DATE April 23, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Moyers on his new PBS series "Bill Moyers'
Journal" and the press' role in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Bill Moyers is returning to weekly
television this week after having retired from it in 2004 when he was 70. His
new Friday night PBS series "Bill Moyers' Journal" premieres with a special
edition this Wednesday. It's a documentary called "Buying the War," which
explores the role of the press in the lead-up to the war in Iraq and asks why
the press didn't do a more effective job in challenging the Bush
administration on false or exaggerated claims.
I spoke with Moyers about his return to PBS and about how his previous PBS
show was secretly monitored by the then head of the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting to see if the show had a left wing bias.
Let's start with Moyers' documentary "Buying the War." Here's a clip in which
Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN during the lead-up to the war, talks about how
many journalists felt restrained from reporting critically on the Bush
administration's plans in Iraq or Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of "Buying the War")
Mr. WALTER ISAACSON: There was a patriotic fervor, and the administration
used it so that if you challenged anything you were made to feel that there
was something wrong with that, and there was even almost a patriotism police,
which you know, they'd be up there on the Internet, sort of picking anything a
Christiane Amanpour or somebody else would say, as if it were disloyal.
Mr. BILL MOYERS: We interviewed a former reporter at CNN who had been there
through that period, and this reporter said this, quote: "Everybody on staff
just sort of knew not to push too hard to do stories critical of the Bush
Mr. ISAACSON: Especially right after 9/11, especially when the war in
Afghanistan was going on, there was a real sense that you don't get that
critical of a government that's leading us in wartime.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a clip from the new Bill Moyers' documentary "Buying the War."
Bill Moyers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What are some of the other things you
learned in this documentary about how CNN tried to prevent coverage from being
too critical of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the war?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, during the Afghan bombings, which were our
retaliation--the US government's retaliation--to the 9/11 attacks from the
base of Osama bin Laden, CNN reported--showed some of the, you know, what we
call collateral damage, the human cost, the human deaths and the human
calamities that resulted from our force. And when they ran on CNN, Walter
Isaacson and producers and reporters there heard from what Isaacson called the
patriot police; the corporate executives, as he says in my broadcast; some
advertisers; and in particular the watchdogs on the right who believed that
showing anything negative about our response to the Taliban and to Osama bin
Laden was un-American. And he felt that pressure every day, he told me in my
interview with him.
GROSS: And he warned his staff, he says, not to focus too much on casualties
in Afghanistan, and to balance reports on those casualties with reminders of
the damages done to America on September 11th.
Mr. MOYERS: Yes, he wrote a memorandum which was finally leaked to The New
York Times, and he told his producers, his reporters, his staff, that if they
did continue to show the human casualties of American force, they needed also
to remind people that there had been the casualties caused by the terrorists
at 9/11. And it was his way to try to keep putting into context, because of
the pressure he was feeling and getting, to put into context the cause of the
bombing that produced the deaths and the destruction from American firepower.
GROSS: Now, as you point out in your documentary, at the same time that CNN
is trying to be very careful about not being too critical about what's
happening in Afghanistan and always reminding people that this is a response
to September 11th, Fox News is trying to position CNN as being the liberal
news network. How...
Mr. MOYERS: And by liberal they meant, you know, the anti-American, anti-war
GROSS: How effective do you think Fox News was in giving CNN that reputation
as being liberal and biased?
Mr. MOYERS: I think Fox was very effective. They exploited the emotional
sentiments and the passions and the fears that had arisen in response to the
terrorist attacks on 9/11, and it, you know, when Pearl Harbor was attacked,
many Americans rallied, of course, naturally and patriotically to the
administration, Roosevelt's administration. This happened in 9/11. People
were uncertain about the sources of this terrorism. They were scared that
there would be more of them, and there was a feeling, you know, punch the guys
back in the nose. Go after them.
And I decided to--I knew one night late when I was watching "The David
Letterman Show" and Dan Rather was on, very emotional about the impact of 9/11
on him. He'd been down, looked at the casualties in the World Trade Center.
He'd looked up and had seen human beings throwing themselves out of 40, 50
story buildings with flames licking at their heels and hurling themselves to
death. He was very moved that night on the Letterman show and that's when he
said, `You know, whatever the president wants me to do, whatever the president
wants me to do, I will do it.' Dan says in the broadcast, in my documentary,
that, you know, he regrets that now, although it was a legitimate feeling.
All of us were feeling that. My office is only a mile and a quarter from the
World Trade Center. My wife and I were there working. We were feeling these
sentiments of, you know, wanting to find out who did it and get back at them.
I think that's the natural response.
Fox came in, put the flags in their lapels, put the martial music on the
screen and started exploiting that fear and that passion and turning it into
sort of a pro-America, pro-war sentiment, and it put everybody else on the
defensive. If you'd begin to be skeptical of the administration's claims once
the White House started saying that Saddam Hussein was behind this, they'd
come after you and say, you know, `You're undermining the president. You're
undermining the credibility of your commander in chief. What's wrong with
you?' And that had a very powerful effect on people, on journalists.
GROSS: Did it have an effect on you, ever, in the back of your mind where you
were having critics of the Bush administration and during the lead-up to the
war in Iraq? Was there ever a voice in the back of your mind saying, `This
might be divisive for our country to hear this? This might undermine the Bush
administration when we need our country to be strong'?
Mr. MOYERS: No, Terry, I didn't. You have to remember that I was there in
the '60s in the early days of Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in
Vietnam, and we made so many of the mistakes that the Bush administration
began to repeat after 9/11 that I had a strong sense of deja vu. And the fact
that I had come out of an administration that had misread intelligence, that
had leaped to premature judgments, that had gone to war on a suspicion, made
me much more skeptical, I think, than anybody else. I mean, like a veteran of
a war, he is more skeptical of going back into--of what war really is than
somebody that hasn't been.
So I felt our obligation, that our mission as journalists at that time was to
challenge authority. It was not to the take the president at his word. It
was to ask the questions that a country needs to know before it sends its men
and women into combat so, no, I never thought that.
And I mean, I had people who were for the war. It was interesting. The
neoconservatives would not come on my broadcast. They wanted to go into
friendly, hospital environments. But I had a number of members of Congress
who supported the war. I had others, the journalists who were pro the
administration, but I also had a lot of early critics. In fact, it was on my
show "Now with Bill Moyers," that Joe Wilson made one of his early
appearances. And we now have a record, from within the White House that
people watched that at the White House and began to say, `This guy Wilson is
somebody we have to get after.' So no, I really felt that our obligation as
journalists was to ask these questions and give the critics of the war a
GROSS: During the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Phil Donahue had a short-lived
show on MSNBC, and he says that his show was perceived as too liberal and he
was given certain guidelines to follow...
Mr. MOYERS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to balance the show in ways that the editorial staff wanted it
balanced. What were the guidelines he was given?
Mr. MOYERS: He says that he was told that he had to have two conservatives
for every liberal and they counted him as two because he was pretty outspoken,
but when he would try to have a Scott Ritter on. Scott Ritter was the weapons
inspector who was reporting from Iraq that there was no truth to these
allegations about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. So when--he
always had to balance someone who was skeptical of the war with at least one,
and usually, two supporters of the war. He says in the documentary, in my
interview with him, that that came directly from management.
When the Donahue show was canceled, MSNBC and NBC, its parent, said, `Well, it
was because he wasn't doing that well in the ratings.' Donahue insists that he
was holding his own in the ratings--not setting the world on fire but he was
holding his own, and he is convinced, as in fact, we learned from another
internal memo of MSNBC that was also leaked, we learned that an internal memo
at NBC said, `Look, we don't need the face of a liberal critic like Donahue at
this time of a need for patriotism.'
GROSS: Now, a lot of your documentary "Buying the War" focuses on the
Washington press corps and how you think they bought the war, and "Buying the
War" is the title of the documentary. And, you know, an example that you give
is--and this is a kind of process example--you talk about the day that Judith
Miller and Michael Gordon had a front-page story in The New York Times saying
that Saddam Hussein was on this worldwide search for materials to build a
nuclear weapon and that they'd gotten their hands on aluminum tubes which
could be used to build a nuclear weapon, and that same morning as The New York
Times story appeared on the front page, what happened?
Mr. MOYERS: Vice President Cheney went on "Meet the Press," and when pressed
by Tim Russert about the story on the front page of the The New York Times,
Cheney, who had refused to talk about issues of national intelligence like
that, said, `Well, you know, we have it confirmed by the story in The New York
Times this morning.' Now, that story was a leak from the administration, so
you had, in essence, the leaker being asked by a mainstream journalist to
confirm his own leak. It wasn't identified as Cheney's leak, although I have
no doubt that it came from Cheney's office. We learned a lot in the Libby
trial about that sort of thing. So it was a sort of--it's a cliche to say it
now, but it was a perfect storm, or a perfect triangle. The government leaks
an intelligence report. It's a wrong intelligence report, it's a false
intelligence report, but they leak it. The New York Times prints it and the
talk shows on Sunday confirm it by actually having the leakers on to say,
`Well, The New York Times says it. It must be so.'
I had some people in my broadcast say this was the consummate moment when it
was clear to them that there was a collusion or at least an embrace of the
administration and the mainstream media, particularly the broadcast networks
on going to war.
GROSS: And another version of how this might have happened is given on your
show, and that version is that a third-party, maybe Ahmed Chalabi tells Judith
Miller and Michael Gordon about these aluminum tubes, also tells the Bush
administration, so when Judith Miller or Michael Gordon goes to the Bush
administration to confirm this stuff about the aluminum tubes, they had that
information, they'll confirm it, but it's from the same source, and that
source is never--the information is still never really corroborated.
Mr. MOYERS: That's right. On my Friday night broadcast, I do an interview
with Carlos Bonini. Carlos Bonini is the Sy Hersh of Italy. He's Rome's
leading investigative reporter. He's got a new book out called "Collusion,"
in which he talks about the story of the yellow cake, the story that Saddam
Hussein had sent his agents to Niger to buy the so-called yellow cake that's
needed for uranium enrichment. And Bonini's book reports, with documentation,
how that story was fabricated by a shadowy figure in the Italian underworld
with contacts to the Italian intelligence agency--their CIA, which is called
SISMI, those forged documents, and those documents that the president of the
United States quoted, in effect, in his State of the Union message, that
intelligence from that forged document was taken by Italian intelligence
through Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, to the White House.
Berlusconi wanted to ingratiate himself to President Bush, so he was brought
this information about Italian intelligence discovering this document that
confirmed the report in Niger.
Bush was impressed with it. The US intelligence called Britain, called the
Brits in London to see if they had the information. They had the information
because Italian intelligence had taken it to them, too, so they took it as
confirmed. They were both confirming their use of material that had been
forged and given to both of them by an Italian intelligence. It's the same
sort of circular process that was going on between much of the mainstream
media in this country at the same time.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. His new Friday night PBS series premieres
this week with a special Wednesday night edition, a documentary called "Buying
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Moyers and beginning at
the end of April, he's going to be back on PBS with a weekly program that will
be called "Bill Moyers' Journal." It begins on Friday April 27th, but a couple
of days that on Wednesday, April 25th, he has a documentary premiering called
"Buying the War." And the premise of the documentary is that the Washington
press corp bought what the Bush administration was selling in the lead-up to
the war, even though a lot of the information wasn't accurate.
Why do you think that the Washington press corps bought the information?
Mr. MOYERS: First, let me say that there were exceptions, and our
documentary reports on what the then Knight Ridder Bureau, led by John
Walcott, a crusty veteran of many years of covering Washington and two of his
star reporters, Strobel and Landay--I mean, they were ahead of everybody on
this story. They were skeptical from the beginning because they had sources
deep inside the military at the level of the colonels and the majors, and they
had old sources of theirs inside the intelligence agencies and the State
Department. And they were on this story from the very beginning, the story
that the intelligence was being cooked, that there were real questions about
whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam
Hussein did not have any ties to 9/11 through al-Qaeda. They were onto the
story, but because they don't have an outlet in Washington or an outlet in New
York, where--the news capitals of America--they were ignored by the mainstream
But back to your question as to why it happened. Well, first of all, there
was the emotional response to 9/11, in which many journalists, like Dan Rather
on "The David Letterman Show," were deeply affected by the sneak attacks that
caused so many thousands of American lives, and their judgment, their
skepticism was suspended in that time of trauma. It's also the sin of being
inside, the `sin of in,' I call it. I mean, we learned early in the Vietnam
War that if the president said there was a threat, then the reporters and the
editors tended to believe there was a threat but they didn't ask for the
actual evidence. It was the reporting of David Halberstam and Morley Safer
and Peter Arnett out in Vietnam that, very quickly in Vietnam, undermined the
official view of reality by reporting facts on the ground. We didn't have
that kind of reporting in the buildup to the Iraqi war. There were few
American reporters there. They couldn't get to the stories that would counter
the official view of reality that was being passed out gratis in Washington.
Then you also have, Terry, this powerful ideological partisan press, talk
radio, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the bloggers by this time, whose mission is to
advance the political aims of the Republican Party. This press is part of a
political movement, so that anyone who reports what is contrary to their view
of the world, who reports information, news, that seems to contradict their
principal political leaders, the president and the administration, they come
down hard on them.
So you had the willingness of the mainstream press to go along with the
administration because they see themselves as the extension of authority and
power, and they're in the game, and you have this relentless beating up of any
dissident mainstream journalist who'd deviate from the official view of
reality by a political press whose main interest is in advancing the
administration's arguments and case.
GROSS: Because your new documentary examines the coverage, TV and newspapers,
in the lead-up to the war, I'm wondering if you think that there's a kind of
false way of measuring fairness that might sound like fairness but you think
maybe isn't really as accurate as it seems, or, you know, in terms of actually
Mr. MOYERS: Splitting the difference between two opinions does not get you
to the truth. It gets you to another opinion. I believe that we journalists
are obligated to get people as close as possible to the verifiable truth, no
GROSS: You're talking about having like the guy from the left and the guy
from the right...
Mr. MOYERS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and saying, well, the truth is somewhere in between.
Mr. MOYERS: The Republican senator or the Democratic senator saying, `OK,
you decide what the truth is.' I believe we journalists are obligated to get
people close to the verifiable truth, and that what I--the conclusions I
reach, the analysis I make, are substantiated by the evidence I've collected.
That's why I mean by credibility. That's what I mean by judgment. We make a
judgment based upon the information. Our judgment has to be compared to the
credibility of the information.
Let me just say one thing about "Buying the War." People say to me--people
have asked me, `Why is it important? It happened four years ago.' Well, this
war is still going on, Terry, four years after the collusion between the
mainstream media and the administration. If your fire department in your
neighborhood is in collusion with the arsonist, you want to know about it to
avoid the fire next time. If the dog doesn't bark, you want to know if the
dog is licking the boots of the burglar...
Mr. MOYERS: That's why.
GROSS: Is collusion too strong a word?
Mr. MOYERS: Oh, I think it--I think collusion was a very appropriate word
for some of the members--remember there are a lot of members of the press.
Everybody didn't collude, but some did. I mean, The Weekly Standard, Rupert
Murdoch's weekly newspaper in Washington, was taking leaks from the Pentagon
and printing them and putting them into the argument. No, there was collusion
between some members of the press, no question about it. And with the
defectors, with Ahmed Chalabi and people like that. There was collusion. And
some, they were being used as an innocent or idiot fool.
GROSS: Bill Moyers' new Friday night PBS series "Bill Moyers' Journal"
premieres this week with a special Wednesday night edition, a documentary
called "Buying the War." Moyers will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bill Moyers. He has a
new weekly series called "Bill Moyers' Journal" that premieres this week on
PBS. He's won more than 30 Emmys as well as nine Peabodys. Early in his
career, he served as special assistant and press secretary to President Lyndon
Johnson. Moyers last joined us in 2004, when he was preparing to retire from
his weekly PBS TV series, which was called "Now."
You were basically accused by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting of
having a liberal bias, and we learned that Kenneth Tomlinson, who was
appointed to serve as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by
President Bush in 2003, had commissioned a study spending $10,000 to
investigate whether there was a liberal bias on your program. What have you
learned about how that investigation was conducted and what the criteria were
for measuring if there was a bias on your show?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, what the inspector general of the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting and members of Congress learned is that Kenneth Tomlinson did not
act in a straightforward and--he didn't play by the rules. He misused
Corporation for Public Broadcasting money. He singled out "Now with Bill
Moyers" for a bias that didn't exist. We know that he was trying to discredit
the kind of journalism that we were practicing. He tried to accuse us of
promoting a liberal agenda.
You know, for years, the right wing movement has branded anyone who was
critical of them or who didn't report the world as they see it as `liberal.'
You know, there's no question I came out of two liberal administrations, the
Kennedy-Johnson administration 40 years ago. There's no hiding the fact that
I believe that collectively we can do things that we can't do individually. I
don't think markets solve all of our problems. If that makes me a liberal,
I'm a liberal. But in my journalism, I believe in trying to get people as
close as possible to the verifiable truth and our reporting was about the very
issues--the war in Iraq, the growing inequality in this country, the decline
of the middle class, outsourcing, offshore tax havens, all of that--that was
at odds with the view of the world being promoted by the ideologues in
And unfortunately, and Mr. Tomlinson, whom I had wanted to meet--I wrote Ken
Tomlinson three times and asked him if I could come in meet with the board of
the the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and find out why they were so
restless, because I was present at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act
of 1967. We believed that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be a
heat shield to protect the producers and journalists of National Public Radio
and public television from the very kind of political motives that were
driving Ken Tomlinson and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Mr. MOYERS: And all of this came out in the investigation by the inspector
general of the CPB and by some inquiries from Congress, and Kenneth had to
resign from his office. That's the past. I don't know what Ken is doing now.
I'm back practicing journalism and I'm practicing the kind of journalism that
either will stand or fall on the documentation and the evidence that we offer
for the reporting we do, and that's what I think all of it should be about.
GROSS: Did you actually get to read the study that Tomlinson commissioned of
Mr. MOYERS: No. I mean, I could have, but I didn't want to. You know, he'd
hired some old friend of his to do this report. This guy was supposed to
watch the broadcast and report to Tomlinson what was on it, who was being
interviewed. As I said in the speech I gave after I retired in 2004
voluntarily from the show, all Ken had to do was call me, and I'd tell him
what was on, or all he had to do was watch the broadcast and he'd find out
what was on. Or he could even read the TV Guide. I offered to give him a
subscription to it.
You know, to this day, I've yet to have a conversation, despite my calls and
my letters to him, with Ken Tomlinson, and I--you know, I'm going to write
him. I hear he's working on a book. I'll be interviewing some book authors
on my weekly show. I'll see if he comes on and wants to talk about this. I
believe the job of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is support the
independence of producers and journalists in public radio or public
television. And whether the Democrats are trying--do you know, we recently
had an example of Democrats in Congress, part of the Hispanic caucus, calling
the president of PBS up to the Hill to chastise her over the failure of a
upcoming series on World War II to include Hispanics. Well, whatever the
merits of that case, the very fact that members of Congress feel they can call
the president of PBS up to put her on the spot, I mean, that's exactly what we
don't want in public broadcasting and exactly why the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting was established.
GROSS: By the way, if you were to land an interview with Ken Tomlinson, who
investigated you while he was the head of CPB, do you think you would be able
to conduct the interview without a hostile tone?
Mr. MOYERS: I feel no hostility to him. I'm curious. I mean, I'm not a
very good devil's advocate, either. I like to draw people out, not argue with
them on the--I don't feel any hostility with Ken Tomlinson. I feel sadness
that he didn't understand the mission of his office, but no, I would like to
ask him what was his motive and why does he think that reporting...
He said he was watching one of my reports from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, on "Now
with Bill Moyers." We'd gone down there to look at what was happening to
workers who had been the victims of outsourcing and of downsizing. And it was
so moving, and their story was so powerful that we gave it an hour. We gave
the whole hour to the broadcast. It was really about what's happening to
working people in the middle class in this country. Ken Tomlinson told The
Washington Post that he was watching that broadcast and he said, `I realized
that Moyers had a quote, "liberal" agenda,' and I was incensed by that. I
would like to ask Ken Tomlinson if, whether you're liberal or conservative,
what's happening to the middle class, what's happening to working people in
this country, what's happening to the standards of living for people who live
paycheck to paycheck isn't of concern to all of us as Americans. Not as
conservatives or as liberals. And I'd like to see what his definition of some
of the language, of the words he used might actually be.
GROSS: You know, I had the pleasure of interviewing your son when his memoir
was published--this was about a year ago--about his long addiction to crack
and then his recovery and now his work as a vice president at Hazelden, which
is a very highly esteemed rehabilitation center. And he reprints in that book
some of the letters that you wrote him over the years, and some of those
letters are just so eloquent, and it made me think about how few people write
long letters like that. Like, everybody e-mails, but e-mails tend to be short
and functional or funny, but not this kind of like long, reflective, from the
heart, really eloquent kind of writing. And it made me really--because the
letter as a form for that has kind of died, it made me wonder why you chose
the letter as a form to sometimes communicate really profound thoughts to your
Mr. MOYERS: I started writing letters very early, in April of 1954 as a
sophomore at North Texas State College. I sat down one Saturday afternoon and
wrote a letter to a man I'd never met named Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a
United States senator from Texas and had just been elected majority leader of
the United States Senate. That letter, in which I carefully tried to
communicate to him why I wanted to be a political journalist and what I
thought he could teach me and I could teach him, got to his desk. That's how
I wound up working for Lyndon Johnson that summer and sitting outside his
desk. And he was a bear about answering every letter within 24 hours. And he
said to me, `What got my attention was your letter, and I want you to write
those kind of letters to people for me.' And he would edit and sign them. But
he taught me that there's nothing more powerful than the case you make when
you are communicating with someone with a pen and a piece of paper--now a
typewriter and a piece of paper, a computer and a piece of paper.
I've never forgot the power of the written word to reach somebody else, and
I've done that through the years. I don't really know why I'm in
broadcasting, frankly, because I would prefer to write letters. But I wound
up in a medium where there isn't the time and the opportunity to be that
deliberate, and I guess that's one reason I make so many mistakes in live
interviews. But I do think that the art of--the power of communicating
privately is in the care you take to put on a piece of paper what you're
really thinking because you know somebody else is going to ponder and receive
and absorb it, and you want that person to know what you're really trying to
say. So a letter remains the most personal means of communication other than
looking someone in the eye and expressing your deepest thoughts of the moment,
and that's harder for me to do that it is to put it into a letter.
I didn't know my son was keeping those letters. I'd forgotten about those
letters, and I was surprised when he was writing his book "Broken" about his
struggle with addiction and his recovery from it that he had kept them.
GROSS: Are there people you still write those kinds of long letters to?
Mr. MOYERS: Yes, I do. I do. For one thing, I write a lot of grant
proposals. You know, I have to raise every penny of every production...
Mr. MOYERS: ...that I mount for public broadcasting, and a grant letter is a
means of saying, `Look, here's what I want to do. Here's why it's important.
Here's why I need your support.' So I still do that. I tell young people if
they really want to reach me, if they really want for me to consider them for
a job, write me a letter. Don't call me on the phone. I don't have time, and
you don't have time to express yourself on the phone. Write me a letter. I
still believe in this verbal and oral age, a letter is the most intimate
GROSS: Well, Bill Moyers, thank you for talking with us. It will be great to
have you back every week on PBS. Thank you.
Mr. MOYERS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Bill Moyers' new Friday night PBS series "Bill Moyers' Journal" begins
this week with a special edition Wednesday, a documentary called "Buying the
Coming up, we talk with the author of a new satirical novel about office life.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joshua Ferris, author of "Then We Came to the End," a
satirical novel about life at an advertising agency
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Joshua Ferris has written a satirical novel about office life in an
advertising agency during the end of the dot-com boom and the beginning of the
bust. It's called "Then We Came to the End." In a front page review in the
The New York Times Book Review, James Poniewozik described Ferris as `fluent
in the language of white collar wordsmiths under siege' and `having a sixth
sense for paranoia.' Poniewozik describe the novel as `expansive,
great-hearted, and acidly funny.' "Then We Came to the End" is Ferris' first
novel. Let's start with a short reading from the opening of the book.
Mr. JOSHUA FERRIS: (Reading) "We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings
lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward
to at 10:15. Most of us liked most everyone. A few of us hated specific
individuals. One or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who
loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning;
they happened all too infrequently. Our benefits were astonishing in
comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they
were worth it. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to
nursing school, doing something with the handicapped or working with our
hands. No one ever acted on these impulses despite their daily--sometimes
hourly--contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the
issues of the day."
GROSS: That's Joshua Ferris reading the opening from his new book "Then We
Came to the End."
Joshua, welcome to FRESH AIR. When I first heard about your book, I figured,
`Oh, this will be a not-quite-as-funny version of "The Office,"' which I love,
but that's really not the direction you're heading in. Why did you want to
write a novel set in an office?
Mr. FERRIS: Well, it's hard not to love "The Office," and I'd started this
book before "The Office" came out. The real reason that I wanted to write it
was because when I first walked into my first office as, you know, a 24,
25-year-old guy, I was blown away by this behemoth structure. I mean, not
just physically, the building itself, and all of the cubes and offices, but
also psychologically, where you had, you know closed doors and protocols,
secret protocols, conversations that you, you know, were picking up bits and
pieces of and you know, strange euphemisms. And it just seemed like it was
very good material for a sustained literary effort.
GROSS: Now, the characters in your novel have a very ambivalent relation to
the office they work in. You write, "How we hated our coffee mugs, our
mousepads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk
drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for
uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served." So on the
one hand, these people feel really imprisoned by the office, but at the same
time, it's kind of their social network.
Mr. FERRIS: That's right. And for me, the important part of that passage
you just read comes directly afterwards when they talk about...
GROSS: That's why I left it out.
Mr. FERRIS: Did you leave it out for that specific reason?
GROSS: (Unintelligible). No, no, I'm kidding. I'm kidding.
Mr. FERRIS: When they find out that they're moving into a new office, all of
that boring dull stuff that they encounter every day, you know, the
photographs taped to the monitor and their coffee cups and so forth, sort of
brighten in this new, improved space. And so this relationship that they have
to their work and to the office that they come in day in and day out, it is
ambiguous--you know, it is ambivalent, rather. And it was that that was
important for me to try to capture because I think that it's not simply--work
is not simply dull, dull, dull. It also provides an astonishing amount of
community and a good deal of one's self-identity, particularly with respect to
the work people do.
GROSS: Now, you were in advertising. Did you write advertising campaigns
like the characters in your novel do?
Mr. FERRIS: Yeah. I was a copywriter, so I gave my hand to quite a few of
them. I was never a particularly good copywriter, though, I don't think.
GROSS: So, one of the difficult-to-fulfill campaigns in your novel is that a
client wants an ad campaign for cold sore medication and they want it to be
funny, but at the same time they don't want people with cold sores to be
offended by the campaign, so...
Mr. FERRIS: Right.
GROSS: Were there campaigns like that that were really difficult to meet that
you worked on?
Mr. FERRIS: There were, but they were far more dull, unfortunately. They
were more like, you know, can we get this guy to move up his anytime minutes
in a bill insert from Sprint or something like that. It wasn't quite was
interesting and creative. The work that I did, personally, wasn't as
interesting and creative as, `How can we make a cold sore sufferer into a hero
GROSS: So you wrote those inserts in the bills we all get that we throw
Mr. FERRIS: Yes.
GROSS: ...without bothering to read them.
Mr. FERRIS: Yes. I have contributed to your daily dose of annoyance.
GROSS: Now, one of the complications in your novel is that a partner in the
agency is dying of breast cancer. At least, that's the rumor. Nobody's
really sure or not whether she has breast cancer or she's been diagnosed yet
or she's about to be diagnosed or whether she's really sick. But these kinds
of projections and rumors and stuff in an office can be pretty absorbing, and
I wonder why this aspect of the book, this kind of imagining what's really
going on with the partner in the agency is so important to you as a writer.
Mr. FERRIS: You know, the book is told from the group's point of view, and
the group is sort of woefully out of touch in certain respects. They get
other things exactly right but, because all of the information is being
distilled through individuals into this, you know, group of people who might
or might not really know the exact score on things, information is not
terribly reliable. And I find that that is the case at work, and rumoring
itself is sort of a group--very much a group dynamic. And so because it's
filtered through so many people and it becomes kind of the group's voice,
spreading the rumors, it's tough to know what is true and what isn't.
In particular here, with respect to Lynn Mason, the character who might or
might not have breast cancer, there is something that goes beyond sort of the
more craven rumor-mongering that takes place about maybe, you know, somebody's
crush on somebody else or if someone's an alcoholic, here we're dealing with
something that has far more lasting consequences. Is she sick? Is she dying?
And that was interesting to me because, in some respects, death really is sort
of the last taboo that advertising can speak about. Advertising talks in a
thousand different ways about sex and it talks in a thousand different ways
about anything, really, anything is up for grabs in advertising, anything that
will sell. But you don't see too many funeral parlors advertising, and you
don't see many too many Volkswagens being sold on the premise of death. And
so breast cancer and advertising don't make very friendly bedfellows, and I
was very interested in exploring the limits that advertising has in terms of
speaking about that.
GROSS: My guest is Joshua Ferris. His new novel is called "Then We Came to
the End." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Joshua Ferris, and his new novel is called "Then We Came
to the End," and it's a novel set in an advertising agency, basically about
How long did you work in offices before leaving that life for full time
Mr. FERRIS: I worked in offices for about four years, I'd say. It might
have been only three and a half, but let's say four. And before I worked in
advertising, I had many work experiences. I started working, actually, when I
was very young and living in Key West, and I worked in restaurants. And I met
a terrific cast of people who, you know, came and went, and then I worked
through high school, too. So while I wasn't working in an office with the
cubicles in the offices and the hierarchies and so forth, I'd certainly worked
for many, many years and have known that work dynamic that grows up amongst
people for a long time.
GROSS: In your novel you write, "We had these sudden revelations that this
daily nine-to-five was driving us far from our better selves." Did you feel
that way when you were working in the advertising agencies? And then when you
left, did you become the better person that you felt like your job was holding
you back from becoming?
Mr. FERRIS: Well, I suspect that I had good days and bad days then, and I
have good days and bad days now. It's no different. I think that what
happens is that it becomes so highlighted because you can't get away from the
other person's gaze. I mean sometimes, you can close--in certain offices you
can close the door, or maybe you have an hour out on the street or eating
lunch or something, but you're always sort of under a Big Brother condition,
where somebody is always watching. Somebody is always talking. You're always
getting roped into conversations and you're saying things that suddenly,
either in agreement with the group or, you know, against the group, and they
all look at you like you're an alien. And it's that sort of pressure cooker
condition that makes--that made me, anyway, feel as if, `Boy, here all of my
flaws are really being highlighted. And if I could just get out and sort of
be at home, then I'd be a better person.' Likely, it's probably that, you
know, I'm just not being seen when I'm being at my worst.
GROSS: When you started working at home, did the meaning of your desk change?
You know, like when you're working in an office, your desk has things that a
desk doesn't necessarily need because it's like your station away from home.
Mr. FERRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: So you might have like a can-opener in it...
Mr. FERRIS: Right.
GROSS: And like you wouldn't have a can-opener...
Mr. FERRIS: Right.
GROSS: ...in your study at home.
Mr. FERRIS: Right.
GROSS: You might have a picture of your spouse or lover on the desk in the
office, but if you're working at home where your spouse or lover lives, you
don't really--there aren't other employees around, you don't really need that
picture on the desk.
Mr. FERRIS: Right.
GROSS: So did your desk become equipped completely differently?
Mr. FERRIS: My desk became such that no other human being should really be
forced to look at it because it's so overburdened with crap, and I'm a
terrible pack rat, and it's messy, and I would probably be institutionalized
if I brought that into a place of like commercial business. So I have a lot
of stuff on there.
But you know, this, in some sense--it was important for me to take the
perception that anybody that works in a cubicle are kind of like, they're
drones and put that on its head a little bit. Because I think that when we go
into an office, we're so scared of becoming drones that something primal is
kickstarted and we do everything in our power to become individuals. That's
why we bring the stuff into our offices, you know, the weird posters, and the
doodads and the snow globes and the knickknacks that sort of define you and
make you who you are in a great effort to kind of break out of that perception
that you're just another one of many.
GROSS: You know, one of the things about having a job is that, when you have
problems, you can always blame the job, you know? The job can be the source
of your unhappiness.
Mr. FERRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: The job can be the source of why you have no time.
Mr. FERRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: The job can be the reason why, you know, fill in the blank. And when
you don't have like a salaried position, the kind of position where you report
for work and you're working at home writing books, which is what you do now,
can you externalize your problems and blame them on something in the same
convenient way that you can when you're doing an actual job, you know?
Mr. FERRIS: Oh, sure.
Mr. FERRIS: Sure. My...
GROSS: If it wasn't for this darned book, blah blah blah.
Mr. FERRIS: You bet. My UPS man.
Mr. FERRIS: My cat.
GROSS: What did your UPS man cause in your life?
Mr. FERRIS: Oh, actually nothing.
GROSS: What can you pin on him?
Mr. FERRIS: I absolutely love Joe. Joe comes to the door and he's got a
package, and I try to convince him in to have coffee with him because I'm
bored and I don't want to write and, you know, he looks at his watch, `I've
got a lot of deliveries to make today so, man, I think I'm going to have to
pass.' He's actually a great break in the day for me now. But if I need to
blame him, I'm happy to. I'm happy to blame my cat who jumps on the printer
and starts the copy machine rolling. I'm happy to blame anything other than
myself and my lack of ability as I continue to write.
GROSS: Well, Joshua Ferris, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. FERRIS: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Joshua Ferris is the author of the new novel "Then We Came to the
GROSS: You can catch interviews that you missed by downloading podcasts of
our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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