Among the worst disasters for progressivism in recent decades has been the work of Aaron Sorkin, whose impossibly articulate ratatat dialogue made it way too easy to imagine sexy technocrats saving the world. It’s great entertainment, but normalized unreasonable expectations of the flawed human beings who happen to have high IQs and impeccable credentials.
As a child of the New Left, I never missed The West Wing: it was irresistible catnip for my adolescent hopes and dreams, and so much more satisfying than whatever was on the news—except for the eloquent public intellectuals on the Bill Moyers show on PBS. Later, as an idealistic policy major at Brown, I was surprised and disappointed to find basically nobody operating on that level.
It was only when I’d lucked into joining the Moyers organization that I began to understand how such Sorkinesque eloquence was manufactured each week—not with deliberate dishonesty, but ever more misleading as years passed and the scene grew shallower.
We’d typically tape on Thursday or Friday mornings to turn around by Friday nights. Being of Bill Moyers’ approximate height, I was tasked with showing up early to fill his chair as gruff union guys set up cameras and lighting. Then, as Bill’s blogger and research assistant, I’d watch live interviews from the control room to highlight quotable moments.
Uncut conversations were eye-opening; it was astonishing how often our esteemed guests hemmed and hawed and got basic facts embarrassingly wrong. And how many came off batshit crazy: one, later an anchor on MSNBC, speculated that Captain Sully’s Miracle on the Hudson—visible from our west side offices—had been God blessing the Obamas.
Drafting the Moyers Blog and promotional listings, I’d sit in with producers and video editors to consult on coalescing broadcasts. They were like wizards, casting away awkwardness and errors to sculpt artful vignettes of the most compelling bits of conversations that often stretched well over an hour or more.
So many of the most rousing clips came from when guests were at their most factually inaccurate, and editors deftly dipped in and out to pull and seamlessly reassemble the very best parts. It was wondrous alchemy, and a privilege to work with super-talented creatives, but the reality of our academic pundits remained the same.
Viewers, or at least those motivated enough to weigh in, frequently testified that their social-democratic faith had been wavering until they’d seen whichever inspiring interview affirming what they’d always believed. I always found that frustrating, wondering if they might have reacted more thoughtfully to the real deal than the perfected package that aired.
By no means were Bill Moyers and team operating with any less than the highest of ethics or best of intentions—from their perspective, we were clarifying what our distinguished guests were truly saying. The problem was that the intellectual scene our show channeled was dwindling, but my colleagues so badly wanted things to be better that it was all too easy to paper over the accelerating collapse of discourse. I remember trying to explain to Bill what a Brooklyn hipster was, or how to click around tumblr, but he didn’t really want to know.
And so our broadcasts remained a cozy sanctum of ’70s-era Great Society liberalism well into the 21st century. At his best, with the right guests, Bill could still knock it out of the park, and I aimed for that on the blog as much as possible. But a lot of the time we were turning dreck to quasi-profundity by sheer force of will.
Bill Moyers was very good to me, a generous mentor and still one of my heroes. That his show was a shadow of itself as he neared 80 wasn’t his fault: he was increasingly Manhattan-bound, stuck between the studio and Central Park West, and his circle was dying off fast. Every few months he’d tell us he was done and we should make other plans, but inevitably he’d be drawn back by some foundation or other. So it was a shock when he actually retired long enough to pack up the office; it lasted about a year, by which time I’d landed a job up at Columbia Journalism School.
I’ve not had the stomach to follow much of what Bill has done since—I’d rather remember the giant I grew up watching, and the mensch who encouraged a brash young upstart, over the icon straining to lend legitimacy to a system ever less worthy of his legacy.
And what a legacy it is: decades of rich open-ended conversations from back when there were still meaty public intellectuals worth speaking of, from Joseph Campbell to most of the World of Ideas. Even more than The West Wing, Moyers programming shaped my whole sense of humanistic possibility, of the crackling potential when nuanced thinkers can empathetically come together.
Years of disillusioning experience have forced me to question if that too was largely a fantasy. Not quite, I don’t believe—not so long ago, the range of respectable discourse was broader, attention spans longer, and technology limited for seamless video editing. Before this age of personalized partisan silos, opposing advocates had to jostle for the same common ground.
Bill Moyers’ genius lay in holding up a mirror to the best of that back and forth, and giving the aspirational public chance to feel involved. But that was a time and place now passed, like it or not, and the true inheritors of his tradition are no longer tenured professors and establishment journalists—these days selected specifically for emptiness—but the freewheeling multiverse of online alternatives.
Are some of them kooks? Sure, but few have done half as much to discredit themselves as top institutions abandoning standards for easier melodramas ala Aaron Sorkin. I miss the comforting era of credible authorities as much as anyone, tried to devote my career to it, but ultimately real progressives must adapt to changing circumstances.
Next: Mission Creep (A People’s History of Public Health)
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Unbelievable, but their vanity prevents the ruling class from seeing their own foolishness. Like Glenn Reynolds ( Yale Law, ‘85 ) says: Abolish the Ivy League.