It must be the way he asks questions. Because at first glance, he's not much to look at. A well-educated, privileged white man who doesn't take it for granted.
He seems to take a natural curiousity about everything, even with guests who's views he finds repugnant, as recently happened with a libertarian writer. He treats them relatively the same, with dignity, with respect, ared with information but itching for a conversation, not a fight.
I remember first reading Bill Moyers, not watching him. My advisor for the extended essay requirement of the International Baccaulaureate Diploma recommended "The Power of Myth", Moyers' iconic interviews with mythology professor Joseph Campbell. I was more interested in Campbell at the time, and quoted him in my my final thesis.
I met Moyers again, 4 years later, in a journalism class. The professor, while not a great instructor, had the foresight to make us watch part of "The Public Interest" series, another iconic Moyers work. In the presence of the ruthless, Republican strategist, Michael Devers, Moyers exuded his trademark calm and respect, which is why I suppose, so many admire him. He confronted the beast, continues to confront the beasts, as well as the better angels of our nature.
so it must be in the questions, but it's also his eye for a good story. And people make good stories: villains, underdogs, heroes, philosophers, powerbrokers, you and me. He connects them, and us with the contempoary issues of our day: corruption, patriotism, civic duty, honor, redemption, falls from grace. He takes on meta issues, such as the recent documentary on how the American press covered the lead up to the war in Iraq.
Bill Moyers is an anomaly in the white noise of talk radio, network sitcomes and inane local news. He's high brow journalism at a time when the educational and civic ability of Americans is at an all time low ( look at the number of Americans registered to vote - and then look at the even more depressing figure of those registered to vote who don't make it to the polls.) It begs the question of whether Moyers is doing a service by remaining above the fray, or limiting his audience by remaining (and forgive me, Bill, because I love you) old-fashioned.
Perhaps he would riposte with an avuncular chuckle, then a thoughtful response about how the American public can be trusted so long as it's supplied with the facts.
Or maybe he would say that public broadcasting is the last refuge for true independent journalism to take chances and he won't compromise.
Moyers is 73 this year, 2007. He was a child of World War II, cut his professional teeth in the Johnson administration and Vietnam, and turned to what was then a still noble calling, television journalism. But I fear Moyers abilities are lost on Gen Y and future generations. I fear he is an anachronism, and I fear that while he may be practicing the best journalism in the United States, he is limited by his understanding of how to reach my generation (I'm 29 at this writing). As devoted as I am to Moyers, not even I catch every show.
Who will remember this icon? Who will say "there but for the grace of God goes Bill Moyers?" I've spent the last 6 months at a Big 10 school, spending time in the campus newspaper newsroom, and a mention of Bill Moyers gets blank stares and a shrug. It's depressing to see Moyers' work go underrecognized, if not completely unrecognized. And I wonder how he will continue to fare with the expansion of the web.
But Moyers is the king of comebacks. He has repeatedly said he is retiring, then returns with a new series. He seems to prefer appearing alone, the center of gravity. His instincts are right on: we trust him to ask questions we want answers to, and we trust him to ask questions we never even thought of. Not many have that happy talent.
The future of Moyers: relegated to insomniac tv sets of the blue hairs? Or underground hero to young journalists?