Journalist and commentator Bill Moyers and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Michael Winship, took a full-page ad out in The New York Times on Friday, urging PBS to not only broadcast the upcoming impeachment hearings live, but to repeat them in primetime.
Moyers and Winship wrote that they took out the ad “because in our current, crazed media atmosphere, with so much distracting chaff and too little forthright analysis of what has overtaken our country, sometimes you have to do something really different to make a point.”
In the ad, they compared the current moment to that of the Watergate hearings more than 45 years ago. Back then, “other networks carried the hearings, too, but what set public broadcasting apart was the decision to air them twice a day: live, in real time as they happened, and then via videotape in prime time every evening, when people who had spent all day working could come home, watch the drama play out without intrusive commentary, and become a part of the process of judgement.”
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Back then, Moyers and Winship were just starting their public broadcasting careers, and noted that PBS’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings “almost didn’t happen.”
“The now defunct-National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), which produced the coverage for PBS, already was under fire from the Nixon administration, part of the president’s efforts to quell ‘Eastern liberal’ dissent he thought was biased against him and even eliminate public television altogether,” they wrote.
But 52% of the PBS affiliates gave the go ahead, and the coverage was a hit, “increasing the still-fledgling PBS’ ratings by multiples and leading to an explosion of audience support and cash donations nationwide.” Robert McNeil and Jim Lehrer anchored the coverage, and it led to the creation of their nightly newscast.
A PBS spokeswoman did not immediately respond to Deadline’s request for comment.
While it’s a given that the cable news networks will cover the hearings, the commercial broadcast networks have yet to announce their plans. But it would be a surprise if ABC, NBC and CBS would not break into regular programming, as they did for coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in July.
Moyers and Winship noted that since the Watergate era, “PBS executives consistently have been harassed by right-wing vigilantes and under constant threat from partisan budget-cutters in Congress and the White House, prompting them always to be looking over their shoulder, fearful of arousing controversy.” The Trump administration has proposed budgets that zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but Congress has ignored those requests.
But they said that the Trump impeachment hearings could be different, “as we saw recently when a wedge of House Republicans forced its way into closed hearings, perhaps even hardline conservatives will applaud giving the public plenty of opportunity to see and judge for themselves! (Note: We won’t hold our breath.)”