Journalist Bill Moyers on Thursday defended his documentary about North Carolina politics after one critic called it an “unfair attack” on state budget director and conservative financier Art Pope.
The documentary, called “State of Conflict: North Carolina,” aired last week on UNC TV’s digital channel. It highlighted the political influence of Pope and his family foundation.
“That single foundation has spent some $46 million on a network of advocacy groups and think tanks bent on steering North Carolina far to the right,” Moyers said in the program.
In its online newsletter Thursday, the John William Pope Foundation took issue with the claim.
The program “falsely portrayed the charitable work of the John William Pope Foundation and of our Chairman and President, Art Pope,” wrote foundation official David Riggs.
Moyers, he said, “repeated the false claim that Art Pope and the Pope Foundation ‘bought’ the state of North Carolina, mostly through giving to public policy nonprofits that advocate for common sense free-market reforms … Left-wing operatives have hurled similar accusations for years.
“The claims have never stuck because they are entirely false.”
Riggs said Moyers gave a distorted picture of Pope Foundation giving. In addition to public policy think tanks, the foundation has given millions to philanthropic efforts like soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
“We know they do charity work,” Moyers told the Observer in a phone interview. “He’s complaining about a story we didn’t do.”
Moyers said the point of the documentary was to shed light on Pope’s use of money to wield political influence.
The Institute for Southern Studies found that three groups backed by Pope – Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC – spent nearly $3.5 million on state races in 2010 and 2012, helping lift Republicans to control of the legislature and the governor’s office.
The documentary, Moyers said, “is about the unique power that one man wields in one state, and Riggs is virtually silent about that. If he knows of any other single individual in the United States who has spent so many millions of dollars … I’d be glad to do another documentary.”
Moyers said the documentary was designed to show the influence of “dark money,” unlimited amounts of often untraceable money that’s become common since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. He called such money “a dagger at the heart of democracy.”
Moyers said he invited Pope to be on the broadcast or on a later, live show. He has not accepted.
Pope could not be reached.
Riggs called Moyers’ involvement as president of the Schumann Media Center “the epitome of hypocrisy.” He said the center donates to groups with a liberal agenda.
Moyers said the center supports independent journalism.
Riggs also said Moyers concealed the fact that other groups have given more than the Pope Foundation, all to what he called progressive causes.
He cited the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations, both in Winston-Salem, and the Raleigh-based A.J. Fletcher Foundation. Spokesmen for those groups also could not immediately be reached.