Most journalists are content to produce a story, then sit back and watch for its effects. Not Bill and Judith Moyers, the husband-and-wife television-documentary makers whose independent production company, Public Affairs Television, has turned out 63 programs over the past 25 years, amassing more than 30 Emmy Awards. Long before completing On Our Own Terms, the four-part series on dying that airs this week on public-broadcasting stations across the U.S., they had helped launch more than 200 community-based coalitions that have been planning activities to raise public awareness of the end-stage care issues discussed in their documentary. And well after the final show ends Thursday night, nearly 70 national organizations, along with local public-TV stations and a website PBS.org/onourownterms) will promote what they hope will become a national dialogue about death. Using money raised from a number of their traditional nonprofit and corporate backers, the Moyerses are spending as much on this education and outreach program as they did on producing the series: $2.5 million.
This brand of extended journalism, which includes the use of community networks, has become a Moyers trademark. After 46 years of working together, Bill, 66, and Judith, 65, have created an oeuvre that has in turn attracted its own audience. On Our Own Terms is only the latest in a series of Moyers' PBS documentaries that speak directly to the 77 million-strong baby-boom generation, which has been dictating the national agenda since coming of age in the 1960s. As wise and benevolent Uncle Bill and Aunt Judith, the Moyerses are reaching boomers through television, the medium they grew up with, about the issues that concern them at key passages in their lives.
Even the title of the series on dying is targeted at boomers, though the couple disagreed on how best to approach them. Bill wanted to call it Living with Dying. Judith, knowing from surveys that audiences shy away from words like death and dying, pushed for something hopeful. On Our Own Terms, her choice, deliberately plays to the boomer conviction, she says, that "we can change things; we can control things." Bill thought the wording was wrong precisely because of that. "It feeds their egoism, their sense that they can control things," he said, "and they can't."
Breaking through the personal barriers to get people to talk about issues like faith and fear may be a Moyers forte, but it is not easy to act on in real life, even for the Moyerses. After Bill's mother died a year ago April, on the first day of their shooting the series, he was struck by an image in his mind "of a shadowy figure, the back of whose head I could see as she moved toward an exit sign...Now she's gone, and there's nobody in my native family between me and the exit sign." He determined then to practice what he was about to preach.
Someday, that is. On his desk at their home in New Jersey, Bill has a note from his son William, 41, attached to a newspaper clipping of an article about end-of-life issues and how parents and their children don't deal with them adequately. The note reads, "Dad, Mom, when are we going to talk about this?"
"It's still there on my desk," admits Moyers, "18 months later."
--By Barrett Seaman