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It's one of my favorite TV moments of this year. On Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert had Bill Moyers as his special guest on The Colbert Report. Moyers was there to publicize his return from retirement and the launch of his new TV series, Moyers & Company. Colbert booked him to help him do just that — but as his on-screen persona Stephen Colbert, the pontificating political conservative, he was there to throw good-natured verbal punches. And Moyers, just as genially, matched him blow for blow.
Later in the same interview, Colbert countered with a piece of breaking news — that Mitt Romney had won the New Hampshire primary. He then took another shot at Moyers — but Moyers stole the ball, slam-dunked it, and got a well-earned ovation from the studio audience. (Go to 5:33 in the Colbert segment to watch.) And this, it has to be stressed, was while making a point about politics, economics and big business.
Clearly, Bill Moyers, during his brief retirement, didn't lose any of his edge, his feistiness, or his sense of humor. But in his new series, Moyers & Company, he prefers the role of straight man. He's starting off by attacking the exact same subject — the growing economic inequality in our country, and why it's grown — but by listening to, and gathering, the voices and viewpoints of people who are difficult to find on most TV talk shows.
Moyers & Company, in its way, is difficult to find as well. It's not televised in a nationally standardized PBS time slot — in fact, it's not even televised by PBS. Instead, it's distributed by American Public Television and offered to local PBS member stations on an individual basis. And even though PBS doesn't seem to put a high value on the return of Bill Moyers, the local stations do. Moyers & Company is being shown in 93 percent of all TV markets, including 27 out of the Top 30 — a very impressive number. Some stations will air it in prime time on Fridays, others on Saturdays or in the afternoons on Sundays. The easiest way to find where and when it plays in your area is to go to the just-created website — BillMoyers.com — click on schedule, and enter your zip code.
I've seen a rough cut of the premiere telecast, and it's worth the effort to find it. Written by Moyers and Michael Winship, it starts by sampling some dialogue from Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, boasts: "The richest 1 percent of this country owns half our country's wealth — $5 trillion. One-third of that comes from hard work, two-thirds comes from inheritance. Interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons. And what I do — stock and real estate speculation. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own."
The program ends down near the real Wall Street, where it interviews people participating in, and reacting to, the Occupy Wall Street movement in its earliest days. And in between, you hear other voices. Like those of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors and professors whom Moyers calls "the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science." And Amanda Gruebel, a married educator in Iowa who testified before a Senate committee, explaining that, while she and her husband both have jobs and master's degrees, they find it tough to get by.
And the discussion by no means stops there. Hacker and Pierson, the authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, are given time to make, and explain, point after point. And they're discussing a topic that Moyers has pledged to explore, with other guests, in the next few shows, setting the stage for the election year of 2012.
The first edition of Moyers & Company, though, is enough to answer several questions, such as: Why did Bill Moyers feel the need to come back? Why should viewers make a special effort to seek out his new show? What he's doing is valuable.
In fact, even at this early point in the latest, very welcome comeback by Bill Moyers, only one nagging question remains: How long will it be before he books Stephen Colbert?