Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 18, 2008


Host: Ted Simons

A Conversation with Jim Lehrer

  |   Video
  • PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer talks with Ted Simons about his journalism career, his passion for writing, and his thoughts about the state of broadcast news. Lehrer and former co-anchor Robert MacNeil received the 2008 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism which is awarded annually by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU.
Guests:
  • Jim Lehrer - Executive Editor and Anchor, The NewsHour


View Transcript
Ted Simons:
What Jim Lehrer has to say about his long career in journalism and the current state of affairs. coming up next on this special edition of "Horizon."

Ted Simons :
Welcome to this special edition of "Horizon." he's a former marine, an author and a diehard fan of buses. jim lehrer and his co-anchor robert macneil are recipients of the2008 Cronkite award for journalism---it's awarded annually for the walter cronkite school of journalism and mass communication at a.s.u. i talked to jim lehrer about his career at the Cronkite School in downtown phoenix.

Ted Simons :
Thank you for joining us on "Horizon."

Jim Lehrer:
Ted, this is terrific. we're part of the same team.

Ted Simons :
Congratulations on this award and honor. talk a bit about what it means to be recognized for any award with the name walter cronkite.

Jim Lehrer
It's like being crowned king or queen. it's the ultimate thing for people who do this kind of work and somebody says we're going to give you an award in the name of walter cronkite, that comes from on high. i take it from on high. and then i feel very humble.

Ted Simons :
Let's talk about your background and how you got started in journalism. when did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

Jim Lehrer
When I was 16 years old, lived in a place called beaumont, texas on the gulf coast on the eastern corner of texas and had wanted to be a baseball player.for the Brooklyn Dodgers ..and there was only one problem. the coach explained to me, jimmy, you're not going to make that. i said, why, sir, and he said you're not good enough. and the thing i really had gotten into -- actually two things. one, i actually got into the sports writers and i loved those guys and thought, hey, whew, i'll be one of them. and then i could go to all of these football games and baseball games and write stories and be a good backup. i'm sure everybody has a story, you probably do too, about a teacher who touched you at some time in your life. and at the exact same time in beaumont, texas, i'd written a paper for English class about charles dickens, "a tale of two cities," and i remember that because the teacher gave me an A, but most importantly, she wrote, jimmy, you're a good writer. and so the two things came together. i went home and told my mother, i'm going to be a writer. she patted me on the head and said, that's fine. i went back to school and found the faculty advisor to the newspaper and said, here i am, and been there ever since.

Ted Simons :
After that first bit of encouragment, was there a time where you read something you wrote or kind of thought about what you did and thought, you know, i am pretty good at this?

Jim Lehrer
It happened -- yes, the answer is yes. it happened in high school. i went -- moved to san antonio and went to a little junior college called victoria in south texas where i had a -- the big headline: v.c. enrollment soars to 360. it was a small place. but i was the editor and publisher and wrote and edited every story and took it to the printing company and handed it out to the students and i realized, this is it for me. the idea of being able to talk to people and write stories and by then, i decided i wanted to be ernest hemingway. and i was interested in fiction. and i went off to journalism school and i was in the service for three years and came out and went to work on a newspaper in dallas, texas. and except for the three years i was in the marine corps, since i was 16 years old, i was one of those lucky people, i decided i wanted to be a writer, a reporter and etc. and i'm still doing it.

Ted Simons :
Did broadcasting interest you initially?

Jim Lehrer
No, none. that was beneath me. i mean, i was a written word person. we didn't -- my folks didn't have enough money so i never watched television in the '50s and at journalism school, the people that did television and radio, they were different than the rest of us who were the hard-nosed people. the hard news people -- excuse me. we were writers. that's what we were. first and foremost. and i came into -- i went from print to television strictly by accident. i had been a newspaperman in dallas for more than 10 years and i -- my first novel had been published. decided to make a movie out of it and my wife and i decided we could live on that and i was going to write novels full time. and the people that ran the public television in dallas asked me to become a consultant. i was going to be a consultant on news and public affairs and work two days a week, and i had never appeared on television except some local meet the press kind of thing and suddenly i was there as a consultant. and somebody said let's do a grant to do an experimental news program and then i went to pbs and here i am.

Ted Simons :
The marines.

Jim Lehrer
Yeah.

Ted Simons :
How did that shape you personally? and professionally as a journalist?

Jim Lehrer
It was a monumental event in my life.only three years active duty. in all kinds of ways it affected me, ted. in that first it forced me to grow up. forced me to realize that i had to be responsible for people other than myself. and what that was like.
it's hard to be responsible for other people. particularly when up to that point in my life, i had been responsible for only myself. i was an infantry platoon leader. 40 enlisted men who i had "control" of -- of everything and it was an experience. the first thing you learn is you're only as good or safe as the people on your right and left. if they're not safe, you're not safe. if they're not good, you're not good. you're going to die and they might too. and you all of that interwove in my personality and everything that i think about, and the other thing it did, in the long haul, journalistically, between the vietnam war -- no rounds were fired at me and i never fired any back, but the experience embedded in my soul forever the fact that war is not an abstract idea. it's not a foreign policy issue. it's a personal -- it's not at foreign policy issue. it had a people issue. all kinds who are risking their lives. and i never lose sight of that and i've covered big debate type of events where people on the ground are having to risk their lives on behalf of an idea. behalf of a country. our own, included. and my experience in the marine corps taught me beyond a shadow of the doubt in the deepest part of my soul that this is about them more than about some abstract idea.

Ted Simons :
You talk about people risking their lives. a lot of lives were risked and lost in a variety of ways in the '60s. almost every month, it seemed like there were huge headlines. for kids like me, i remember. and i'm sure you do as well. and i sometimes wonder, were you forged in the '60s, that perhaps a journalist who came up in the '80s or '90s might not?

Jim Lehrer
I think so… it's a good question. something i haven't really focused on, but the kennedy assassination was the first thing like that since world war ii and then there were two others. martin luther king and bobby kennedy and there was watergate and vietnam. and these were all tragedies and they were -- and for people in the journalism business, no matter where you were, you could be in texas or on the ground somewhere in one of these places, it affected all of us. and people in journalism suddenly -- i think you're right. i think in my case, you -- i learned -- when 9/11, that came out of -- boom! nowhere. the kennedy assassination was the beginning of those events and those jarring things that you think, oh, my God! and then as a journalist, you realize your job is to sort through it, and help people understand it, you have to understand it first yourself and then help others understand it and to try and explain the unexplainable. you know? that's so difficult and we're still doing it now. at least i am.

Ted Simons :
As far as the state of journalism today, i want to leapfrog a little bit. there's a lot of concern regarding print journalism and now broadcast is getting hit. the economy is hitting a lot of things. there's a lot of folks in journalism losing their jobs and newspapers folding. your thoughts on journalism today.

Jim Lehrer
Well, i think the problem in journalism now is a lot of people are in a state of panic about all of this and think we're going down the tube, etc., etc. i happen to believe we've got some problems, but they -- and those problems are causing us to make our situation worse. some people in journalism have kind of drifted away from their main purpose, which is to report the news straight. they're beginning to think, oh, we've got to be entertained. if you want to be entertained go to the circus. i'm not in the entertainment business. never have been and never will be. well, we'll give you more opinion. see, i come from the old-fashioned view there are three kinds. straight news reporter, an analytical, and opinion journalist. and everything must be carefully labeled. the more the journalism world panics and starts melding it together -- and they're doing it before our very eyes. because they're in a state of panic. we'll do more entertaining and opinionated, they're going to lose the whole purpose of the exercise because -- and in this world, as complex and incredible new media and the new ways to get information, there's never been a need for people like us like there is right now. they need straight news reporters who tell the story first. and somebody said you can share everything, you can share opinions, but you can't share the facts. there should be one set of facts and from there -- the comedians and jon stewart can make up stories and david letterman can make jokes and yell and scream about them, but in the beginning, there has to be a news story.

Ted Simons :
Some people will say that the audience has become so accustomed to opinion, on one side and on the other side, they'll say there's no such thing as unbiased reporting. i see liberal this and conservative that. does the audience want straight reporting?

Jim Lehrer
yes, yes, a thousand times yes. and what's missing here is that those of us who do this work and believe in it have to start advertising it. have to start -- we have to start selling it. thomas jefferson said you want to have -- you want this democratic -- he said this to the founding fathers. he said you want this thing to work. this democratic society, you must have an informed electorate.

Ted Simons :
If they're choosing to get it from biased sources, sources that admit their bias, at what point does the straight news media say we can't keep up and stay in business overall?

Jim Lehrer
If that happens, we're out the luck. not just journalism, but our society is out of luck. that's why it's not going to happen. people are sick of this and you can see it. you can see it in surveys. you can see it -- i mean, there's a kind of return to the desire of people -- hey, i need some people i can trust to sort through all of this. noise, news noise for me. the blogs, the call-in radio shows. all of this stuff. you know, that comes on an ipod and which is great and terrific, and it's the old-fashioned gatekeeper. i think the gatekeeper is going to come back and it's not going to be old white men like me gatekeepers on television. but people that somebody trusts to go through all of this. most people don't have time to stay all day on a computer reading blogs or watching cable television 24 hours a day and they want somebody to do that for them. it's an old-fashioned news professional purpose. and the public is -- there's already beginning -- for instance, take the "newshour." when we started almost 35 years ago, we were considered unique. we were not considered unique, because there were a lot of now it's oh, my, those people are weird. and our audience is steady and growing. we haven't been able to promote as much as we should.

Ted Simons :
When you started -- was it the watergate hearings. could you feel this might work on a nightly basis? did you feel something there?

Jim Lehrer
Robert macneil and i talked about it. we had done some specials and stuff together. when we did the watergate hearings, they were a huge thing in public broadcasting and we talked about it. then he had to go back to the BBC. then he came back and he was offered to start a nightly news program for WNET. and he asked me to be the washington correspondent and it had the worst title The Robert MacNeil Report… -- and my mother and i got involved and changed the title to "the macneil/lehrer report" after a few months.

Ted Simons :
You referred to yourself earlier as a fiction writer. i'm fascinated by folks who write novels. i wish i could write one. i'm sure you think you have the great american novel in you.

Jim Lehrer
I know have the great American novel in me. 've written it 20 times and i'm going to continue. i'm going to write 21. 21 already done and 22 is almost finished.

Ted Simons :
What's the attraction?

Jim Lehrer
It was part of my 16-year-old decision. to be a writer. and i wanted to do it both ways, and when i went on to junior college and college, i mean, i just -- i just -- it was my thing and remember, my generation, the hemingway generation -- he said you want to be a writer, you want to be a novelist or short story writer, get a job on a newspaper and it will force you to deal with the english language and keep blood -- blood? keep food on the table and if you pay attention, it will give you people and events to write about.

Ted Simons :
And i've heard professional novelists, they will say that some of their most difficult students, the ones that have the hardest times are journalists, newspaper people so used to a certain style, it's hard to jump that bridge. you say not necessarily, huh?

Jim Lehrer
I think it's nonsense. i think that's an individual thing. i think -- i know many newspaper writers who are terrific fiction writers. the problem is they can't keep their bottom on the chair long enough to write one. that's the number one rule. i can and i write a little bit every day. for years i have. because it means so much to me and if it means a lot to you, you'll find time to do it.

Ted Simons
I mentioned the great american novel. what do you think is the great american novel?

Jim Lehrer
The ones i've written? or the ones i've not written? i think most of the f. scott fitzgerald. and some of john o'hara. toni morrison. and john updike. eudora welty, one of the. great american novelists of all time.

Ted Simons :
Do you have a chance to interview many?

Jim Lehrer
I've done some of it, other people -- mostly jeff brown who does stuff. we do some novelists, not that many anymore. in the early days, we have.

Ted Simons :
Looking back overall, favorite interview, best interview and the interview you just would as soon as no one saw ever again.

Jim Lehrer
All of the above. i tend not to -- one of the great things about doing something every day is when it's over, it's over because you got to do something else the next day. it's the great thing about daily journalism. it is daily and i don't mash my teeth too much about something. i've done this so long and this is going to sound arrogant. i know when i've done a good job and when i've done a lousy job and you can say -- ted could say, jim, that was a terrific interview. and i'll say, thank you, ted. but if i don't agree with you -- in other words, praise or criticism doesn't either excite me or upset me that much as it used to because i'm now comfortable with what i do. and all of the praise in the world is not going to change that. you know when doing an interview, you know where you want to go. i always begin with the perfect interview and i have yet, yet to do it. so i'm always slightly disappointed. with everything i've ever done and even though some are excited, when over, i felt exhilarated and good about it, but never felt 100\%.

Ted Simons :
As a moderator of presidential debates, talk about that, the experience and how -- is it difficult when you've got people who are just going to say what they're going to say regardless of -- who is asking the question and what the question might be?

Jim Lehrer
Well, that's exactly right, but it's not a frustration for me. just because i'm a journalist and have experience with this kind of thing i've been asked to moderate a debate for the commission on presidential debates to implement rules that they've come up with and a candidate's representatives have agreed to. it's not a free thing at all, i can do anything i want to. so i feel -- when it's all said and done, if somebody is talking about, oh, jim, what a great question you asked, i have failed. this isn't about the questions. this isn't about whether i followed up right -- this isn't about the moderators. they should be invisible. i have the greatest job in television, so when i'm doing a presidential -- i'm not auditioning. i just want to do my thing. but it's hairy. really excruciatingly difficult. if i mess up the news, in the unlikely event i mess up the "newshour" or you mess up "horizon," either one of us can look off at the red light and say, "i'm sorry, i'll try to do better." with me and my head every second leading up to it, every second doing it and every second afterward and it's -- it is -- it is the burden of it, and it should be a burden because it's also scary, the power you have. i mean, once you start, there's nothing to keep a moderator from saying, oh, i'm just going to do my thing and 60 million people watching the whole thing, but not doing the thing you said you would do. anyhow --

Ted Simons :
Like being a referee at a football game; the less people who see you, the better job you're doing.

Jim Lehrer
Absolutely right. you've got it. that's the perfect analogy. you don't want to see a lot of challenge things on the field.

Ted Simons :
You see enough of that.

Ted Simons :
We have -- you're a bus -- a fan of buses. what's that all about?

Jim Lehrer
Well, my dad worked in the bus business. i told you i went to a junior college in south texas. victoria. i worked eight hours at night as a ticket agent in the trailways bus depot. it became a part of my life because of my dad and my own thing and i collect bus memorabilia. and my novel -- my new one is coming out in the spring. it's just part of me.

Ted Simons :
Is it the kind of thing where you get misty at the smell of diesel?

Jim Lehrer
Do you want me to do a bus call?

Ted Simons :
Sure.

Jim Lehrer
Victoria to houston. may i have your attention please? this is your last call for continental trailways. Ow leaving from lane one. richmond, sugar land, Stafford Missouri city all aboard! don't forget your baggage please! there's nobody else that can do that.

Ted Simons :
I believe you. last question. you have a way of connecting with people, and we're not talking the elites -- i don't know who they are anymore. i'd like to meet one of them one of these days. but the old bus terminal call, these sorts of things. does a journalist -- check that. journalists today, do you think there's such a concern about getting the big headlines that they're missing the human stories?

Jim Lehrer
They're missing -- it's not about the reporter. it's about the people they're reporting. as long as you keep that in mind, you'll be fine. and i've never lost sight of the fact that a story is never about me. it's about somebody else. it's their stories. they can be big shots or little shots. it's the story that matters.

Ted Simons :
Well, it was a pleasure to hear your stories this evening. congratulations on the award and thank you for joining us.

Jim Lehrer
thank you, ted. it was great fun.

Ted Simons :
thank you for watching this special edition of "Horizon." i'm ted simons.

Jim Lehrer
If you have comments about "Horizon," please contact us at the addresses on the screen. your name may be used on a future edition of "Horizon." "Horizon" is made possible by the members of your PBS station. thank you.

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