behind the news

Jim Lehrer on Billy Bob, Reports of Rain and Stenography As Journalism

The PBS anchor discusses his upcoming special featuring Ben Bradlee, the importance of public discourse and how to handle untruths from politicians.
June 2, 2006
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?

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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?

JL: That’s part of it. Absolutely that’s part of it. I mean, if somebody says — doesn’t matter if it’s the president or who –if somebody says, “It rained on Thursday,” and you know for a fact it didn’t rain on Thursday, if the person was of a nature that you felt you should quote him, “It rained on Thursday.” Second paragraph, third paragraph — or in television terms second or third sentence — you would say, “However, according to the weather bureau it didn’t [rain Thursday].” But you don’t call the person a liar. The person who would call that person a liar would be the person who’d read that story and say, “My god, Billy Bob lied.” But I’m not doing that. I’m providing the information so that the person can make their decision. People might say, “Well the weather bureau has lied. Or I was out that day and it was raining …”

Most of the stories I have covered in 45 years have been gray stories. There are very few really stark black and white stories. On a daily basis there are some huge ones that are, sure, from time to time, but it is helping the reader sort through all this sort of gray stuff out there. It’s not about, “This guy is a liar, this guy isn’t a liar.” I wish it was that simple. It seldom ever is.

LCB: Is there any place for writing, “Billy Bob said it rained Thursday. The weather bureau said it didn’t. I was out that day and I say it didn’t.”

JL: I would never do that. That’s not my function to do that.

LCB: Is it a newspaper’s function?

JL: Look, I’m just telling you what I do, ok? I’m an expert on the NewsHour and it isn’t how I practice journalism. I am not involved in the story. I serve only as a reporter or someone asking questions. I am not the story.

LCB: At one point during the interview, Bradlee said he considers embedding “a mixed blessing.” And you?

JL: I think it’s a terrific thing. We have increasingly fewer and fewer journalists who have any military experience and understand what life is like in the military and in combat. It isn’t the only reporting that needs to be done, but it’s a part of the reporting on the war and I think it’s a very legitimate thing to do. A lot of good stories have come out that wouldn’t have come out otherwise — mostly about what it’s like for these young men and women who are engaged in combat in your and my name and our country’s name. And that, to me, is a very, very legitimate function of journalism. Now, of course, that’s only part of the story.

LCB: One of your questions to Bradlee was, “Why do people not want journalism any more?” What did you mean by that, exactly?

JL: I don’t remember … I really don’t feel that way at all. I may have been asking about …

LCB: I think you were talking about newspaper circulation going down — it was in that portion of the interview. Any thoughts on what you might have had in mind?

JL: I must have been talking about circulation and ratings. My own view, there is a need for and a demonstrated need for more journalism now than there ever has been. The serious, real journalists of this country are more needed now than they ever have been because the blogs and the mp3s and the iPods, they’re all talking about the news, but where does the news originate? It originates with a reporter. It originates with a news organization. And whether it’s the NSA surveillance story or the Randy Cunningham story … all those started with reporting. And so there is increasingly evidence that the folks are understanding that, yes, it’s a terrific thing to be able to go on a radio show and shout about something or to exchange strong opinions on a blog and all of that, but in the beginning there has to be a story. All of that original reporting is being done by journalists.

LCB: About a month ago a Chicago Sun-Times reporter wrote, in a piece about Katie Couric moving to CBS, “Let’s face it: Most of us would rather hear the news from Survivor‘s Jeff Probst than Jim Lehrer any day.” You thoughts on that?

JL: Be my guest. I don’t care what anybody like that says.

LCB: Do you think it’s true? What about the whole entertainment-ification of the news?

JL: I haven’t even got time to consider [that]. Look, we have a considerable audience for our program. We do serious journalism. We’ve been on the air for 30 years. We just celebrated our thirtieth anniversary and I have every [indication] we’ll be here for at least 30 more. Whether somebody says some stupid thing like that — be my guest, I don’t care. People can say anything they want to. If they don’t want to get the news from me, get it from somebody else. It’s not something I’m going to worry about, I’m sorry.

LCB: You have described the NewsHour as a forum for “civil discourse.” Can you elaborate? And, do you see any value in the often uncivilized cable shoutfests?

JL: Look, I’m a believer in all of it. I think all kinds of discourse is good for our democratic society — civil discourse, uncivil discourse, screaming, hollering, poetry, however you want to have a discussion is fine with me. I’m in the civil discourse business. I think it takes all kinds. And more power to everybody.

LCB: After too much exposure to cable news programs with sound effects, news crawls, triple-split-screens, flashing graphics and such, watching the NewsHour can be a shock to the system — the ability to focus, singly, on the story being presented without other images and noises competing for your attention. Do you see anything useful for the viewer in all these bells and whistles?

JL: I’d repeat what I said. People can get their news any way they want. What I love about what’s happened is that there are so many different avenues, there are so many different outlets, so many different ways to debate and discuss and to inquire about any given news story. If people want bells and whistles and all of that, there are bells and whistles available. If they don’t want bells and whistles there are places to go where they are not available. I am in favor of everything. Everyone should get their news however they want to and in whatever form they want. I’m not going to sit back in judgment of other people and the way they do it.

If Letterman tells a joke with a piece of information in it that you didn’t know before, that’s fine with me, that doesn’t bother me. I mean, my God, you’ve got to get it off a serious news program or it doesn’t count? I don’t believe that for a second … If we don’t have an informed electorate we don’t have a democracy. So I don’t care how people get the information, as long as they get it. I’m just doing it my particular way and I feel lucky I can do it the way I want to do it.

LCB: So you think there’s often information to be had from the cable shoutfests?

JL: Well, I assume. I don’t watch them myself, so I’m no expert. I don’t watch that, so I don’t know. But I assume there is. Whatever there is, at least they’re talking about things that matter. As I say, I’m a discourse advocate. What form it comes is less important to me than the fact that there is discourse.

LCB: Finally, Katie Couric’s move to CBS has inspired a lot of talk about what it takes to anchor the news in the evening, and one word that inevitably comes up is “gravitas.” What is it and do you have it?

JL: I have to let other people decide that.

LCB: How would you define it?

JL: I don’t know what it means.

LCB: Is it a necessary ingredient to anchor the evening news?

JL: I don’t know. … I’ll leave that for others to talk about. That’s not my subject. I started as a print reporter. I’m a journalist and that’s what I do. My function is an anchorperson, but it’s in a journalism context, and gravitas and coats and ties and haircuts and all that sort of stuff, I’ll leave to others. My thing is just to do my job the best way I know how and as I say I’m very fortunate to be able to do it the way I want to do it.

LCB: What qualities do you bring to it, then?

JL:You’ll have to ask other people that. Look, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. … This is it: I’m available five nights a week and have been for 30 years. For me to sit back and say, “I bring this, this and this,” forget it. I’m not going to waste my time on that sort of question. Sorry.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.