National Press Club

Jim Lehrer: There's always got to be a program like NewsHour on television

March 30, 2016 | By Bill McCloskey |

Retired PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer speaks at Club's "Legends of Broadcasting: dinner March 29

Retired PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer speaks at Club's "Legends of Broadcasting: dinner March 29

Photo/Image: Adam Konowe

After years of not expressing opinions on air, retired PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer pronounced the 2016 presidential campaign "unsettling" at an event hosted by the National Press Club’s Broadcast Committee March 29.

"To be a journalist, you have to be an optimist. You have to believe there is a solution," he told a dinner group. This cycle, he's not so optimistic. "I thought it was all going to go away," he said.

In a typical presidential campaign, he explained, "first there is the noise," when the candidates announce, then the "moving toward the middle. By the time of the debates between or among each party's standard bearer, there is very little disagreement on the issues.

"You know one of these people is going to be , , , your president.”

For viewers and listeners, however, the debates are often seen as not about substance, but about "who are these people? How will he or she operate in an emergency?"

"I don't like the level of discourse: demeaning, elements of racism, demagoguery," Lehrer said, declaring that he was "not very proud of my profession.”

“Journalism is now 140 characters," he said, alluding to the length of a Twitter posting. Reporters have a huge obligation under the nation’s form of government, which requires an informed public, he noted.

Asked about his post-NewsHour life, Lehrer said he still has much the same life, just "without the deadlines." For example, he said, he still writes books¸ but spends more time researching them. Writing historical novels "is reporting," he maintained, but is about something that happened years ago rather than currently. He noted that absent the TV part of his life, he doesn't have to be as careful about what he says, or worry about getting a haircut or wearing the right tie.

Lehrer was introduced at the intimate dinner -- the third in the " Legends of Broadcasting series" -- by former PBS coordinator of programming Sam Holt, who was responsible for hiring Lehrer from Texas to be the system’s journalistic conscience, to help producers make shows of quality, fairness and balance.

He left PBS to go back on-air, and to work with host Robin MacNeil at the public TV public affairs production center. They later moved into a news-based daily program, originally distributed only on the Eastern regional network before it went national. It became in the NewsHour, and later the PBS NewsHour.

Lehrer's first role at PBS was off air as coordinator of public affairs. To keep the broadcast from being a "personality-driven program" which is over when someone leaves, he in 2009 removed the names of the anchors and re-christened the program simply the PBS NewsHour.

He said from the beginning he wanted the PBS name on it so the network would have a lot riding on its success. And, he is proud that he got the word "news" into the title, because previously PBS only wanted to refer to their information programming as "public affairs."

Many years later. when he decided to retire from TV, he said he established a two-year glide path exit, first moving to three days a week, then Fridays only. "Then I wasn't there at all,” he said. “I wanted it to be a non-news transition. I was trying to protect that program."

There's always got to be a program like that on television, he said.

Lehrer's first job in front of a microphone was as a bus terminal employee where he got to announce departures. He ended his NPC evening by reciting a typical "all aboard" announcement, naming all of the stops along the way of a milk-run trip.

The event was live-tweeted at by FrannMarie Jacinto of the Club's social media team.