National Press Club

NewsHour's serious approach to news more relevant than ever, PBS newsman Lehrer says

April 3, 2012 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.Klein@yahoo.com

Just four years into Jim Lehrer's career at the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald, President Kennedy was assassinated.  Since then, Lehrer said he has never gone to work without the knowledge that an earth shaking event can occur.

Just four years into Jim Lehrer's career at the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald, President Kennedy was assassinated. Since then, Lehrer said he has never gone to work without the knowledge that an earth shaking event can occur.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

PBS' NewsHour is facing major financial problems with the sudden steep decline in corporate underwriting, but its mission is more critical than ever as the public tries to make sense of a flood of information, the NewsHour's founder Jim Lehrer told host Marvin Kalb on Monday in the latest edition of The Kalb Report.

"Corporate money dropped just like that." Lehrer said with a snap of his fingers. "We have to deal with it.”

Looking to raise new money, PBS created “Friends of the NewsHour” to tap into the loyal audience that has followed the show for years, he said. But he insisted that the NewsHour, with its serious approach to journalism, is more relevant than ever.

“It takes courage to be serious; it takes courage to be boring,” he said, although he demurred that covering the major issues of the day should not be boring.

The NewsHour should always have its time-slotted show, he said, but it should provide its information on multiple platforms so that people can access it any way they want. The program should give viewers the basic information on what is happening, and supplement it with addition coverage on the website.

“All of what we have been hearing about is the mechanics of how news gets to you,” Lehrer said. “The crucial issue is where does the information come from. There’s a flood of information. More than ever we need someone we can trust to go through it. The gatekeepers are coming back, but they won’t be all white men like me.”

Lehrer said the most searing event in his long career was the Kennedy assassination when Lehrer was a young reporter for the Dallas Times Herald.

“I learned just how fragile everything is,” he said. “One man gets off three rounds and changed the course of history forever. Since then, I have never gone to work unprepared for a calamitous, earth-shaking event.”

He described an interview he had with President Bill Clinton just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was unfolding as one of the low points of his career. Lehrer asked the president a question about Lewinsky using the past tense – have you had a relationship with Lewinsky. He did not notice, he said, when the president denied the affair in present tense.

As the person who by far has moderated more presidential debates than anyone else, Lehrer said the job of the moderator is to get the candidates talking. The nature of the questions is less important than the responses they engender between the candidates, he said. A moderator must spend a great deal of time preparing for the debates to be relaxed enough to listen carefully to the answers. The best questions may not be the ones prepared in advance, but the follow ups to the answers, he said.

This year’s Republican primary debates have been crucial to the process of winnowing the candidates and they have gained larger audiences than the organizers imagined, Lehrer said. But he said the debate formats often have been too raucous. He predicted that the final presidential debates just before the November elections will be far more sedate.

This was the 76th Kalb Report in a series that stretches back to 1994 as a partnership with the George Washington University, the Club and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

n Gil Klein