Is ill will behind piece '60 Minutes' plans to do on PBS' Bill Moyers?

May 29, 1992|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

Mike Wallace of CBS' "60 Minutes," television's best-known investigative reporter, has trained his sights on an unexpected prey -- Bill Moyers, the public television commentator and former CBS News analyst.

Mr. Wallace and the people at "60 Minutes" say it's nothing personal, just an attempt to take a critical look at Mr. Moyers, whose PBS work, after all, is supported partly by tax dollars.

But Mr. Moyers says the story behind the story is that Morley Safer, now of "60 Minutes," has harbored a fierce dislike for him ever since Mr. Moyers worked as President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary and Mr. Safer covered Vietnam for CBS.

"I am saddened," Mr. Moyers says, "that CBS News, which was my home for seven years, is lending itself to what is a vendetta on the part of Morley, using Mike Wallace as his surrogate.

"Morley has had a deep personal animus against me for a long time," he says. "This is a personal vendetta. That's the only way to describe it."

That's nonsense, say Mr. Wallace and Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes." They say they wouldn't join in a vendetta and, besides, both profess admiration for Mr. Moyers.

"I admire him very much for what he has done in journalism," Mr. Wallace says. "He's one of the best." Not only that, Mr. Wallace says, "60 Minutes" is looking at many topics and has not yet even decided to run a piece on Mr. Moyers.

Whatever the truth of the matter, this dispute and its origins illustrate that reporters like Mr. Safer and Mr. Moyers who know how to dish it out can become uncomfortable when they find themselves taking it on the chin from powerful critics.

Mr. Safer made his sentiments about Mr. Moyers known in his 1990 book, "Flashbacks," in which he said Mr. Moyers participated in a Johnson administration effort to squelch his critical reporting about Vietnam. Mr. Safer wrote that Mr. Moyers sat in on a meeting with Mr. Johnson and CBS president Frank Stanton in which "Johnson threatened that, unless CBS got rid of me and 'cleaned up its act,' the White House would 'go public' with information about Safer's 'Communist ties.' " For Mr. Moyers to be party to such a smear, Mr. Safer said, undercut his standing as "the sometimes overly pious public defender of liberal virtue, the First Amendment and rights of minorities."

In response, Mr. Moyers said "there was was no such incident as he describes in his book."

But recently, at a dinner of the Overseas Press Club, Mr. Wallace divulged a memo that Mr. Moyers wrote for Mr. Johnson in which he said he was working "on steps we can take to improve coverage of the Vietnam War . . . We will never eliminate altogether the irresponsible and prejudiced coverage of men like Peter Arnett and Morris [sic] Safer, men who are not American and who do not have the basic American interest at heart." This was a slur but not quite the slur it seemed -- Mr. Safer was then a Canadian while Mr. Arnett is from New Zealand.

This time, Mr. Moyers replied by saying: "I'm sure I said a lot of things 30 years ago that I regret. I came to journalism from politics as Mike came from show business, and journalism hopefully has made both of us less silly, if not wiser, than when he was a performer and I was a partisan." Mr. Wallace once worked as a commercial pitchman.

If Mr. Moyers sounds testy these days, it's understandable. Last summer, he was the target of a long, nasty cover story in the New Republic, which accused him of leaving behind "a seamy past to tell tall tales to the gullible."

This winter, right-wing critics cited Mr. Moyers' work as part of their complaint that PBS documentaries tilt toward the left. Their attacks on public television have helped delay approval of PBS' budget in Congress.

Now Mr. Moyers has heard from old CBS friends that personal ill will is behind the "60 Minutes" piece. Mr. Moyers wonders aloud whether his hard-hitting coverage of presidents Reagan and Bush has vexed Mr. Wallace and Mr. Safer, who, friends say, have become more politically conservative as they've grown older and wealthier.

Mr. Moyers may not be all wrong. While the motivation behind a story is impossible to know for sure, two sources with close ties to "60 Minutes" say they have heard the CBS story is designed to unmask Mr. Moyers. Moreover, Mr. Hewitt reportedly threw a fit when some critics heaped more praise on a retrospective of Mr. Moyers' PBS work than they did on a "60 Minutes" retrospective that ran the same night on CBS.

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