“I am not in the entertainment business.” Jim Lehrer, formerly of the Lehr NewsHour.
Jim Lehrer died a week ago. The obligatory obituaries have been published. The next obituary was written seconds after the one about Jim Lehrer. Life is like that. His death might have drawn more attention than the next one but in my view not enough attention.
Journalism schools should create prizes with his name on them. Each person who is privileged to be a journalist, especially on the hard news beat, needs to be able to recite Jim’s principles—the principles that shaped his conduct in digging and digging until he found the truth and then reporting it in a clear understated manner.
Allow me to digress. Jim Lehrer was graciousness in a town known for the opposite. I met him shortly after moving to Washington—he was on most invitation lists, I was not. We compared notes—among other things both of us had degrees from the University of Missouri. He was one of the few persons I could talk to who cared whether its football team won or not.
And he was one of the only people I talked to who cared passionately about journalism as both a profession and calling. Importantly he was one of the only broadcast journalists who both Republicans and Democrats agreed was evenhanded. He moderated “twelve presidential debates between 1988 and 2012.”
In the larger news organizations, print and electronic, there is a news editor. The editors make important decisions regarding what is included, where it is positioned and how it is written. At some point most editors yield to influences that compromise their profession and the public’s trust. In broadcast news many became intoxicated with performance elements—often looks and theatrics. Some become intoxicated with the fumes emitted from the conference room where opinion writers shape editorial direction.
In the last several decades, journalism, the most important link in a democracy has been compromised and the falling trust of the American public is the result. I offer this link to the Pew Research Center if you would like to go beyond this column. https://www.pewresearch.org/2019/06/05/an-update-on-our-research-into-trust-facts-and-democracy/
Jim Lehrer, you will remain a beacon. Hopefully as the distance lengthens from your work there will be conservators, educators and activists who will repeat and repeat your standards so the next generation of news reporters will go forward by looking back.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.