The following remarks were made by Bill Moyers at the presentation of the Helen Bernstein Book Awards for Excellence in Journalism. The ceremony took place at the New York Public Library on May 26, 2015.
Thank you for allowing me to share this evening with you. I’m delighted to meet these exceptional journalists whose achievements you honor with the Helen Bernstein Book Award.
What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism?
But I gulped when [New York Public Library President] Tony Marx asked me to talk about the challenges facing journalism today and gave me 10 to 15 minutes to do so. I seriously thought of taking a powder. Those challenges to journalism are so well identified, so mournfully lamented, and so passionately debated that I wonder if the subject isn’t exhausted. Or if we aren’t exhausted from hearing about it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for journalism or for other journalists or for any journalist except myself. Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Emerson and Boston College, once bemoaned the tendency to lump all of us under the term “media.” As if everyone with a pen, a microphone, a camera (today, a laptop or smartphone) – or just a loud voice – were all one and the same. I consider myself a journalist. But so does James O’Keefe. Matt Drudge is not E.J. Dionne. The National Review is not The Guardian, or ReutersTheHuffington Post. Ann Coulter doesn’t speak for Katrina vanden Heuvel, or Rush Limbaugh for Ira Glass. Yet we are all “media” and as Ted Gup says, “the media” speaks for us all.
So I was just about to email Tony to say, “Sorry, you don’t want someone from the Jurassic era to talk about what’s happening to journalism in the digital era,” when I remembered one of my favorite stories about the late humorist Robert Benchley. He arrived for his final exam in international law at Harvard to find that the test consisted of one instruction: “Discuss the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain.” Benchley was desperate but he was also honest, and he wrote: “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”
So shall I, briefly. One small fish in the vast ocean of media.