Jim Lehrer passed away last Thursday. Many of you may not even know who he was. If you’ve never turned on PBS for news or have a good memory for moderators of presidential debates, you probably wouldn’t. But Jim Lehrer was the last of the old school journalists. Even when everything in which he believed professionally was crashing in around him, he held firm to the conviction that reporting the news was a sacred trust. In him, there was no compromise when it came to truth or professionalism.
Andrew Kopkind once wrote of him in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The structure of any MacNeil/Lehrer Report is composed of talking heads rather than explosive images, of conversation covering several points of view rather than a homogeneous statement of the world’s condition, of panels of experts, proposals for policy and the sense of incompleteness – and therefore of possibility – rather an a feeling of finality.”
What Kopkind missed and what most journalists miss these days is their responsibility to the 4th Estate. Their job is not entertainment. It is reporting the simple truth. The news is not always explosive. Mostly it’s dull and monotonous. People don’t all see things the same way, so you have to get different perspectives from people who know what they are talking about. You share information simply, concisely and in human terms so that people can understand it. Journalists are supposed to let people make up their own mind. Jim Lehrer believed it was supreme arrogance for a reporter to tell the reader or the viewer what to think. That’s not incomplete. That’s reporting at its best.
Jim got his degree in journalism at the University of Missouri and then did three years in the Marine Corps, because he thought he should - that it would give him experience. He started his career at the Dallas Morning News and covered the assassination of President Kennedy. He always considered himself a print journalist who happened to do television. He joined the PBS family of journalists in time to cover the Watergate Hearings, and became close friends with Robert MacNeil. Together, they created the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and the rest is history.
Over the years he also moderated twelve presidential debates. He was often criticized for not following the rules set by the campaigns. He would let the candidates mix it up a bit and make their own points. It was more of a real debate when he was involved. He didn’t give candidates a place to hide. For his efforts, he was dubbed, “The Dean of the Moderators,” by Bernard Shaw.
Unlike the predominance of news today, Jim Lehrer saw his role simply to provide information to a democratic society. He did not care if that seemed corny or old fashioned. He did not care if his reporting was seen as dull or boring. He believed in absolute terms that his job was to be objective and balanced. Today, reporters seem only to care about fame and fortune, and journalism is an afterthought. They're driven to create drama and confrontation with a heavy dose of their idea about what you should think - because they understand so much more than you. Lehrer’s journalism was always marked by civility and grace. He never made sweeping conclusions about matters in dispute. That wasn’t his job. His job was presenting the facts without bias and to let you decide what to believe.
He once said, “An ass will almost always make it clear who he is. There’s no reason to be redundant.”
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.com.