Sunday, May 21, 2000

Q&A with Jim Lehrer


Talking shop with TV's patron saint of policy wonks and political junkies

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Jim Lehrer
| ZOOM |
        Jim Lehrer, host of the NewsHour on PBS (On WCET Ch. 48 and WCVN Ch. 54 locally) was in Cincinnati on Tuesday as part of a tour to promote his new book, The Special Prisoner, which he described as a tale of revenge involving a former POW from World War II and a former Japanese soldier who held him captive. Mr. Lehrer, a former Marine, city editor and reporter for newspapers in Dallas, has written 14 books and is now in his 25th year as host of the NewsHour. He sat down for a conversation with the Enquirer editorial staff. Here are excerpts:

        Q. While your NewsHour seems to be offering more depth and sophistication, the network news shows are providing less substance than ever. What do you see in the future for TV news?

        A. What it tells me is that we have a rosy future. The networks have miscalculated. They're in a state of transition, and they don't know what their role is. So they've been all over the lot. For a while they went the consumer way — everything had to be reported from a consumer point of view. Then they went to entertainment, the O.J. syndrome.

        They've tried consumers, hype, entertainment. One of these days, the network people — who are smart people — will sit around a table like this, and one of them will say, “How about if we go back to covering serious news?” They'll say, “Eureka!”

        Meanwhile, our audience is not only stable, it's growing. It's bigger than MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and Fox News combined — about 3.5 million to 4 million people every night. I think it's astonishing that no one else is doing what we do.

        Commercial television can't get any worse, for God's sake.

        Q. How do you break through the force field of managed campaigns to get to the issues?

        A. There's no reason why we as journalists cannot force the candidates to talk about things. We have a golden opportunity in this election to really talk about great ideas such as mandatory national service, revamping the tax system, when is it necessary to send young people into harm's way. How do we exercise our power as the world's most powerful nation? What guidelines should we give to the next president?

        If there's a disconnect with young people and politics, one thing to talk about is universal service. I was in the Marine Corps and I am a better and different person because of that. When you're in the military, all the cliches of race and class go out the window. I'm not advocating universal service, but why not talk about it?

        We should make sure we don't let the candidates get away with talking around the edges of these things. I'm disappointed as a citizen that we're not doing it yet. What drives things to debate is a crisis. We have to figure out a new way to get to an issue, to get the public debating things without a crisis.

        Q. How do you avoid the pitfalls of swarm journalism, such as the excess coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story that dominates all of the media for weeks at a time?

        A. The only way to avoid it is to just not do it, and that takes a steady hand. I have to remind our staff that the rest of the country is not watching this stuff all day — they're working, going to school.

        We need to see the cable news networks like the old wire service machines. Only 0.4 percent are watching those cable news channels but because they are on in everybody's newsroom, they say, “Oh my God, the whole world is coming to an end.”

        Q. What are the limits on what you can do on PBS compared to network news?

        A. I have no limitations on what I can or can't do. I have the best job in American journalism. Not once in 25 years has any public TV underwriter, or any PBS official or any PBS station tried to influence in any way what we put on the air. They support what I do.

        With that comes tremendous responsibility. If you don't like what you see, it's my fault.

        If you want cute little fillers, weather, sports, lots of murder and crime stories, that's not us. If we have any limit, it's resources. The networks spend more on their PR budgets for their news operations than we spend on programming. But that's OK. When you have limited resources, you tend to use them better.

        There's no restriction on us editorially. Quite the contrary. I can't imagine having more freedom. I cherish it.

        Q. Have you ever been encouraged to ratchet up the tone of your show, to be more aggressive and confrontational like the cable shows (McLaughlin Group, Crossfire, Hardball)?

        A. I never have — thank God. It goes against the personal style of me and (former co-host) Robert MacNeil. Talk about ducks out of water. We would be like baseball players trying to play football. MacNeil always said, “If you want to make heat on television, that's easy. If you want to make light, that's hard. Let's do the hard part.”

        I can throw some meat out and have people yelling at each other in five minutes. But if you want to make light, that's harder. Heat is great TV, but it isn't great journalism.

        Compared to the food-fight TV, we seem like an oasis in a screaming desert.

        Q. What do you watch?

        A. I don't watch a lot of news. I watch the programming on PBS and The Sopranos (HBO). A while back I got hooked on The Sopranos. I don't watch the Sunday morning (news analysis) shows. I know that's heresy, but that's the same thing I do all week. It's not my idea of a good time. Usually, we have already done a segment on the topics they are discussing.

        I watch Charlie Rose. That's civilized discourse. I also watch Frontline, sometimes West Wing. I don't watch that much TV.

        Q. What work stands out in your career?

        A. I have done a lot of high-wire acts. I interviewed President Clinton on Jan. 21, 1998 (the famous interview in which Mr. Clinton denied any sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky). I have moderated six presidential debates. That will bring your adrenalin to a boil.

        I did a documentary on heart attacks — I had one — and I know that it saved people's lives.

        Q. How does writing novels fit into your life?

        A. I do it every day, whenever I have a break. Writing is a natural act for me. It's got to be part of your daily life.

        When I sit down to interview somebody for the NewsHour, that is not where I reveal myself. I'm not there to show off. If all they can remember is some “great question,” then I've blown it.

        Novel writing gives me the opportunity to go deeper into human emotions. On this latest novel, I really pushed myself farther than I ever have before.

       



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