactly what I write about in "Moyers on America." It's why I wanted Doubleday to bring out this book, because my - we don't fall. Empires fail, but people go on. After the Roman Empire failed, the lives of people went on. And it's probably a good thing that our empire has reached the extent of it - has extended itself so far that it's beginning to have to have some second thoughts about it.SMILEY: Somebody once said, Bill, that -- speaking of democracy -- that people should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of its people. I sense that we are in many respects, we the people, that is, are afraid of our government, afraid of this behemoth, and don't really know where to begin, with all due respect to Mr. Obama and his notion of hope, don't really know where to begin to change things.MOYERS: And the answer is to cast your vote the way your conscience leads you to in November, but don't stop there. You've got to get involved in ongoing political organization with like-minded people who live nearest you. Franklin Roosevelt said, "A government by money is just as much to be feared as a government by mob." And the only way to - the only antidote to the power of organized money is the power of organized people.

In this case, it would be the "organized people" trying to electioneer for the Obama campaign on taxpayer-funded PBS stations. The interview began with Moyers discussing his Jeremiah Wright interview. Smiley was predictably disgusted by the story and how it proved our democracy was dysfunctional:

SMILEY: Let me start, before I get into [the book] Moyers on Democracy, talking about democracy with your reflections on this side of your conversation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the story that just doesn't seem to die.MOYERS: No, but I think Obama has put it behind him, and I think that's one of the more tragic scenes we've seen play out in politics for a long time. We're used to the politics of personal destruction, but never in our political have we seen a pastor have to break or a parishioner have to break with his pastor the way we've just seen.It was tragic, unfortunate, but apparently inevitable, and I think they've put it behind them now. My hunch is that Jeremiah Wright is back where he wanted to be, leading a quiet life, and Obama's moved on, and we saw a great thing in this country in which in Indiana and North Carolina people actually realized that the man who sat in the pew running for president was not the man in the pulpit who was preaching the sermons.And they've made a judgment that refuted the argument of guilt by association, and the country has moved on.SMILEY: You been around a long time, Bill Moyers, back to your LBJ days. You know, you have to know that this is going to come up again in the general election.MOYERS: Oh, I know the swiftboaters will use this to go after Obama if he's the nominee, and I suspect he will be the nominee. I had Jeremiah Wright on. I'd never met him, Tavis, although our paths had crossed 40 years ago and neither one of us know it. But I'd never met him. But when all of this happened, I don't believe in assassination by sound bite, and I wanted to know who is this man that we're seeing in these endlessly looped news clips, the same thing over and over again?

He repeated the same Wright-defending lines from the Daily Show. There was Wright's 200,000 minutes of sermonizing taken out of context; how he could have been a scholar, but preached in the inner city; that he didn't organize a Moral Majority or seek out a national stage; how he blew up at the National Press Club because we was angry at how he thought he might have hurt Obama. He did add a weird line about Wright: "He is suddenly thrust onto the stage for which he wasn't prepared, about which he was often misquoted."I think the danger for Wright is that it was all on YouTube, and no misquoting was necessary.For Smiley, this Wright story was a perfect example about everything wrong with democracy and capitalism today. Moyers lectured that the rich were in too much control (with no talk about how rich Moyers is after all his PBS-related  business dealings):

SMILEY: Now, speaking of things that you say, to "Moyers on Democracy." Isn't this Jeremiah Wright scenario just another example, just more proof that our democracy is dysfunctional, given how we handled it? We have a dysfunctional democracy.MOYERS: That's right. We cannot get serious ideas discussed in public anymore because of the state of our media, quite honestly. There was a great Swiss historian, the late Jacob Burckhardt, who said, "Beware the terrible simplifiers." We can't get the media to talk in depth about some of these great issues, like race. We were about to have a really engaging conversation on race after Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia, but the Jeremiah Wright fracas cut that off and the way it was sliced up into various segments on the media.We can't get the media to talk about the basic structural problem in which we have a great American wealth machine but increasingly, it serves the people at the top and not the people at the bottom. Ten percent of the people in this country own 60 percent of the wealth, and 70 percent of this country have no net worth assets at all.I believe in capitalism, but the tension between capitalism and democracy is that capitalism breeds inequality while democracy aims for more equality. And right now, capitalism is essentially serving the people at the top, and we can't get an honest discourse about that in the media.SMILEY: Tell me how that problem gets any better with media now down to two or three conglomerates, if you will.MOYERS: Yeah, as we've seen -- it's not that we don't have really intelligent and competent journalists, but they don't own the instruments they play. They're played increasingly by -- these instruments are owned increasingly by a handful of big corporations whose sole interest is in the bottom line.The answer, Tavis, is alternative press. The Internet's a great hope for us all because it means more voices can be heard. We're going to turn to the independent magazines that don't depend upon conglomerate organization or conglomerate profits. We've got to build up an alternative democratic press in this country so there can be a countervailing and alternative view of life and the issues that we face.

As if there is no existing national liberal media in America. Smiley closed the interview with a gooey compliment: "I think every television network ought to be judged by the best they've been able to produce, and Bill Moyers is the best here on PBS, and we are honored to have him here."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis