Moyers' series propagandizes Preview: Veteran newsman's conflicts of interest make his PBS program, though engrossing, too slanted for comfort.

March 28, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The easy thing would be to praise Bill Moyers' latest PBS series, "Moyers On Addiction: Close to Home." Everybody knows Moyers is a great television journalist and seeker of truth who always makes landmark series.

As one of the critics who helped create that conventional wisdom in the 1970s and '80s, it is with reluctance that I now come to bury this Caesar of public television -- or at least throw a few shovels full of sand on his five-part series that airs on three nights, tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday.

"Moyers on Addiction" isn't journalism as much as it is propaganda. Moyers has a huge conflict of interest in the five-part story he tells, and, in the end, his interests rather than any notion of objective truth about addiction and recovery seem to be what gets served.

The first hour is the most compelling. It consists of testimony from nine recovering addicts. While the substances of their addictions range from heroin to cocaine to alcohol, there is a striking similarity to the cycle each went through: "falling in love" with the drug, then the realization that the pleasure was turning to pain and, finally, the compulsive hunger for another chemical fix.

The stories are engrossing, and Moyers' synthesis seems informed if not brilliant.

But, at the end of the hour, when a bit of biography is given on each of the nine, you realize that most of them are in one way or another professionals now making a living in the business of addiction and recovery. Several are counselors or officials in drug rehabilitation programs.

Of course, they can talk the talk: That's their life's work, talking about addiction.

Maybe this is not such great synthesis, after all. Maybe, in fact, it is a bad choice to have only people speaking from within the same professional culture.

Worse, you notice that at least two of them are directly connected with Hazelden, the Minnesota-based treatment program for those who can afford to pay $15,000 a month, according to figures in a March 23 New Yorker article, "The

politics of rehab: how Hazelden is turning addiction into a high profile disease," by David Samuels. The article chronicles the public relations and political campaign led by Hazelden to make insurance companies pick up the tab for those in programs like Hazelden's.

As Samuels puts it, "The cornerstone of their efforts is a congressional bill sponsored by two Minnestoa legislators, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone and Republican Representative Jim Ramstad, which would force health-care insurers to fund addiction treatment on a par with other major illnesses. The bill would direct hundreds of millions of insurance dollars a year into the month-long inpatient programs on which Hazelden has built its reputation [and] assure Hazelden's prosperity for years to come."

So, what's the conflict for Moyers?

Moyers' wife, Judith Moyers, who is co-executive-producer of the television series, is a board member of Hazelden. Moyers' oldest son, William Cope Moyers, a recovering crack addict, is the director of public policy for Hazelden and one of the leading lobbyists for the Wellstone-Ramstad legislation.

Hazelden and its experts are showcased throughout the series as having answers to the horror of addiction. And, by the fifth hour, titled "The Politics of Addiction," the series is flat-out shilling for the legislation that would be so beneficial to the

treatment center.

In that fifth part, Moyers introduces viewers to his son -- a former reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, Newsday and CNN -- and shows him working the halls of Congress. Moyers does not tell viewers about his wife's relationship to Hazelden.

When asked by Samuels about the timing of congressional hearings on the legislation and the television series, William Cope Moyers said, "Am I naive about the benefits of raising the debate at the same time that the series is going to air? No. Is this some kind of grassy knoll conspiracy? No. There's no way we could ever pull that off."

It is crucial for viewers to understand Moyers' self-interest, because Moyers makes good propaganda, and good propaganda can really move you. "Moyers on Addiction" is filled with scenes of people sitting in circles of chairs, testifying, crying, breaking down and pulling themselves back together as they claw their way to sobriety. You can't help but be touched both by their agony and their moments of triumph when they hold hands and sing, much like members of the Baptist church in Marshall, Texas, that nurtured a young Bill Moyers.

In the fourth part, in fact, you'll meet a 10-year-old boy named T.J. whose parents are both heroin addicts. What T.J. goes through even on what he considers a good day will break your heart.

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