A Conversation with Bill Press
Conscience: You have spent two decades in the media and as a pundit on our TV screens. How do you see the changes in your field, and are you optimistic or pessimistic regarding the future of media?
BP: I have mixed feelings about the media today. On the one hand, with the explosion of social media there are a lot of right-wing sites that blast out false information and masquerade it as “news.” And, sadly, a lot of people believe that garbage.
At the same time, with Donald Trump in the White House, I think we benefit from the best investigative reporting this country has seen since Watergate: Peter Baker, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times and David Farenthold, Philip Rucker and Michael Scherer at the Washington Post.
With Trump’s daily attacks on the media, it’s also more difficult than ever to cover politics today. Reporters have to learn to ignore Trump’s childish name-calling and just focus on doing their job of holding the powerful accountable and telling the truth.
Conscience: You have been a champion of free speech and independent media and a regular panelist on the debate program Crossfire. With the left and the right so polarized, is there room for debate or a constructive battle of ideas?
BP: For six years I was co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, which, I humbly assert, was the first and the best political debate show ever. Nothing on television today comes close. This is partly because politics has become so polarized. But also, frankly, because there are too many pundits on cable television who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
But I still think there’s a place and need for good, lively and informative political debate on television. I’m ready to saddle up again if Pat Buchanan is.
Conscience: As a Catholic, you have said your faith matters to you. How do you see yourself trying to live the ideals of social justice in your everyday life?
BP: As a Catholic, I was taught that our faith should inform everything we do, and I’ve tried to live that in my personal and professional life. As a devotee of Reinhold Neibuhr, I’m a strong believer in the “Social Gospel”—applying the teachings of the New Testament to social problems like income inequality, poverty, racism, the environment, workers’ rights, nuclear weapons and other issues. As Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Conscience: You describe yourself as a prochoice Catholic. What experiences led you to believe that you can exercise choice about abortion rights, and do so as a person in the Catholic faith?
BP: I was still in grade school when our parish priest declared we should only socialize with other Catholics—which would have been difficult for me because my mother was a non-Catholic. From that moment on, I took everything church officials said with a grain of salt. That was especially true, I realized later, of anything uptight male priests or bishops said about women: from denying them the right to serve as priests to the right to control their own bodies.
There’s nothing in the Old or New Testament about abortion. Jesus never said anything about it. This is a historical invention by male church leaders. I cannot believe, for example, that a just God would force a woman who’s become pregnant as a result of rape or incest to bear that child. I’m a Catholic, I’m 100 percent prochoice and I see no contradiction between the two.
Conscience: You were chair of the Democratic Party of California and have spent a number of years in the trenches with the Democratic Party. How do you see the wobbly position that some in the party have on abortion these days, and what principles should the party be pursuing when it comes to a woman’s right to choose?
BP: I think this is a case where we have to be both principled and pragmatic. Principled in that the Democratic Party should always be the prochoice party, and all Democrats should march under that banner. But pragmatic in the sense that there will always be some Democrats who support everything the Democratic Party stands for except that one issue. Then, I believe, we have to be realistic and judge each candidate on his or her overall merits.
I’m a yellow-dog Democrat, but I don’t like litmus tests on any issue: guns, single-payer or choice. I’d much rather have Bob Casey in the Senate, for example, than Rick Santorum. My first choice would always be a prochoice Democrat. But I’ll take an antiabortion Democrat over an antiabortion Republican any day.
Conscience: You’ve spoken about the stark injustice of the hierarchy’s refusal to ordain women and said that the future of the Catholic church lies with women priests. Since then, Pope Francis has reiterated that women should not be ordained and, to a man, the hierarchy reinforces that view. How does this affect your relationship with and view of church leaders when you disagree with them so fundamentally on this issue of justice?
BP: Look, let’s face it: not even Pope Francis is perfect. I can’t believe he’s so forward-thinking on climate change yet so backward on ordination of women. On this issue, he’s just dead wrong. And so are all the rest of the hidebound male church leaders who won’t let women join their ranks because they’re afraid women would do a better job running the church than they have.
But, frankly, I’m not too worried about this because I know it’s only a matter of time. Soon there won’t be enough priests to go around. Then the Catholic church will be forced to accept women priests—and be better off for it.
Conscience: What books do you have on your nightstand right now?
BP: I’m a compulsive reader of both fiction and nonfiction. One of the best books I read this year is Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.
Next up on my reading list: Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry, The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone, The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberger and Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters.
And, of course, I highly recommend my memoir, From the Left, which comes out in March 2018, and tells my story: from studying for the priesthood to pontificating on national television—and which is already up for presale on Amazon!
Conscience: If you were to be stranded on a desert island, what nonessential comfort item would you include in your luggage?
BP: I’m hooked. I could live without food and water, but I couldn’t live without my iPhone—and a charger. Do desert islands have WiFi?