In Praise of Jim Lehrer and Real News

Jim Lehrer was a trustworhty source of news and information for decades hosting the PBS News Hour along with Robin MacNeil.  The Dallas Morning News editorial explains why he was so valuable and what is so sorely missed in today’s news media.  Jim Lehrer’s old school journalism is exactly how we should still be doing it today Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

When he signed off from his long and excellent broadcasting career, Jim Lehrer was still the same sort of journalist that he started as. He was, as he put it, a newspaperman.

The term is dated now, but Lehrer described in a common term then something important about the kind of journalism he did. It was a journalism that was sober and serious, more attached to reason than emotion, and in relentless pursuit of the facts.

His journalism was rooted in the way he did his job early in his career on the city desk of the Dallas Times-Herald and the Dallas Morning News, before he sat in front of a camera at KERA and launched himself in broadcast.

The camera’s lights never changed the man or the way he did his work, and the nation was better for it.

In his years alongside Robin MacNeil and alone, Lehrer, who died today at 85, presented the news fairly, fully and with genuine balance, standing as an example of how the work should be done of both presenting and consuming information about our world.

And it stands in such stark contrast to the nonstop nonsense of bias, noise and garbage that presents itself as television news today. That is entertainment created to hold eyeballs and sell ads. And that wasn’t Jim Lehrer’s journalism.

Lehrer was of the old school. In public broadcasting he perhaps did have the same pressures that commercial television might have applied. But given his personal character and his strong sense of the ethics of journalism, we doubt any commercial calling would have fit him at all.

Every journalist practicing the craft today should listen to his words about how to do the job and do it well. Because that is exactly what he did.

Here is what he said.

People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are, and here they are.

Do nothing I cannot defend.
Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and as good a person as I am.
Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.
Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Rest in peace, Jim Lehrer. You were a great newspaperman.

Footnote: 

After Lehrer and MacNeil left, the PBS News Hour lost its edge, went soft and biased.  When global warming/climate change arose as an issue, the new team proved unable to steer in the cross currents.  I wrote a few times to suggest names of experts who would provide a balance to the alarmists they typically interviewed.  But environmentalists in their audience (and staff?) did not want any contrary information, and the show followed the party line rather than offending or educating.  In the old days, Lehrer and MacNeil were my go to channel for political event reporting, but that also later collapsed into panels of progressives and never-Trumpers.  It’s now little different from the other news entertainment outlets, sadly.

4 comments

  1. Bob Greene · January 24

    Many years ago PBS had a program that blasted industrial, especially chemical industry, hazards notifications. Many long, lingering shots of steam traps. What they were stating as current practice was actually about 10 years out of date and against regulations. Rather than fight it, my company, and many embraced the change. Lehrer was one of the narrators. I wrote him with a note telling him he the program was about 10 years out of date. The response was that he was aware of that but they wanted to make a point.

    That was the last time I watched the News Hour. Lehrer was a force in the news industry and should be honored for that. But this paean to his integrity falls a little flat unless you count his admitting that the program was purposefully inaccurate for propaganda.

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    • Ron Clutz · January 24

      Thanks for that information Bob. So the an anti-business agenda was there already under his watch. Sorry to hear that.

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  2. Raymond · January 25

    It’s been a long while since I moved over to Europe. I used to watch PBS a lot. However over years I started to notice a bias is many of the documentaries. The bias that everything man does is bad. Almost every documentary today regardless of the topic, Climate Change is slipped in a number of times as part of the narrative. This even when CG has nothing to do with the theme. Broadcasting has always been opportunistic and PBS is I’m sorry to say even more so and that because its pretense is not to be biased. The integrity is so compromised that I can’t be bothered to watch any documentaries from both sides of the Atlantic. As for the news, it’s never been perfect, but at the moment the branch is under so much pressure its credibility is basically gone down the tubes. Ray

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    • Ron Clutz · January 25

      I was pleased to hear in the Dallas editorial how Lehrer stated his principles, but sad to hear from Bob that in practice they were violated. A reminder of noble cause corruption, and that publically funded orgs are not immune.

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