Jim Lehrer takes his own advice: Make sure it matters to you

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Two decades ago, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil gave public television a kind of news program that contrasted greatly with the aims of big-network journalism, and the distinction has grown year by year with the decay of the network news divisions. Contributing Editor David Stewart, retired director of international activities at CPB, profiled Lehrer for a forthcoming book on the major programs of public TV.

In 1970, on a steaming summer morning in Dallas, I walked into a large room of the public TV station KERA and met Jim Lehrer for the first time. He was seated alone at the end of a long rectangular table, its surface strewn with daily papers, reporters’ notes, overflowing ashtrays and half-empty mugs of coffee. He was studying a clutch of wire service stories, shirt sleeves rolled back, tie pulled away from his unbuttoned collar — the city editor from central casting, I remember thinking.

The novelist/anchor at his desk: “When I was 17, I wanted to write fiction and become a newsman. Hemingway said, ‘You do your journalism; you make your mark writing fiction.” (Photo: Lisa Berg, courtesy of NewsHour.)

In fact he had been a city editor — of the Dallas Times Herald — only a few months before. Now he had a new position, director of news and public affairs at KERA, where he had quickly become the producer of Newsroom, a nightly, hour-long program in which local journalists reported and commented on the day’s events.

Over the next 27 years we talked by phone a few times and occasionally exchanged short notes. Now and then I would see him on his way to or from a Washington party and kid him about my continuing preference for the format of Newsroom over that of his present program. He would smile indulgently.

Then, on a crisp autumn day in 1997 I went out to WETA/Washington to meet with him again. The documentaries and coverage of the Watergate hearings were behind him, his close, 20-year association with Robert MacNeil had ended (some 4,500 programs and 15,000 guests by 1994) and he had been going it alone since 1995. He had suffered a coronary and heart surgery in 1983, and moderated the presidential debates in 1996. Along the way, he had written 14 novels and three plays. There were children and grandchildren. Some of all this was mirrored in his face, more rumpled now than his clothes had been in Dallas. His forthright manner hadn’t changed, however, nor the Texas way of dropping his “g’s” when he starts tellin’ stories.

‘You always told the truth’

James Charles Lehrer was born in 1934 in Wichita, Kan. By the time he reached KERA he had been a reporter and editor for 10 years (for the Dallas Morning News, as well as the Times Herald), had spent three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and had received undergraduate degrees from Victoria College (halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast) and the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. He had seen a lot of Kansas, moving from Wichita to Sedrick to Marian to Independence, while his father, a second generation German immigrant, ran a small bus line. He and his brother then moved with their parents to Texas, eventually to Dallas.

“I’m not a religious person,” says Lehrer. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a big church person — one of the founders of the Nazarene Church. I have uncles who are preachers, and my brother is a Baptist minister. But my mother revolted against all that. I was not raised in a religious environment. So I believe in religion, but I’m personally not religious, and I’m troubled by it.” He grew up in a musical family where his mother played the piano, and an aunt and uncle were professional musicians. But this, too, seems to have left no lasting impression. Today he regards music largely as “background stuff.” It was his mother who helped steer him toward literature and writing, pursuits that continue to occupy much of his attention. He speaks about his father with the intensity, one might say fervor, of a filial true believer: “He was the most moral person I ever knew. He really believed you didn’t cheat, didn’t lie, you always told the truth. He taught my brother and me those old-fashioned things in ways that were terrifying. I grew up thinking that if I did do any of those things, somebody would  . . .

“He wasn’t mean, just the contrary. He taught us to believe those things were important. If someone gave him too much change, he’d hunt him down and return the money. He thought that individually we all had to be good. If we were, there would be no problems, no need for cops.”

In a story Lehrer tells, he and his proud parents are guests at a reception for Viva Max, a film with Peter Ustinov, adapted from Lehrer’s first novel. The drinks are liberal and everyone is in high spirits. Near the end, his father, a little tipsy, rushes over to him, grips his arm and says excitedly, “Godamighty, Jim, I just told somebody I wrote Viva Max!”

Growing up in Kansas, some of the people he remembers best were teachers who “put a lot of stock in words and stories.” But in those days a far more serious interest was sports: “I wanted to be a baseball player, to play for the Dodgers . . . doesn’t everybody?”

His attention turned to journalism when he was about 16 and living in Beaumont, Tex., where his father was managing a bus depot. “I wrote a paper on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and my teacher commented on the margin ‘You write really well, Jimmy.’ This happened about the time I was coming to grips with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to make it as a professional athlete.”

Instead, he made friends with some of the reporters who came to the ball games and determined to become a sports writer. This led to reading short stories and to “a really good English teacher” in San Antonio, where the family had moved. She introduced him to Hemingway and other authors as he became editor of the newspapers in high school and then Victoria College. After graduation, in 1956, from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism (from which he later received its medal of honor — the most meaningful, he believes, among dozens of subsequent recognitions), he embarked upon a three-year hitch in the Marines.

Like other men whose military experience left deep and lasting impressions (often persons who thrived in the system and whose lives were further enhanced), there is a seriousness underlying Lehrer’s descriptions of life in the service, even in the jokes and light-hearted anecdotes.

“I went from white buck shoes and no responsibilities to a mud hole, responsible for 40 guys, some of them older than me. It was a maturing experience. The Marine Corps taught me all sorts of things: how to get people to move from here to there, how to get them to understand what you’re saying. In the Marine Corps you look somebody straight in the eye and say, ‘This is it . This is the way it is.’ You know there’s no bullshit about it.

“In the Marines you learn to talk in people’s context. If I say something to a PFC that is totally out of his frame of reference, I’ve wasted his time and it could cost him his life. You learn to communicate. I think it helped me later on.”

(Later in our talk, and on a totally different subject, Lehrer used the same tone in describing how he had held the attention of an important guest while the studio ceiling caught fire, by fixing him with his eyes, not allowing him to look up until the live segment was completed.)

“The bottom line is: I came out of the Marines knowing what I could do. I didn’t have to be a he-man, to prove myself. I’d already done that. It freed me up. I also learned my limits. The Marine Corps pushes you to your limits. Psychologically and physically, it’s wonderful to have that behind me.”

After the Marines, and for the next 10 years in Dallas, he was a newsman, working 12 hours a day and writing fiction in some of the time left over. “It was exhilarating,” he says, “but terribly hard work.”

Near the end of this period, in 1969, a young man with slender production resources and a strong desire to make a movie adaptation of Viva Max offered Lehrer an unusual deal: the producer would pay him a percentage of the budget (up to $50,000) in exchange for free film rights. The movie was made and, after paying his agent, Lehrer walked away from the Times Herald with $45,000, intending to spend full-time writing fiction.

It didn’t last long. Almost immediately Robert Wilson, head of KERA, phoned with an offer to become the station’s part-time director of news. His first assignment was to apply for a Ford Foundation grant to establish a nightly news program based on a successful format initiated two years earlier by public TV station KQED in San Francisco.

The ‘Newsroom’ experiment

KQED had hastily conceived the daily Newsroom format (originally Newspaper of the Air) during the first weekend of a city-wide newspaper strike. The station hired reporters off the picket lines and assigned stories that they presented and discussed informally on air with other news people. It proved to be immensely popular, even after the two-month strike was settled. By this time the programs had attracted national attention. Fred Friendly, former CBS News president and then an advisor to the Ford Foundation persuaded the philanthropy to make a $750,000 grant to KQED for a continuation of the series and, more important, to offer similar support to other public TV stations willing to make a Newsroom commitment. Stations in Dallas, Washington and Pittsburgh took the challenge.

Lehrer flew to San Francisco to observe the program and talk with Friendly. Some seed money was raised in Dallas, Lehrer’s proposal to the Ford Foundation was successful, and Newsroom was soon underway with Lehrer (who had no previous TV experience) as its producer-editor-moderator.

It would be a difficult to overstate Newsroom‘s influence on public and commercial TV. Dozens of similar local and national variations on the series were soon set in motion, many going strong 30 years later, as The McLaughlin Group and Washington Week in Review demonstrate.

In 1973, Lehrer received a fellowship from the relatively new CPB. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “The awards were set up for people . . . from other lines of work, who could then be drawn into the public system. In Lehrer’s case, it meant attending a lot of conferences where he learned the history of public broadcasting and was invited to join the fledgling PBS as coordinator for public affairs. He also became an on-air commentator for a public affairs production unit, National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), run by newsman Jim Karayan. Here Lehrer met Robert (“Robin”) MacNeil, a Canadian who had been a foreign correspondent for Reuters, a reporter for NBC and CBC as well as a documentary film producer for the BBC. As it happens, they had both been in Dallas reporting President Kennedy’s assassination but had never met until they began to produce documentaries on social issues for NPACT, broadcast by PBS.

‘It was a huge thing, and we knew it’

In mid-May of 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Watergate opened its hearings and, as Lehrer says, “For the next four months we sat bun to bun, reporting the events in prime time.” It was a critical period in the personal and professional lives of both journalists, and a reporting event that moved educational TV to public television.

“A lot of people [in public TV] thought it was a lousy idea,” Lehrer remembers. He credits Gerry Slater, then head of public affairs for PBS, with engineering a commitment to the Watergate programs from the major public stations — in Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, then gaining acceptance from the others.

“MacNeil and I were aware that this was new ground for public TV,” Lehrer recalls. “We were on every night. This is the first time anyone had used prime time in a public affairs way. It was a huge thing, and we knew it.”

They came away convinced that a nightly public TV news program was needed, and doable, but not under Jim Karyan’s direction. “He was in a different world,” says Lehrer. “It was a daily fight to do what we did. We decided we wanted to do it our way. Arrogant, but there it was.”

The Watergate hearings forged a personal bond between MacNeil (right) and Lehrer that led to their long on-air partnership.

The Watergate hearings also forged a personal bond between MacNeil and Lehrer — unique in broadcasting journalism, where egos are large, fuses often short and competition hot. Lehrer recalls feeling provincial at first and intimidated by MacNeil’s extensive experience: “He was a foreign correspondent, he’d worn out eight or nine trench coats. I’d been in Nuevo Laredo and that’s about it.” But it soon developed that they lived in the same Washington suburb (Bethesda), and their daughters attended the same kindergarten. Near the end of a co-anchor career that spanned two decades, they were talking to each other on a private phone line 10 or 20 times each day. MacNeil was present every day following Lehrer’s heart surgery, and there were long talks between them when MacNeil’s second marriage began to fall apart. The bond now extends into the hereafter, as each has named the other as guardian of his children.

“My friendship with him,” Lehrer told writer John Grossman in 1994, “has made it possible for me to live a full and fruitful life. It is a vital part of what my life has been these last many years.”

Once asked whether there had not been any small but persistent irritations in this unusual relationship, Lehrer’s response was quick and characteristic: “It wouldn’t have worked if we’d had an ongoing disagreement. And it would have been a pain in the ass.”

After Watergate, MacNeil went back to the BBC, returning two years later to commence The Robert MacNeil Report, an evening half-hour, single-subject news program produced by WNET in New York. That was September 1975. Lehrer first appeared on the program two or three times a week as its Washington correspondent. In six months it became The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

“The best aspect of that format,” Lehrer reflects, “was our commitment to one story for 30 minutes. The downside was our lack of flexibility. It sometimes got very ponderous. As MacNeil has always said, ‘It takes a lot of courage to be boring.'”

After eight years, in a decision was taken to extend to a full hour, starting in 1983. It was not easy or, in Lehrer’s words, “That was from hell. We went from 30 minutes on a Friday to an hour the next Monday, from a supplement [to network news] to a replacement. We made a lot of mistakes, . . . bad calls . . . it was a terrible agony.”

Technical problems were daunting and easily matched by the uncertainties — and, in some cases, strong opposition — of public TV station managers. “It was a close call,” says Lehrer. “We almost didn’t get renewed. Had we been in commercial TV, we would never have been allowed to screw it up, then correct it.”

Renewal of the PBS contract for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour came, in fact, on an extremely close vote of local stations. “The politics of the system nearly destroyed us,” says Lehrer. “People had their axes to grind; they wanted to cut us back or replace us with their own programs. But we won, we survived, by a small margin.”

Al Vecchione, producer of both the half and the hour-long programs, remembers that it was “a considerable leap without much of a safety net. We were giving up a very successful program that we’d had going for seven years.”
Lester Crystal left NBC, where he had been producer of the Nightly News and president of the network’s news division, to become the NewsHour‘s executive producer. “We assembled,” he says, “what I think was a very talented group . . . but we hadn’t worked together . . . and despite all the experience, when you do a project like this, you sometimes don’t know how it’s going to work until you get on the air, and that’s what happened to us.”

Part of what happened was that three months into the new series (and two minutes after he had been on the air live) Lehrer had a heart attack and went directly to the hospital for triple bypass surgery.

The experience frightened both news anchors: “It certainly straightened him out in a hurry,” MacNeil mused afterwards. “He was a guy who would drive to the corner, one block, to buy a couple of packages of cigarettes . . . and eat pastrami sandwiches with mayonnaise for lunch everyday.”

Judy Woodruff was recruited from NBC to pinch-hit for three months while Lehrer recovered. It was a trying time that Lehrer later described in his book My Heart, Your Heart.

‘That ain’t dull’

During the next 12 years the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour became one of public TV’s leading series. Due to the highly selective nature of much noncommercial television viewing, for many it was public television. By 1995, the program claimed 17 million viewers weekly, of whom 63 percent said they would believe the NewsHour above all other TV news services. Satellites began carrying the program to Europe, Asia and Africa.

Still, it was not an altogether smooth ride. The ever-restive and often querulous local station managers grumbled, as did some viewers. The most often heard criticism — judging from Lehrer and MacNeil responses — was that the program was boring and the mini-debates between well-chosen guests were too predictable.

When the “boring” charge came up in a (1995) program marking MacNeil’s departure from the series, both partners expressed indignation: “The people who watch it all the time don’t find it boring or they wouldn’t watch it,” huffed MacNeil. “This medium is driven increasingly by the tyranny of the popular.”

Lehrer seemed equally put upon: “You pay taxes or you’re on Medicare, if you’re a young person who may have to go to a foreign shore with a weapon in his hand, that ain’t dull!”

Both were especially sensitive to any complaints that the program was not sufficiently interesting. During the trial of O.J. Simpson, for instance, some said the program had not given enough coverage to that major media event. Lehrer’s reply, after explaining that the NewsHour had covered the important news of the trial, was “We’re not in the interesting business, we’re in the importance business.”

Meanwhile, viewer loyalty remained undiminished even as the anchors mounted some pretty high horses to defend the series. When, on his last program, MacNeil thanked the audience for “understanding what we do,” many were probably nodding their agreement.

And for good reason. While it may be taken for granted now, in 1983 a full-hour news TV program in prime time was a surprising and welcome innovation. In the years that followed, the series quietly introduced a wide variety of segments new to programs of this kind, including political stump speeches (on the theory that few people at home get to hear a real campaign speech anymore), a weekly two-person political analysis (now Mark Shields and Paul Gigot), frequent essays, and extended interviews with influential people. In the early days, Lehrer recalls, NewsHour reporters needed to spend 15 minutes telling prospective interview subjects what public TV was and another 15 explaining the program. Not anymore. “Now we more often than not get the people we want when we want them,” says Lehrer.

Although he routinely interviews heads of state and socializes among some of the rich and famous, he appears not greatly impressed with these associations. Soon after Princess Diana’s death, Katherine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co., wrote “an appreciation” in which she recalled hosting a small dinner party for the Princess who was considering what to do with her life. Jim Lehrer, also a guest, observed that she must have “stacks of invitations.” She agreed, but added, “I’ve got to decide.” Whereupon Lehrer said, characteristically, “Make sure it matters to you. Because if it doesn’t, you cannot make it matter to others.”

While Lehrer’s professional loyalties and interests are in journalism, what matters to him is writing fiction. Now working on his 15th novel, he has also written three plays. MacNeil, whose first ambition was to be a playwright and actor, also wrote books (The Story of English and fiction) while he coanchored the NewsHour. When asked why, MacNeil replied, “Because television is not enough.”

Lehrer agrees: “If all I had to make my mark was television, maybe I wouldn’t be [satisfied] just asking questions. Maybe I’d want people to get up from their TV sets saying, ‘Boy, old Lehrer gave him hell!’ If I didn’t have my writing, maybe I wouldn’t be so comfortable. It’s a maybe, but I know this: when I get up from my [on-air] chair, I have other ways to have my say. And I have my say. When I sit in my living room with a full shelf of books I’ve written . . . I think it’s healthy to know that what I’m doing [on the program] tonight is not where I have to take my stand, stake my claim. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to write fiction and become a newsman. Hemingway said, ‘You do your journalism, you make your mark writing fiction.'”

Today Lehrer reads a wide variety of fiction including spy novels (a genre he has explored in his own books), watches public TV’s Mystery! series, some sports, but very little news or public affairs.

MacNeil gives notice

In 1994 Lehrer knew that his partner was thinking of leaving the program. Then one day MacNeil simply said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“I knew it was coming,” says Lehrer. “But would he stay one or two more years?” This was an important question at the time, for if MacNeil left in 1995, Lehrer would have had full responsibility for the following year’s presidential election coverage.

Soon after that, a Friday, the Lehrers took an overnight train from Washington to visit the MacNeils at their house in Connecticut. The plan was to spend the weekend discussing MacNeil’s departure. Lehrer told his wife, Kate, he planned to open the subject right away, no small talk. The MacNeils met them at the train and before anyone had finished orange juice, Lehrer said, “Well, look, let’s start talking. One or two years?”

“Jim, it’s going to be one year,” MacNeil replied.

To which Lehrer responded, “Oh [expletive]! What do you mean?”

The weekend was spent ironing out details. They made two lists, one containing their goals, and the second how to achieve them. The largest problem was closing the NewsHour‘s New York production center at WNET, where the first program had been created. Now the work of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer would be consolidated at WETA in Washington.

“It was difficult on many levels,” Lehrer says. “For 20 years, MacNeil and I were always together. On judgment calls there were two heads. We trusted and respected each other and agreed often enough to make it work. I had to figure out a way to replace him. I had decided that if it didn’t work out, I would walk, too. I didn’t want to develop another unique arrangement, not at this stage of my life. The other thing was, I had to replace Robin in my life.”

In the end, subanchors were brought in, there would be a lot more people on the air, and the editorial decision-making process would change. In earlier days, the staff members made their suggestions and final decisions were taken by, as Lehrer says, “god-one” (MacNeil) and “god-two” (himself). Now the daily 10:15 a.m. senior staff meetings and the once-a-week advance planning sessions would be more democratic. In the past, Lehrer admits, MacNeil was inclined to slow the process and ask for second thoughts. Part of his own impatience, Lehrer believes, was rooted in his experience as a city editor: “Somebody would come up with an idea, and I would say yes or no before he finished. Now I’ve begun to listen. I have to.”

Listening is something he frequently mentions in discussing his work on the air: “The No. 1 skill is to be able to listen, under fire. Anybody can write questions, but if you haven’t developed the ability to listen to the answers . . . you’ll never make it.”

Talking with Jim Lehrer at his Dallas Newsoom table in 1970 and 27 years later in his Washington office were not altogether different experiences. On both occasions he was direct, friendly and self-assured; then and now a man who knows more clearly than many what he wants and how to get it. At 63, he is more avuncular, and over the years the Texas accent has moved to the fringe of his speech. Happily, his voice never resembled the more sophisticated tones of Robert MacNeil. But anyone who thinks his plain-spoken manner reveals a down-home provincialism would be greatly mistaken.

After two years, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer seems to have found the format that suits its featured anchor and executive editor. He says he doesn’t watch the recorded program after the broadcast as much as in the past, but is still frustrated when he doesn’t get the words just right, follow up properly or gets too wordy. “If you don’t have those kinds of anxieties, the adrenalin doesn’t flow properly. I know the potential for screwing it up is there every night. The way to avoid that is to pay attention.”

He talks of the future with the same equanimity that he brings to reflections on the past: “I just want to keep writing my books, and want this program to continue to get better. But that’s it. I’m not waiting for that magic moment. I know I’m the most fortunate person I’ve ever come across. I’ve been able to do the things I’ve wanted to do — and I’m still doin’ them. I’m enjoying the hell out of it. I’ve got a wonderful family, a great life. Talk about boring!”

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