Apparently, a dam has burst among media figures regarding PBS scold Bill Moyers after last week’s Washington Post report that Moyers tried digging for homosexual dirt on LBJ aides. Suddenly, media analysts have lots of Moyers stories — and not the kind that make Moyers look any better. After reading Jack Shafer’s entry into Moyerama, which also includes a roundup of everyone else’s dishing, one has to wonder whether Moyers is as unpopular with his peers as he is with the rest of us:
Rounding out the week’s pillory is my old boss, Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin, who finds the Post discovery consistent with the thuggery that marked Moyers’ political career. As long as Moyers is taking such a well-deserved beating, allow me a couple of licks.
When Moyers was Johnson’s press secretary, he believed that journalists existed to serve the president. James Deakin writes in Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House and the Truth that Johnson’s assistant press secretary Joe Laitin told Moyers that it was OK to plant a question with reporters every once in a while at presidential news conferences. A bogus idea, for sure, but Laitin thought the technique was useful in getting important information out. “When [the president] volunteers something, everybody immediately is on guard: what’s he trying to sell?” Laitin told Deakin.
Moyers pitched the idea of planting questions to Johnson, who embraced it, giving Moyers a couple of questions for Laitin to distribute, which he did.
Johnson so loved this innovation that he was determined to plant every question at his next news conference. About 15 minutes before the session started, Moyers brought Laitin about 10 questions from the president. When Laitin protested that this was too much—”Bill, this isn’t the way it’s done”—Moyers said, “Do it!”
Shafer reports that the effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but not unique. Nancy Dickerson included another such request from Moyers in her 1976 memoirs, which also didn’t succeed, but only because someone asked the planted question first. Moyers apparently had decided that having Johnson speak for himself wasn’t sexy enough, and he importuned the White House press corps to essentially act as a propaganda unit. Dickerson expressed regret for not refusing outright to mouth Moyers’ planted question.
It gets better. In an updated version of Shafer’s story, he links to Moyers’ rebuttal, accusing Shafer of digging up “old news”. Shafer responds:
Did Moyers request FBI investigations of members of the administration who were thought to have homosexual tendencies, or did he not? When Stephens asked Moyers point-blank about his role, Moyers sent an e-mail confessing to an unclear memory of those years. Moyers’ impression, as Stephens puts it, was “that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover.”
Stephens’ article, however, unambiguously cites an FBI memo stating that Moyers requested FBI investigations of two suspected administration homosexuals. Until Moyers says or proves otherwise, I’ll assume that he did request the investigations. All the rest of his letter is a nondenial denial. …
Moyers can’t be serious about dismissing my piece as “very old news.” It’s very new news when the Post reports documentary evidence that Moyers had the FBI investigate the sexual orientation of administration figures. The Post piece places Moyers and his career in a new context worthy of re-examination.
Yes, it does. It casts Moyers as someone very comfortable with propaganda techniques, and that is very relevant, especially given Moyers’ long history as a documentarian/critic.
I had forgotten how much fun it is to read Jack Shafer. Be sure to read it all.