An Intimate Conversation with PBS’ NewsHour Anchor, Jim Lehrer – Part 2

Jim LehrerWhen Jim Lehrer, Executive Editor and PBS’ NewsHour Anchor, visited KERA sometime back, we were lucky to catch him for a full hour of intimate conversation, televised of course.  Jim shared some of his local story and how he got his start at the studio where it all started… KERA.

This is part two of an intimate conversation with PBS’ NewsHour Anchor, Jim Lehrer…

Dennis McCuistion had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Lehrer. Curious about the PBS NewsHour Anchor’s viewpoint, he asked, “a viewer, seeing all sides of a well-spoken, well thought out perspective, can they then make up their own minds on an issue, if we give them those perspectives?”

In his thoughtful way, Jim responded:

“Absolutely, absolutely right. They don’t need any help from me to tell them what to think, but they do need help from me to provide them with many points of view in a very clean way. And fairness, fairness to ideas as much as to people. On our program someone will come in and say to me, ‘the person who knows the most on this subject is this person and on the other side this person. This person is not as articulate as this person; so it would be unfair to put this person on with this person, they’d mop up the floor with him or her.’

‘So we find a better spokesperson’, Jim says. Now that may sound as if we’re casting a movie. We’re in the fairness to ideas business. That means everything to me. We want people to say; now I understand; now I can decide.”

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Dennis went on to enquire about Jim Lehrer’s interviews with many of the most powerful people on earth. He mentioned an interview Jim had with a recent US President who had lied in that interview regarding a major controversy that had erupted. He asked Jim, with situations like that, how did he keep from being a cynic?  Jim believes journalism is an optimistic line of work. He states, “you have to believe in peace if you’re going to moderate a discussion on peace. We as people are capable of solving every problem.” He quips, “I personally solved the Middle East issue at least 40 times.” His style – “I ask and I listen and I can’t judge.”

Dennis asks, “Did you know President Clinton was lying?” Jim says no and goes on to tell us that there had been no leaks; there was no reason to believe differently. “There was no reason, no record, no way to challenge, and I asked the same question seven different ways. He looked me straight in the eye.” The conversation covered the differences in journalism today, which has moved from substance of issues to titillating.

“Dan Rather spoke of this in the segment before,” says Lehrer. “There was a watershed moment during the OJ Simpson trial when CNN went gavel to gavel and said to the American people, ‘this is news- every day, this is news.’ It wasn’t news under the old definitions. Yes, it was news when the murders occurred, yes, it was news… the white Bronco, yes, it was news when the arrest took place, and he was indicted, and Fuhrman, then not news at all until the verdict came in.” He goes on to say, how the huge audience watching affected other news programs and the nightly news as the networks had to compete. Yet a lot of people said, ‘this is not news,’ and they tuned out. ‘THEY’ (CNN) redefined what news was, using entertainment value.”

Several years before this interview, Dennis and I had interviewed several journalists, household names, in Dallas for a charitable event. He (Dennis) had asked if there was bias in the Media, meaning liberal bias.  He brought up Bernard Goldberg’s work, Bias, and Goldberg’s accusation of liberal bias in the media. Addressing this, Jim Lehrer answered, “Bias in the media? What is this media? Sounds like a dreaded disease.” He reminded us that there is not just one media; there are scores of those scorpions out there. On PBS’ NewsHour he said, “we don’t do that, do not include me in that group.” The reporters joining us that evening at the event were equally outspoken, Jim himself was very clear, “Like all generalities, a little of this, a little of that. That doesn’t exist on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and that’s what concerns me the most.”

Bob Schieffer had replied, “There’s not a liberal bias. Bias is perceived. When people think something is biased they don’t believe it. What we have to do is strive to be credible… That’s the responsibility of a journalist, to try to be fair.”

Dan Rather responded, “I understand why that is said by politicians and others with an agenda. My work stands for itself. I think the public is pretty sophisticated about these charges. They don’t want to know what someone calls you. They want to know what you said on the air.”

Sam Donaldson spoke to this, “I don’t think media is liberal or conservative. George Wills, who’s liberal or conservative, he or I? I don’t buy the premise that media is liberal so we try to advance our causes over conservative causes. It is true that we think our job is to have people explain themselves and tell us what they are going to do tomorrow. We scratch at both parties just as hard.”

And a classic response from Bill Moyers, “Rush Limbaugh is liberal? The Washington Times is liberal? Bill Buckley (was) liberal? McLaughlin is liberal? Donaldson is liberal? I mean come on now, that’s one of  the myths that the right wing is perpetrating to keep your eye off what they’re  really doing.”

Coming back to the present time, on this program Jim Lehrer continues telling us his philosophy for news and its mandate to be fair. He states that everyone should be heard and that it’s not his place to say who is right and who is wrong. Jim addressed the function of the news and the journalist’s responsibility. “My job on NewsHour doesn’t evoke natural smiles. If you’re talking about a situation in the Middle East, what’s funny about that?” He leaves us with his comments about his writing, now nineteen novels and several plays, and his work. The busy PBS NewsHour Anchor finds time for all he does, “The reason I really want to do this nightly news, I love what I do with my whole heart and soul. I’m fortunate to do what I really want to do. I devote time to do what I really want to do… rather than what someone else wants me to do.”

Thank you Jim Lehrer, for a thoughtful and intimate inside look.  Join us for more. And as always, thank you for watching.

Niki Nicastro McCuistion…  Producer

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1522 – 07.12.09

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