Born Billy Don Moyers in Hugo in Choctaw County in southeastern Oklahoma, he is the son of John Henry Moyers, a laborer, and Ruby Johnson Moyers. Moyers was reared in Marshall, Texas.
He began his journalism career at 16 as a cub reporter at the Marshall News Messenger in Marshall in East Texas. In college, he studied journalism at the North Texas State College in Denton, Texas. In 1954, then-US Senator Lyndon B. Johnson employed him as a summer intern and eventually promoted him to manage Johnson's personal mail. Soon after, Moyers transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he wrote for The Daily Texan newspaper. In 1956, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. While in Austin, Moyers served as assistant news editor for KTBC radio and television stations, owned by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of then-Senator Johnson. During the academic year 1956–1957, he studied issues of church and state at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as a Rotary International Fellow. In 1959, he completed a Master of Divinity degree at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Moyers served as Director of Information while attending SWBTS. He was also a Baptist pastor in Weir in Williamson County, near Austin.
Moyers was ordained in 1954. Moyers planned to enter a Doctor of Philosophy program in American Studies at the University of Texas. During Senator Johnson's unsuccessful bid for the 1960 Democratic U.S. presidential nomination, Moyers served as a top aide, and in the general campaign he acted as liaison between Democratic vice-presidential candidate Johnson and the Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy.
During the Kennedy Administration, Moyers was first appointed as associate director of public affairs for the newly created Peace Corps in 1961. He served as Deputy Director from 1962 to 1963. When Lyndon B. Johnson took office after the Kennedy assassination, Moyers became a special assistant to Johnson, serving from 1963 to 1967. Moyers is the last surviving person identifiable in the photograph taken of Johnson's first inauguration on Air Force One. He played a key role in organizing and supervising the 1964 Great Society legislative task forces and was a principal architect of Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign. Moyers acted as the President's informal chief of staff from October 1964 until 1966. From July 1965 to February 1967, he also served as White House press secretary.
After the resignation of White House Chief of Staff Walter Jenkins because of a sexual misdemeanor in the run up to the 1964 election, President Lyndon B. Johnson, alarmed that the opposition was framing the issue as a security breach, ordered Moyers to request FBI name checks on 15 members of Goldwater's staff to find "derogatory" material on their personal lives. Goldwater himself only referred to the Jenkins incident off the record. The Church Committee stated in 1975 that "Moyers has publicly recounted his role in the incident, and his account is confirmed by FBI documents." In 2005, Laurence Silberman claimed that Moyers denied writing the memo in a 1975 phone call. Moyers said he had a different recollection of the telephone conversation.
Moyers also sought information from the FBI on the sexual preferences of White House staff members, most notably Jack Valenti. Moyers indicated his memory was unclear on why Johnson directed him to request such information, "but that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover."
Moyers approved (but had nothing to do with the production) of the infamous "Daisy Ad" against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign. That ad is considered the starting point of the modern-day harshly negative campaign ad.
Journalist Morley Safer in his 1990 book "Flashbacks" wrote that Moyers and President Johnson met with and "harangued" Safer's boss, CBS president Frank Stanton, about Safer's coverage of the Marines torching Cam Ne village in the Vietnam War. During the meeting, Safer alleges, Johnson threatened to expose Safer's "communist ties". This was a bluff, according to Safer. Safer says that Moyers was "if not a key player, certainly a key bystander" in the incident. Moyers stated that his hard-hitting coverage of conservative presidents Reagan and Bush were behind Safer's 1990 allegations.
In The New York Times on April 3, 1966, Moyers offered this insight on his stint as press secretary to President Johnson: "I work for him despite his faults and he lets me work for him despite my deficiencies." On October 17, 1967, he told an audience in Cambridge that Johnson saw the war in Vietnam as his major legacy and, as a result, was insisting on victory at all costs, even in the face of public opposition. Moyers felt such a continuation of the conflict would tear the country apart. "I never thought the situation could arise when I would wish for the defeat of LBJ, and that makes my current state of mind all the more painful to me," he told them. "I would have to say now: It would depend on who his opponent is."
The full details of his rift with Johnson have not been made public but may be discussed in a forthcoming memoir.
Moyers served as publisher for the Long Island, New York daily newspaper Newsday from 1967 to 1970. The conservative publication had been unsuccessful, but Moyers led the paper in a progressive direction, bringing in leading writers such as Pete Hamill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Saul Bellow, and adding new features and more investigative reporting and analysis. Circulation increased and the publication won 33 major journalism awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. But the owner of the paper, Harry Guggenheim, a conservative, was disappointed by the liberal drift of the newspaper under Moyers, criticizing the "left-wing" coverage of Vietnam War protests. The two split over the 1968 presidential election, with Guggenheim signing an editorial supporting Richard Nixon, when Moyers supported Hubert Humphrey. Guggenheim sold his majority share to the then-conservative Times-Mirror Company over the attempt of newspaper employees to block the sale, even though Moyers offered $10 million more than the Times-Mirror purchase price; Moyers resigned a few days later.
In 1971 he began working for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), hosting a news program called Bill Moyers Journal, which ran until 1981 with a hiatus from 1976 to 1977, and then again from 2007 to 2010.
In 1976 he moved to CBS, where he worked as editor and chief correspondent for CBS Reports until 1980, then as senior news analyst and commentator for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather from 1981 to 1986. He was the last regular commentator for the network broadcast. During his last year at CBS, Moyers made public statements about declining news standards at the network and declined to renew his contract with CBS, citing commitments with PBS.
In 1986 Moyers and his wife, Judith Suzanne Davidson Moyers, formed Public Affairs Television. Among their first productions was the popular PBS 1988 documentary series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, consisting of six one-hour interviews between Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell. The documentary covers Campbell's exploration of the monomyth and the hero cycle, or the story of the hero, as it manifests itself in various cultures. Campbell's influence is clearly seen in the work of George Lucas's Star Wars saga. In the first interview, filmed at George Lucas' "Skywalker Ranch", Moyers and Campbell discuss the relationship between Campbell's theories and Lucas's creative work. Twelve years after the making of The Power of Myth, Moyers and Lucas met again for the 1999 interview, the Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas & Bill Moyers, to further discuss the impact of Campbell's work on Lucas's films.
In 1987 Moyers produced and hosted a scathing documentary, The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, covering the infringement on the limitations on government and the executive branch provided by the Constitution. It considered U.S. foreign policy and militarism historically and recently, centering on the Iran–Contra affair. It was harshly rebuked by conservatives and continuing into the 1990s was used by Republicans as a reason to threaten the funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.
Also in 1987 Moyers produced an 11-part documentary celebrating the bicentennial of the signing of the U.S. Constitution and critically analyzing the present state of affairs and the intervening 200 years. Four episodes of In Search of the Constitution were interviews of sitting Supreme Court justices and the remainder contained discussions with prominent scholars. The miniseries was produced by Madeline Amgott.
In 1988, Moyers produced an interview series featuring writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, and historians he had become acquainted with. The series broke new ground for national television by bringing thoughtful, intelligent, provocative, and noteworthy people to the screen, most of whom had little prior exposure in the mass media. The series was revived in 1990. Moyers published companion books for both the first series and the second.
Moyers briefly joined NBC News in 1995 as a senior analyst and commentator, and the following year he became the first host of sister cable network MSNBC's Insight program. He was the last regular commentator on the NBC Nightly News.
Moyers hosted the TV news journal NOW with Bill Moyers on PBS for three years, starting in January 2002. He retired from the program on December 17, 2004, but returned to PBS soon after to host Wide Angle in 2005. When he left NOW, he announced that he wished to finish writing a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 2006, he presented two public television series. Faith and Reason, a series of conversations with esteemed writers of various faiths and of no faith, explored the question "In a world in which religion is poison to some and salvation to others, how do we live together?"
The series, Moyers on America, analyzed in depth the ramifications of three important issues: the Jack Abramoff scandal, evangelical religion and environmentalism (Evangelical environmentalism), and threats to open public access of the Internet.
On April 25, 2007, Moyers returned to PBS with Bill Moyers Journal. In the first episode, "Buying the War", Moyers investigated what he called the general media's shortcomings in the runup to the War in Iraq.
On November 20, 2009, Moyers announced that he would be retiring from his weekly show on April 30, 2010.
In August 2011 Moyers announced a new hour-long weekly interview show, Moyers & Company, which premiered in January 2012. In that same month, Moyers also launched a new website, BillMoyers.com. Later reduced to a half hour, Moyers & Company was produced by Public Affairs Television and distributed by American Public Television. The show has been heralded as a renewed fulfillment of public media's stated mission to air news and views unrepresented or underrepresented in commercial media.
The program concluded on January 2, 2015.
In 1995, Bill Moyers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. The same year, he also won the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. When he became a recipient of the 2006 Lifetime Emmy Award. "Bill Moyers has devoted his lifetime to the exploration of the major issues and ideas of our time and our country, giving television viewers an informed perspective on political and societal concerns," according to the official announcement, which also noted that, "The scope of and quality of his broadcasts have been honored time and again. It is fitting that the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honor him with our highest honor—the Lifetime Achievement Award." He has received well over thirty Emmys and virtually every other major television journalism prize, including a gold baton from the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, a lifetime Peabody Award, and a George Polk Career Award (his third George Polk Award) for contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, including a doctorate from the American Film Institute.
In a 2003 interview with BuzzFlash.com, Moyers said, "The corporate right and the political right declared class warfare on working people a quarter of a century ago and they've won." He noted, "The rich are getting richer, which arguably wouldn't matter if the rising tide lifted all boats." Instead, however, "[t]he inequality gap is the widest it's been since 1929; the middle class is besieged and the working poor are barely keeping their heads above water." He added that as "the corporate and governing elites are helping themselves to the spoils of victory," access to political power has become "who gets what and who pays for it."
Meanwhile, the public has failed to react because it is, in his words, "distracted by the media circus and news has been neutered or politicized for partisan purposes." In support of this, he referred to "the paradox of Rush Limbaugh, ensconced in a Palm Beach mansion massaging the resentments across the country of white-knuckled wage earners, who are barely making ends meet in no small part because of the corporate and ideological forces for whom Rush has been a hero. ... As Eric Alterman reports in his recent book—a book that I'm proud to have helped make happen—part of the red-meat strategy is to attack mainstream media relentlessly, knowing that if the press is effectively intimidated, either by the accusation of liberal bias or by a reporter's own mistaken belief in the charge's validity, the institutions that conservatives revere—corporate America, the military, organized religion, and their own ideological bastions of influence—will be able to escape scrutiny and increase their influence over American public life with relatively no challenge."
When he retired in December 2004, the AP News Service quoted Moyers as saying, "I'm going out telling the story that I think is the biggest story of our time: how the right-wing media has become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee. We have an ideological press that's interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that's interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don't have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people.""The Progressive Story of America" speech
On June 4, 2003, Moyers gave a speech at the "Take Back America" conference. In it, Moyers defined what he considered Karl Rove's influence on George W. Bush's administration. Moyers asserted that, from his reading of Rove, the mid-to-late 19th century was to Rove a "cherished period of American history." He further stated, "From his own public comments and my reading of the record, it is apparent that Karl Rove has modeled the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley ... and modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley", a man whose primary "passion" was attending to corporate and imperial power.
Furthermore, Moyers indicated that Hanna gathered support for McKinley's presidential campaign from "the corporate interests of the day" and was responsible for Ohio and Washington coming under the rule of "bankers, railroads and public utility corporations." He submitted that political opponents of this transfer of power were "smeared as disturbers of the peace, socialists, anarchists, or worse."
Moyers also referred to what historian Clinton Rossiter called the period of "the great train robbery of American intellectual history," when "conservatives—or better, pro-corporate apologists" began using terms such as progress, opportunity, and individualism to make "...the plunder of America sound like divine right." He added that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was also used by conservative politicians, judges, and publicists to justify the idea of a "natural order of things" as well as "the notion that progress resulted from the elimination of the weak and the 'survival of the fittest.'"
He concludes, "This 'degenerate and unlovely age', as one historian calls it, exists in the mind of Karl Rove, the reputed brain of George W. Bush, as the seminal age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America today."
On July 24, 2006, liberal political commentator Molly Ivins published an article entitled Run Bill Moyers for President, Seriously on the progressive website Truthdig. Then in October 2006 Ralph Nader wrote an article supporting a Moyers candidacy. There was no effect from the op-eds, and Moyers did not run.
Bush-appointee Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Kenneth Tomlinson was a regular critic of Moyers; in 2003, he wrote to Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS, that NOW with Bill Moyers "does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting." In 2005, Tomlinson commissioned a study of the show, without informing or getting authorization from the CPB board. Tomlinson said that the study supported what he characterized as "the image of the left-wing bias of NOW". George Neumayr, the executive editor of The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that "PBS looks like a liberal monopoly to me, and Bill Moyers is Exhibit A of that very strident, left-wing bias... [Moyers] uses his show as a platform from which to attack conservatives and Republicans."
Moyers, who left the show in 2004 before returning in 2007, replied by saying that his journalism showed "the actual experience of regular people is the missing link in a nation wired for everything but the truth." Moyers characterized Tomlinson as "an ally of Karl Rove and the right-wing monopoly's point man to keep tabs on public broadcasting." Tomlinson, he said, "found kindred spirits at the right-wing editorial board of The Wall Street Journal where the 'animal spirits of business' are routinely celebrated." Moyers also responded to these accusations in a speech given to The National Conference for Media Reform, saying that he had repeatedly invited Tomlinson to debate him on the subject but had repeatedly been ignored. He spoke about this again a few months later in a speech called "Democracy, Secrecy and Ideology" on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive.
Moyers is a former director of the Council on Foreign Relations (1967–1974), and a member of the Bilderberg Group and since 1990 has been president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.
Moyers married Judith Suzanne Davidson (a producer) on December 18, 1954. They have three children and five grandchildren. His son William Cope Moyers (CNN producer, Hazelden Foundation spokesman) struggled to overcome alcoholism and crack addiction as detailed in the book Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption. He includes letters from Bill Moyers in his book, which he says are "a testament to a father's love for his son, a father's confusion with his son, and ultimately, a father's satisfaction with his son." His other son, John Moyers, assisted in the foundation of TomPaine.com, "an online public affairs journal of progressive analysis and commentary."
He and his wife live in Bernardsville, New Jersey.Listening to America: A Traveler Rediscovers His Country (1971), Harper's Magazine press, ISBN 0-06-126400-8
The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis : With Excerpts from an Essay on Watergate (1988), coauthor Henry Steele Commager, Seven Locks Press, hardcover: ISBN 0-932020-61-5, 1990 reprint: ISBN 0-932020-85-2, 2000 paperback: ISBN 0-932020-60-7; examines the Iran-Contra affair
The Power of Myth (1988), host: Bill Moyers, author: Joseph Campbell, Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-24773-7
A World of Ideas : Conversations With Thoughtful Men and Women About American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future (1989), Doubleday, hardcover: ISBN 0-385-26278-7, paperback: ISBN 0-385-26346-5
A World of Ideas II: Public Opinions from Private Citizens (1990), Doubleday, hardcover: ISBN 0-385-41664-4, paperback: ISBN 0-385-41665-2, 1994 Random House values edition: ISBN 0-517-11470-4
Healing and the Mind (1993), Doubleday hardcover: ISBN 0-385-46870-9, 1995 paperback: ISBN 0-385-47687-6
The Language of Life (1995), Doubleday hardcover: ISBN 0-385-47917-4, 1996 paperback: ISBN 0-385-48410-0, conversations with 34 poets
Genesis: A Living Conversation (1996), Doubleday hardcover: ISBN 0-385-48345-7, 1997 paperback: ISBN 0-385-49043-7
Sister Wendy in Conversation With Bill Moyers: The Complete Conversation (1997), WGBH Educational Foundation, ISBN 1-57807-077-5
Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft (1999), William Morrow, hardcover: ISBN 0-688-17346-2, 2000 Harper paperback: ISBN 0-688-17792-1
Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times (2004), New Press, ISBN 1-56584-892-6, 2005 Anchor paperback: ISBN 1-4000-9536-0; twenty selected speeches and commentaries
Moyers on Democracy (2008), Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52380-6
Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues (2011), Publisher: New Press