Ben Bradlee and Jim Lehrer
Ben Bradlee and Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer is the executive editor and anchor of PBS’ The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Lehrer joined PBS in 1972, working with Robert MacNeil to cover the Senate Watergate hearings. In 1975, they began what became The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and, in 1983, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, television’s first hour-long evening news program. When MacNeil retired in 1995, the program was renamed The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Prior to joining PBS, Lehrer worked for newspapers in Dallas. He has moderated televised candidate debates in the last five presidential elections and he has written 15 novels.

CJR Daily spoke with Lehrer about his coming PBS program, “Free Speech. Jim Lehrer with Ben Bradlee,” in which he talks to Bradlee about anonymous sources, journalistic integrity, celebrity journalists and other issues facing journalism today. “Free Speech” premieres June 19.

Liz Cox Barrett: You have sat down with Ben Bradlee before — for the NewsHour — and talked to him about Watergate and such. How was this sit-down different? What was your aim for this program and what inspired it?

Jim Lehrer: When the Deep Throat story broke a year ago — that it was Mark Felt — I did an interview with Ben on the NewsHour about that — 10, 12 minutes, in television terms a long time but in NewsHour terms not a long talk. We got into some to some of the issues of anonymous sources and my wife, Kate Lehrer, said to me, “You oughtta sit down with Ben at some length and talk about journalism, maybe for PBS or even a longer DVD for journalism students.” So I called Ben and he said,”Yeah, why not?” And then I called our folks at MacNeil/Lehrer productions and that’s how it all came about …

LCB: I was interested in your exchange with Bradlee about how, as you said, to “keep lies out of the newspaper.” At one point, Bradlee said that newspapers are obliged to report what the president says and if the president says something that isn’t true you have to “learn how to handle that.” When you asked Bradlee how one handles that, he said that “you assign a special story to it and [write]: ‘When the president said, ‘A,’ he flew in the face of (there are a lots of little euphemisms you can use-) much of opinion which says the opposite. You can highlight the controversy which seems to me to be an intelligent way to do it.”

At CJR Daily, we spent a lot of time during the 2004 presidential campaign criticizing just the sort of story that it seems Bradlee is describing — stories that “highlight the controversy,” report this claim versus these competing claims, rather than providing facts for the reader and helping them navigate toward the truth. What are your thoughts on this? How do you approach reporting what a public official has said something that is blatantly untrue?

JL: I don’t deal in terms like “blatantly untrue.” That’s for other people to decide when something’s “blatantly untrue.” There’s always a germ of truth in just about everything … My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others — meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever … I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism. I have great faith in the intelligence of the American viewer and reader to put two and two together and come up with four. Sometimes they’re going to come up with five. Best I can do for them is to give them every piece of information I can find and let them make the judgments. That’s just my basic view of my function as a journalist.

LCB: That goes beyond presenting a claim and several counter-claims that appear to call into question the original claim?

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.