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TV news without compromise

Not having to worry about ratings gives Lehrer and company 'the right to do it our way' 9/10/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

For TV viewers without cable, public broadcasting's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was the only way to watch the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer. While other broadcast networks squeezed political coverage between prime time reruns and stunts, Jim Lehrer was anchoring three hours a night, leading viewers to the podium and to PBS' panels of journalists, historians and pundits.

The NewsHour is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, but its roots actually reach back to 1973 when Lehrer teamed with Robert MacNeil to cover the Watergate hearings for the National Public Affairs Center for Television. In 1975, the Robert MacNeil Report, later renamed the MacNeil Lehrer Report, made its debut on noncommercial WNET-TV New York. In 1983, the name was changed to the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and it stayed that way until MacNeil retired in 1995.

The program, seen on most public TV stations, is underwritten by Salomon Smith Barney, the Travelers Group, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Lehrer started his journalism career in 1959, as a reporter for the Dallas Morning Herald. He later became a political columnist and city editor there. He moved across town and into public broadcasting as public affairs director and nightly news anchor at kera-tv.

Over the years, Lehrer has developed a reputation as one of television's steadiest and most thoughtful journalists. And he has formulated his own professional creed, in which he sets forth his views on balance, respect for the viewer and story subjects, privacy, the distinctions between news and analysis or opinion and anonymous sourcing.

"I'm not suggesting I don't make mistakes," Lehrer said. "It's a contract with viewers. If you're a practicing journalist, practice according to your own rules. But the public has a right to know what those are."

Lehrer, who is also a novelist and playwright, shared his thoughts on the practice of journalism for broadcasting & cable's special RTNDA report with Senior Editor Dan Trigoboff.

You've been a journalist for more than 40 years, and in television for more than 30. Did television do a better job of covering government and politics in the '60s and '70s than today?

I think it's almost an apples and oranges thing. There's more information available and more outlets about the government now than there ever has been. Back then there were three commercial networks, daily newspapers, a couple of newsmagazines and news on the hour on the radio. And that was essentially it.

Compare that with what we have now. There is more information available now to the average American about his or her government than there ever has been. In some places the journalism is superb, and in others it is not. Generally speaking, I think the public is very well served.

PBS devoted more prime time than any other broadcast network to this summer's Democratic and Republican conventions. Are commercial broadcast networks failing in their public interest duties in the way they cover politics? Or has the public told the networks its just not interested?

The public has not said it's not interested. Look at the number of people who did watch, read about it in the print media, or did go to the Internet. The decision the television networks made about it is their decision. What drove those decisions, I do not know and I do not presume to know.

What I do know is that every four years we elect a president of the United States. This will be the single most important person on the face of the Earth. As far as I'm concerned, that election and all the steps in that process constitutes not only news, but important news, among the most important news that any of us in the world of journalism has to report.

[The other broadcast networks] clearly didn't see it that way. That's their vision; that's their decision. I just disagree.

Is there some legitimacy to their contention that the conventions are too pre-programmed, too planned? Some of the network executives have referred to them as "infomercials."

That is nonsense. We're not in the God business, we're in the journalism business. I don't run the political parties. Political parties want to have a convention, and they want to program it in some exotic way. That's their right. And it is my job as a journalist to report on what this party is doing, why they programmed it that way, what is the message they're trying to put out to the American people?

Who are these people, by the way? Who are these candidates that they're offering? This is a fascinating, interesting election, in addition to being important. There are probably other reasons that they had for doing what they did, that had some validity. They don't want to devote that much time. They don't want to lose a couple of million dollars every four years.

[But if] all of the networks did what we did, as they used to, none of the networks would be bankrupt because of it. They would just make less money.

Given the broader audiences of the commercial broadcast networks, is it possible for cable and PBS to fill the gap?

I don't know. If they are saying that all things that come out of a television set are equal, that their only job is to bring bucks and eyeballs, well then of course their decision makes all the sense in the world. But if they're saying, 'Wait a minute, we also have an additional responsibility, a public responsibility because we're using the public airwaves,' I think they need slightly different criteria.

If they feel they don't have any other responsibilities, then they're fine. They're off the hook. And if the public goes along with it, then they have nothing to worry about.

I know that we did very well [covering the conventions]. I know a lot of people watched, and read their newspapers and hit their Internet sites. An awful lot of people in this country care about who is going to be the next president of the United States, whether the networks know or care.

But you don't have the same economic pressures. Is that a luxury PBS has?

I know exactly what you mean and I've thought about that. But if you apply a commercial standard to the size of our audience, we would be more than commercially viable. Look at the numbers. [Covering the conventions] we outdrew all of the cable networks combined. And on a nightly basis, we do that all the time.

So if it's commercially viable to spend millions of dollars as those cable news networks did and put hundreds of people there, and get a smaller audience, if you were to take our numbers and our demographics, our program and our approach would be more than commercially viable.

Of course that argument has been used against public funding.

You're exactly right. But there are pressures that come with money that go beyond paying the bills. Let's be positive about it. We covered the conventions the way we wanted without one thought of drawing a really sizable audience, to raise the numbers and make a lot of money. We made a decision to do certain things. Let's say we had failed miserably, and we had only a tiny audience compared to the cable networks. So be it. We did it our way, and we would have still been there on the next Monday.

But if we had been a commercial operation and that happened, heads would probably be rolling and there would be an awful lot of negative talk. What being noncommerical does, is gives us the right to do it our way going in and let the chips fall where they may. And when the next big event comes along, I feel free to continue doing it our way.

Do you favor free airtime for candidates?

I've always favored that. I believe that anybody who has a right to broadcast on any level on any media has a responsibility in return to give free airtime to candidates at the local, state and national level.

Television itself has become a major story. In the past year we've seen several TV shows receive national attention, aided by both strong public interest and by local and network news departments. Should television separate itself from self-promotion, or does this merely reflect the importance of television in society? Are there lines that network and local anchors and reporters should not cross?

We did a segment on Survivor, on why it has been so successful? That's part of news. Survivor in and of itself says less about television than about what [interests] people.

Doesn't television influence what people are interested in?

There are an awful lot of flops. What is in the American psyche now wouldn't have worked five or 10 years ago, and it wouldn't work five years from now. That's my guess.

Has corporate underwriting ever created a conflict for you? Do you worry about the influence of underwriters?

There has never been a conflict. We've been doing this program for 25 years, and have taken in millions and millions of dollars from several corporations. There's never been even a hint of an attempt to influence our program.

There are two kinds of influence: there's overt [influence] and then there's the kind you allow to happen on your own. In other words, you sit and say, 'Oh my goodness, XYZ corporation isn't going to like that.' And we have fought against that as well. And I think we have succeeded. I feel very much at ease with that issue.

Should news organizations shape their own standards, or does the public dictate standards and directions?

Every news organization has to have its own standards. And then the public reacts to those standards. If the public over a period of time understands those standards, and accepts them, then that organization is going to continue to flourish. If for some reason they don't, then the news organization either goes out of business or changes its standards.

But if you're going to sit there thinking, 'Does the public really want this story? Does the public really want me to cover it this way?' I don't want to do journalism that way and I can't imagine journalism being done that way.

Some might suggest that it's easier to talk about underestimating the good sense of the people given the viewers, the demographics that you get. You've described yours as a "dream job."

That's a fair statement. And I have to be careful what I say. I do have a dream job. I do have the best situation of anybody practicing journalism. I understand how difficult it is for these folks and I'm not about to make it more difficult for them by jumping on them. I don't know what their situations are so I'm not going to judge them.

Except in the area of covering politics?

Exactly.

You told this magazine once that the NewsHour was a dream job because you have the "right to experiment, the right to try things that other people haven't before." Some examples?

Putting poetry on a nightly news program. [U.S. Poet Laureate] Robert Pinsky is a regular contributor. We're the only television news organization with a media-reporting unit. Somebody comes up with an idea, and we try it out. I don't have to worry about somebody coming down on me if it doesn't work. We just don't do it again if it doesn't work.

What would be the purpose of putting poetry on a nightly news program?

Well, that was the question I raised when it was suggested by one of our senior producers. His point was that we all communicate in different ways, and that if the poetry related to events, and to things that were happening in people's lives, let's give it a try. I was skeptical, to tell you the truth, but I said, 'OK, let's try it.' And it's been tremendously successful.

Can you comment on the influence of the Internet?

It's a tremendous tool, when used properly. We're like everyone else; we're still trying to figure out all its uses. I think the need for gatekeepers, people who are there who sift through the news and present it in some coherent fashion is going to grow because of that. But the glory of it is that if [some people] want to do it themselves, it's out there for them to do it. And that wasn't always the case.

I really do buy into Jefferson's saying that the more information an electorate has, the better the chance they're going to get it right. The medium is not the message when it comes to information. It is the delivery system. The free flow of information is in and of itself worth all the dangers.

I'm not as pessimistic as I once was. I thought for awhile journalism was going to hell in a handbasket. I'm feeling better about things. There have been some breaches here and there, but they've been corrected. I feel good about the flow of information. n

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