Jim Lehrer and the Future of News
Jim Lehrer, co-founder and for 36 years the anchor of the PBS NewsHour, died Thursday at the age of 85. He was also the executive editor of the broadcast, moderated 12 presidential debates, and wrote books of fiction and non-fiction, often on topics informed by his interest in journalism, politics and history. The NewsHour remembered and eulogized him on the program that night.
I cannot come close to the heartfelt feelings expressed by his NewsHour colleagues and I highly recommend the program to you. Although I worked for nearly three decades for the public television program Nightly Business Report, public television is about as siloed a group as you will find and I had the pleasure of meeting Lehrer only once. I do remember being tongue tied at meeting the man who is now being mourned as a “giant in journalism.” He of course was friendly and unassuming with me.
Lehrer, along with his newsroom partner Robert “Robin” MacNeil, stood for a style of journalism which is in short supply today. Lehrer summed up that style in his often quoted 9 rules:
Jim Lehrer’s Rules
- 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 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 be allowed to attack another anonymously.
- “I am not in the entertainment business.”
—– PBS NewsHour
I have been thinking a lot about those rules lately as I’ve sat through interviews for a position teaching journalism. I have taught on and off over the years, one course or seminar at a time, and found the experience highly rewarding. Now that Nightly Business Report is history I’d like to teach more often.
There are two questions I am most frequently asked by faculty search committee members, “How do you encourage students to choose journalism as a profession in the current environment?” and, “What are the values you teach them?”
Answering the first question is tough. Would-be journalists today read reports of the closing of newspapers, magazines and online sites almost on a daily basis. Pay for most journalists, never enough to make one rich, keeps falling. Reporters and the profession itself are under constant attack from partisans who accuse reporters of bias and entire publications of being propaganda channels for one side of our great divide or another. And some publishers seem to have devoted their pages and airwaves to taking sides and promoting not only propaganda but also “fake news” and “alternative facts,” terms which are senseless on their face.
I confess to my students that it is difficult to be a journalist in this climate. But I encourage them to consider the profession anyway. I tell them their motive today is the same as my motive back in the Watergate era, where journalists were the heroes and the lawyers and public officials were going to jail.
If our great experiment in representative democracy is to succeed, we, the people who vote to elect our representatives, must be suitably informed. It is the job of the journalist to inform us. I believe that is no less a noble responsibility today than it was when I was graduating from school. The framers who wrote our Constitution agreed and that is why they included the remarkable First Amendment and argued that a free press was essential to our democracy, even while complaining that then, as now, a free press can be a pain in the rear. That is my answer to the first question.
Answering the second question is easy. Just read, I tell my students, Jim Lehrer’s 9 Rules. That’s how he did it for more than half a century. That is how we should do it today.