04.29.10

Why I'll Miss Bill Moyers

After decades on the air, the pioneering journalist and commentator is finally giving up his weekly broadcast. Former Moyers producer Randy Bean on his uniqueness as a television personality, and as a boss.

Every Friday night, my DVR seeks out and captures two Bills, Maher for an hour on HBO and Moyers for an hour on PBS. When I’m ready to watch, I give Maher 45 minutes, speeding through the bores and boneheads. Moyers gets 90 and rewind gets a workout.

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In November 2009, Moyers examined President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

His weekly contribution to the national conversation, Bill Moyers' Journal, requires more of me—time for his thoughts to do some laps in my mind, energy to get agitated about money and politics or religion in public discourse, awareness to fully appreciate the beauty and wisdom of his words, and enough attention as the credits fly by to say thank you, Bill.

Moyers has impeccable standards when it comes to writing.

The last of his Journal entries airs Friday, April 30. The gaping hole Moyers leaves behind, as reporter, writer, interviewer, observer, commentator, and advocate for reason, will never be filled. He’s one of a kind, and I’m going to miss him.

But this isn’t just a viewer’s farewell. Thirty years ago, Moyers gave me my big break, promoting me from associate producer to producer on Bill Moyers’ Journal (series incarnation No. 2, I think; the one with the apostrophe). It was the toughest leap to make back then, from supporting member of the production team to its leader. Today, with desktop video production tools and YouTube, everyone is a producer. But in the late '70s, it was a high rung on the TV journalism ladder, a tough reach for the increasing numbers of women entering the field.

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In the first episode of the Journal, Moyers looked at how the media failed, in the leadup to the Iraq War.

At 31 in 1980, I was apprehensive about being a boss, a little neurotic even. But with network news and freelance production gigs behind me, I was ready. Moyers saw the moment was right, and, without my having to ask, gave me the promotion I yearned for.

It wasn’t long afterward that I went through that fork-in-the-road leadership challenge that most women I know go through: “Which do I want more: to be loved or respected?” I was in the editing room, building what would soon be an Emmy-nominated biographical conversation with Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., with a group of ridiculously smart and talented young production people, when one of them stood up, raised his voice and directly challenged a decision I had made about a particularly precarious edit point in the narrative.

This production assistant was cute; he’d gone to Yale; he was a friend who was ready to rise up the ladder as well. None of that mattered in this love vs. respect moment. I stood up, got back in his face, and told him, nicely of course, that the decision was the right one, it was mine, and it was done.

Moyers’ confidence in me gave me the gumption to back up my creative instincts with decisiveness and certainty, even if that wasn’t always what I felt inside. News and documentary production requires minute-by-minute decision-making—flighty ditherers need not apply. So I’m grateful to Bill that he recognized my potential, then allowed it to blossom over the next season of the Journal.

As important, he profoundly advanced my abilities as a writer. He taught all of us on his production staff how to write evocatively for the spoken word. Writing voiceover narration is very different from writing for print publication. The ear hears differently than the eye sees.

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In April 2008, Moyers landed the first TV interview with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after the pastor became embroiled in a national controversy.

Plus there are pictures, always pictures, so you work hard to avoid the ever-present “see it, say it” trap. Moyers has impeccable standards when it comes to writing. Listen to one of his commentaries sometime, with your eyes closed. It’s lyrical stuff—expressive, deeply felt, personal yet globally relevant, beautifully constructed. So it’s not just the location of his voice that I’ll miss, to the left of the political center, nor is it the gentle force of his East Texas inflection. It’s the echo of his words as they’re laid down on an audio track from a claustrophobic recording booth, read from a perfectly corrected script that I started and he finished. Because every script that I’ve written in the three decades since working with him, I’ve run through the Moyers voice. If the words sound like those Bill might say, then the script is good enough to commit to track.

It has amazed me that Bill has remained on the air with a weekly series through his early 70s. The grind of producing such a series is indescribable. He deserves the full measure of rest and release that comes when there’s no longer an air date at the end of the week. With books and blogs, television specials and C-SPAN-covered events, I’m sure we’ll hear more of the Moyers voice. But I’ll miss my weekly 90 minutes. Thank you, Bill.

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Randy Bean is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in Palo Alto, California.