Veteran journalist Charles Thompson gave an insider?s account to the recent Accuracy in Media conference of how corporate and other pressures influence television journalism today. Regarding “Saint Billy,” the nickname for Bill Moyers, Thompson described how he was preparing a story for 60 Minutes on his questionable financial dealings and background.
But before the story aired—and it was supposed to be narrated by Mike Wallace—Moyers went on CNN?s Larry King show and denounced Wallace, saying he was jealous of Moyers. Then-CBS News President Eric Ober summoned Thompson into his office, calling him a “head-hunter” who had already done one piece on Henry Kissinger?s conflicts of interest and was now preparing a story about another famous individual. Thompson said he was told that he couldn?t look at anything Moyers had done past 1990, and that Moyers? controversial foundation was off-limits. Thompson said he told Wallace that they should go ahead and kill the story before Ober did so. They killed it, but the story, he said, is still there, waiting to be told.
In addition to the questionable financial relationship between public television and the foundation Moyers heads, Thompson said that “Saint Billy” also has many other problems in his background. He said the liberal Moyers, who served as President Lyndon Johnson?s press secretary, was a divinity student in Scotland, where he made anti-Catholic sermons, and that Moyers, growing up in Texas, wasn?t known as a supporters of equal rights for blacks. As an aide to Johnson, he said, Moyers was part of the effort to bug civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Turning his attention to ABC, where he also worked, Thompson said the network spiked a major story about Marilyn Monroe?s relationship with Jack and Bobbie Kennedy. “That was just devastating to us,” said Thompson, who was on the 20/20 staff at the time. “When somebody does that, you can?t believe how it runs the staff down. And you can?t believe how it makes them reluctant to take on controversial stories.”
Citing another example, he said that Ron Kessler had written a book about Capitol Hill sex scandals that was going to be a subject of a story on 20/20. One of the targets was going to be the late Congressman Sonny Bono. Thompson said that ABC News President David Westin killed the story for two reasons.
Number one—Westin was himself going through a messy divorce, and was preparing to marry his own assistant, Sherry Rollins, the then-wife of political consultant Ed Rollins. Westin, he said, was afraid that if ABC ran the story, Bono and others would launch an attack on Westin over his personal life. And two, Thompson said that Westin was worried that such a story would lead to scrutiny of ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, who is said to have a reputation around the office as a skirt chaser. So, Thompson said, the story about Capitol Hill was spiked, on the ground that it wasn?t well-sourced and wasn?t in the public interest.