January 24, 2020

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Why journalists should be like Jim Lehrer

Journalism giant Jim Lehrer, who co-founded “PBS NewsHour,” died Thursday at 85. Where do you even start to remember one of the all-time greats in journalism?

In moments such as these, I turn to my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins, who has more than three decades working in, teaching and observing broadcast journalism.

“His passing will be an excuse for people to see clips of Jim Lehrer delivering the news,” Tompkins said. “You will be struck by how he made his reporting about the issue or the subject, not about himself.”

Take, for example, when he moderated the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 and was criticized for not pushing back on their answers.

“I was not there to question people,” Lehrer said at the time during an appearance on WNYC. “I was there to allow the candidates to question each other.”

In other words, he was there was to facilitate. It was the candidates’ job to challenge.

“If they didn’t want to do it then I wasn’t going to do it for them,” he said. “And that’s my answer, and I have no apology.”

That might perfectly sum up Lehrer’s approach. And it’s an approach that worked well as he moderated 12 presidential debates — more than anyone ever.

Tompkins also thought the most fitting way to remember Lehrer is remind everyone of Lehrer’s nine rules for journalists:

  • 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 as caring and as 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 ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

  • And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Tompkins said, “I would like to add a 10th rule: Journalists should be more like Jim Lehrer.”

An outpouring of praise

President Bill Clinton presents Jim Lehrer with a National Humanities Medal in 1999. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite)

The journalism world showed an outpouring of tributes on the death of Lehrer, perhaps none more touching than “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, who said, “I’m heartbroken at the loss of someone who was central to my professional life, a mentor to me and someone whose friendship I’ve cherished for decades. I’ve looked up to him as the standard for fair, probing and thoughtful journalism and I know countless others who feel the same way.”

Dan Rather tweeted, “In the trenches of electronic journalism over the decades, I met a lot of people. Few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer. He was a gentlemen, and a helluva journalist. He will be missed.”

Katie Couric called him “legendary.”

Lehrer started as a newspaperman. He worked at the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times-Herald before moving over to TV at a public station in Dallas. He then moved on to PBS and it was there, during the Watergate hearings, where he became one of the big names in journalism. He and colleague Robert MacNeil would analyze the testimony each day and the reaction from the public was overwhelmingly positive. Those appearances eventually turned into the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” — a news show that typically focused on one topic.

In 1983, the show expanded to an hour and became a more traditional national newscast called the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” When MacNeil retired in 1995, it became the “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” He stepped down in 2011.

PBS NewsHour recalled this quote from a speech Lehrer gave late in his career:

“We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now, because when we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there. That is the way it has been for these nearly 35 years and that’s the way it will be forever. And for the NewsHour, there will always be a forever.”

Pausing to remember

NBC News anchor Lester Holt paused for a moment Thursday during the network’s impeachment coverage to pay tribute to Jim Lehrer. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

NBC News even interrupted its impeachment coverage to recognize the life and career of Lehrer.

Anchor Lester Holt called Lehrer a “giant of American journalism.”

Senior correspondent Andrea Mitchell said, “Jim was a very, very close friend. He was the standard bearer. He was the gold standard of newsmen. A newsman’s newsman. He always used to tell people, his staff, his colleagues, ‘It’s not about us.’”

Now that’s a reporting pro

My colleague Al Tompkins also directed me to a 2017 story in The Daily Beast by Eleanor Clift. It involves one of the biggest news stories in our history — the day that President John Kennedy was assassinated. What’s remarkable is how many journalists who turned out to be legends in the business were in Dallas that day in November of 1963. The list includes Jim Lehrer, who was a young reporter at the Dallas Times-Herald. He recalled going to the police station and seeing accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Lehrer said, “I went right to Oswald. ‘Did you kill the president?’ ‘I didn’t kill anybody,’ he replied. I wrote that down.”

When Clift asked if he believed Oswald, Lehrer said, “Not my job to be judge and jury.”

Lehrer said he later stood next to Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald.

Double feature still has doubters

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Several days later and there’s still conversation around The New York Times’ editorial board taking the unusual (some might call it “feeble”) decision to endorse not one, but two candidates for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Katie Kingsbury, the deputy editorial page editor who oversaw the process, appeared on the Times’ “The Argument” podcast to further explain the board’s controversial decision to endorse both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

“If there’s any regret that I have, it’s the impression that I couldn’t make up my mind,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury said she knew people were going to be frustrated that the Times didn’t pick just one candidate, but that outcome most reflected the editorial board’s vote. She also said it felt like the “most journalistic and intellectually honest result.”

She said a major thread through the interviews with the candidates and the conversation among board members was the question of electability.

“The reality is that 2016 has taught us that trying to figure who is going to be the most electable candidate versus Donald Trump in November is probably a fool’s errand,” Kingsbury said. “So we started looking closer at the policy prescriptions, we started talking a little bit more about the actual messages of the candidates and what we realized is the party needs to have that conversation amongst itself. It’s really not the role of the editorial board to determine the future of the Democratic party.”

Kingsbury said she felt both Warren and Klobuchar would make excellent presidents, but admitted that if she had to choose between one or the other, she would “probably vote for Elizabeth Warren.”

Another topic that came up in the podcast was Joe Biden. If you watched “The Weekly” TV show, which chronicled the board’s process, you got the impression that the board was going to endorse Biden.

Kingsbury said that after the latest conflict with Iran broke out, she sat down and wrote a 2,000-word endorsement of Biden because of his foreign policy expertise. But clearly, that editorial never ran.

“It didn’t match the moment in any way,” Kingsbury said. She added that Biden’s message was simply, Let’s go back to the way things used to be before Donald Trump.

“I think there needs to be some recognition for the American public that the government and economic systems were failing them,” Kingsbury said. “And I think that is why, at least in part, Donald Trump was elected president. And returning to what Biden is offering, it just felt like tinkering around the edges when the house is on fire, and we need to have a really close examination of what needs to change in this country. And it doesn’t come through when you talk to the former vice president that he understands that urgency, that he gets that people need something different.”

I still strongly disagree with the editorial board’s cop-out of choosing two candidates instead of, perhaps, waiting a little longer and settling on one. But this 37-minute podcast is an interesting conversation well worth your time and it does add some perspective to the board’s final call.

Oh, one more mention about this because I’ve been asked: Where was James Bennet, the Times editor of editorials, in all this? Bennet recused himself because his brother, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, is running for president.

Must-see documentaries

The New York Times will premier two documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, which began Thursday and runs through Feb. 2.

The first doc is “Time,” directed by Garrett Bradley. It’s the story of a mother of six who has spent two decades fighting for the release of her husband from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The couple committed a bank robbery and she was sentenced to 3-and-a-half years, while her husband was sentenced to 60 years without the possibility of parole.

The other film is Lance Oppenheim’s “Some Kind of Heaven.” The Times describes the film as a “candy-colored visual feast that tells the complicated story of a group of retirees living in The Villages, one of the world’s largest retirement communities, located in, of course, Florida.”

Just kidding about that debate

CNN had scheduled town halls with the Democratic presidential candidates for next week just ahead of the Iowa Caucuses. Yeah, well those have been postponed because of the impeachment trial. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are serving as jurors in the trial. CNN is working to reschedule the town halls.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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