Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, Jim Lehrer attended Victoria College. In 1956, he received a Bachelor's journalism degree from the University of Missouri before joining the Marine Corps, where he served three years as an infantry officer. For the following decade, Lehrer worked as a reporter in Dallas, before moving on to a local experimental news program on public television.
He came to Washington with PBS in 1972 and teamed up with Robert MacNeil in 1973 to cover the Senate Watergate hearings. In 1975, they started what became "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and then the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1983, the first 60-minute evening news program on television.
The program became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 1995 when MacNeil retired. Lehrer has received numerous awards for his work, including a presidential National Humanities Medal in 1999. He also has moderated ten of the nationally televised candidate debates in the last five presidential elections.
Lehrer is the author of 17 novels, including Eureka (2007), The Phony Marine (2006), The Franklin Affair (2005), and Flying Crows (2004). He has also written two memoirs and three plays. Lehrer and his wife, Kate, have been married since 1960. They have three daughters and six grandchildren.
Jim Lehrer: I want to be known as somebody who believed in and practiced, encouraged and set an example for civilized discourse about things that matter. That is my simple goal in life. Fortunately I’ve been given the opportunity and the vehicle to do that, which is the NewsHour. I believe that civilized discourse about the hottest subjects in the world. They can be the most crushing, the most burning, the most controversial things that you can imagine. You can still have civilized discourse. You can still have somebody over here saying, “This is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And then somebody on the other side. My job – and I consider it my purpose – is to make sure that the people who are doing the talking and doing the disagreeing do it in a civilized way – in a way that does not necessarily question the motives of somebody who disagrees. If they do it, they have to do it in a civilized way. But anyhow, I believe in civilized discourse. I believe that that’s how you arrive – through the process – to arrive at your own opinions. If you’re not sure about something and you want to know both sides, or all three sides, or all four sides – because in most cases there are more than just one, just two – My purpose and what I want people to think about when they think about me and what we have done, and what we’ve created on our program, I want people to think, “That’s the place I can go and hear all of the opinions in a way that is understandable and will help me arrive at my own opinion when it’s all said and done.” And that’s what I want. Well what gives me hope is also what concerns me. Let’s start with the good things. The good things are there’s more and more information now available to everybody then there ever has been. There used to be three television networks and us, and your local newspaper and that was it. And you could read the news magazines or whatever, but basically that was how people got the news. And it was all shared news. More than 90% of the people at a given, at an early evening time had watched one of these three. You know ______ Brinkley, Cronkite, whatever. And so they all got the same information and they started their arguments about it afterward based on the same set of facts. Now what’s happened, now is there’s so many different ways to get the information, and so many different formats. Some people get their information on John Stewart, which is made-up news. Some people get their information on blogs, which is mostly opinionated news. Very little original reporting goes on. And then there’s cable news and radio shows. There’s all kinds of things, all kinds of vehicles for getting information about things that matter. And that’s a good thing. The bad thing is that there is sometimes now the . . .The first time somebody hears about a story; the first time they hear about a story is when they hear a strong, shouted opinion – either on a blog or on a radio show or whatever. In other words, anybody can have any opinion they want; but you can’t have any set of facts that you want. And there should be a platform of facts from which everything else flows. Then if John Stewart wants to make up stories. And the fact of the matter is, the good news here is, and the good side of this is, there are increasing signs that people get this. They are sick of having to have their first information come; either it’s somebody from the left or it’s somebody from the right. It’s possible now, as you know, because of what’s available on the Internet and whatever, you could hear, and listen, and read only from people who agree with you 100%. You would never ever hear a contrasting view. And you would know something about a particular subject. There is evidence now that the folks want not a return, because they’re not talking about going back to nightly news programs in the old sense, but they want a beginning. They want, “Let us begin with the news.” And you can get it on a pink iPod with your name engraved on it. Or you can get it on a newspaper sitting in front of the fireplace. Or you can get it watching a television program. You can get it anywhere. And that to me is both the good and the bad. The bad is that we haven’t gotten there yet. And the good is that there are signs; that there is meaning and purpose and a future, I believe, in reporting the news straight first.
Question: How do you propose to overcome it?
Jim Lehrer: I’ve always believed, and we have all kinds of guidelines at the NewsHour which state very clearly, there are three, legitimate forms of news. There’s the straight news, the reporting of the news. Second, there’s the analysis of the news. And then there’s opinion about the news. These are three separate functions and should be clearly labeled. And they should be done by different people. In other words, Billy Bob reporter should not also be Sammy Sue analyst, or Jimmy Charles columnist. So the reader, the viewer, the listener, whatever can say, “Okay. This is straight news now. This person’s now telling me what the President of the United States did today. The analyzer is now saying, well what this could mean; what this action could mean; what this could mean." Then somebody else comes on and says, “Well what the President did today is really awful. It’s terrible.” Instead of beginning here with, “This is awful,” and then working back, I think there are hopeful signs that we're going to figure out a way to separate this better. The mechanics, the technologies make this possible. Of course technology makes everything possible, but it still takes journalists to do it. In the beginning, there is a journalist. Some journalist has to go to the court house or go to the White house; has to read the original document; has to get the original lead; has to do all of this. And those are the folks that need to be protected, and need to goose up stories, to step over the line, to juice them up, to give more opinion and all that sort of stuff. I tell people all the time, “I’m not in the entertainment business. If you want to be entertained, go to the circus. Don’t watch the NewsHour.” And I don’t care. I’m not there to make people laugh, or cry. Just give them the facts the best I possibly can. And then other people can take them and do anything they want to with them; but in the beginning it must be the news.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.