Trump Murders Last Broadcast Journalist. Jim Lehrer, 1934-2020
Jim Lehrer has signed off for the last time. PBS announced the longtime "PBS NewsHour" anchorman died Thursday at his home in Washington DC at the age of 85. Working alongside Robert MacNeil, Lehrer was the Texas-accented half of the news team that respected viewers' intelligence enough to cover stories for more than three minutes.
When I was a college student in the early 1980s, just figuring out that TV news wasn't just something to endure before the entertainment shows started, the half-hour "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" was what you watched after Walter Cronkite (Later Dan Rather, or maybe Peter Jennings, but pffft, not Tom Brokaw, he wasn't serious) so you could act like you understood the news. An entire half hour devoted to a single story, every damn day! Broadcast news being such a fleeting, ephemeral thing, I honestly can't say I recall a single news story or discussion that stuck with me -- that may reflect more badly on my media consumption than on the quality of the journalism.
But I do remember that nearly every evening, hearing the theme music -- it was a whole song -- and seeing that logo, that I felt like it was possible to understand some of what the hell was going on in the daily chaos of the Reagan administration. I do recall often talking about it with friends, so something must have at least stuck in the short term. Heh, and we thought REAGAN was dumb and chaotic! (Oh, he was. Never forget.)
The news of Lehrer's death has me right back in college, watching a black-and-white TV in my little shithole apartment in the dark of a cold Flagstaff winter. Proust had his cookie, and we TV babies have nostalgia via TV intros. It's as potent as hearing the old synthesizer arrangement of NPRs "All Things Considered" theme.
Sometimes MacNeil (still with us, so my headline's a dirty lie) and Lehrer seemed sober to the point of self-parody, but watching the "Report," expanded to a full NewsHour in 1983, you never doubted these guys took news and politics seriously. Also, yes, Lehrer really did call MacNeil "Robin," it wasn't just you thinking you heard wrong. And oddly, it was MacNeil, the Canadian, not Lehrer, the Texan, who reported from Dallas for NBC News the day JFK was shot. He bumped into Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin was leaving the Texas Book Depository. We're fairly sure he never saw Ted Cruz's dad there.
The New York Times, in the complete obituary they always have ready for any public figure who's getting up in years, notes that although Lehrer was on television for 36 years, he considered himself "a print/word person at heart," and approached the NewsHour as
a kind of newspaper for television, with high regard for balanced and objective reporting. He was an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.
"I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity," Mr. Lehrer told The American Journalism Review in 2001. "News is information that's required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but I don't care whether it sounds corny or not. It's the truth."
That quest for objectivity too often degenerates into the very worst both-sides framing (and let's not forget that David Brooks and Mark Shields remain a fixture on the "NewsHour.") Somehow, though, the attempt to get the story right and to cover the issues fairly didn't seem either corny or a cop-out when I was watching back then. Did the news business change, or did we just get better at seeing the inherent problems with objectivity? Or are we all just exhausted after having been Luntzed up and chronically Ailes-ing since Republicans started to let lobbyists run the economy and established an entire media ecosystem built on countering "liberal bias" with outright lies? A bit from column All Of The Above and more, I suspect.
And I know that, for late-adolescent me at least, watching MacNeil and Lehrer was part of the theater of growing up and finding an identity, like subscribing to the Atlantic and reading the New York Times Book Review and hoping someday to be the sort of person who got most of the jokes in the New Yorker and maybe didn't even feel quite so much like a total rube. There was a bit of elitism by proxy there.
The Times obit offers these reminders of how MacNeil and Lehrer made it work -- or were perhaps "too boring" for TV ever again. TV doesn't handle complexity so good.
In The Columbia Journalism Review in 1979, Andrew Kopkind wrote: "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 than a feeling of finality."
Edwin Diamond, writing in The New York Times that year, said the hosts had "gradually created one of the best half-hours of news on television without 'visuals' at all; the major elements of the program are the interviewers themselves, always prepared with good questions, and the quality of their guests, always specialists on the night's single topic and almost always capable of speaking fresh, intelligent thoughts."
They didn't shout at you, didn't tell you what conclusions to draw, although they also managed to be accused of such horrible bias that PBS was always in danger of having its funding slashed, from Reagan onward. And perhaps they could have been more directive. I know I haven't watched the program in years.
Just to undercut my hed a little further: Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow and a billion podcasts are doing terrific things with journalism, and sometimes journalism even manages to rise to the challenge of covering Donald Trump well. And I have no illusions that there was ever a golden age of broadcast or print journalism.
But I sure do miss the comfortable sense of feeling like I knew what was going on.
And I can never thank the "Newshour" enough for being the first outlet where I encountered Molly Ivins.
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