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 have the best job in journalism. Not just the best job in television journalism; the best job in journalism. And the way I define “best” is that I am free to practice the kind of journalism I want to practice, and so are my colleagues at the News Hour. We have no people looking over our shoulders – no PBS people, no underwriter people, no any kind of people. Our mistakes are our own. If we don’t want to do a story on Paris Hilton, we don’t do a story on Paris Hilton. If we don’t want to do a story on the O.J. Simpson trial, we don’t do a story on the O.J. Simpson trial. We want to devote 20 minutes to global warming and Africa, we do 20 minutes on global warming and Africa. That may not be a good idea. Maybe we should have done this or whatever. We don’t have to worry about the outside. You know journalism is, in the best circumstances, you’re going to make mistakes because news happens. It doesn’t happen in neat and tidy packages. Sometimes you go on the air 6 o’clock eastern time, but the story’s not finished. But you still have to go with what you’ve got. And you know you can correct it the next day or whatever. And anytime you introduce an outside influence, we increase the chances you’re going to be wrong. We have no outside influences. Now my job as the Executive Editor of the program is that; we call it internally – facetiously, but not quite so facetiously – we have a Quaker monarchy. In other words, we have a consensus system where all of us work together, talk together about what we think the news of the day is, how we should present it, all that sort of stuff. But then when we get where we can’t agree, then the monarchy takes over, and I’m the monarch! And I asked some young man who was doing a story for some magazine about all of the TV journalists who are from Texas. And he was doing a piece, “Why is this?” And you know [Dan] Rather was still there. And anyhow, this kid was taking my picture, and he said, “Mr. Lehrer, I’ve taken pictures of all these guys now and they seemed all uptight. You seem so relaxed. What’s the difference?” And I said, “Well the difference is I am the boss.” And in a journalism organization, if you’re not the boss, if you don’t make any of these final decisions, you waste all your energy arm wrestling. “Okay, well is this really a story?” Somebody’s got to finally make the decision. I’m the person.
Question: What goes into a broadcast?
Jim Lehrer: As a practical matter; our editorial process begins every day at 10 o’clock with an editorial meeting. All our senior producers, senior correspondents. We talk about the news of the day. We talk about what we already have ready to go. We talk about how we might present it and what kind of guests we should have. Who we already have lined up maybe on stories we already know are going to happen that day. And then we spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together, getting the right guests, trying to get the right mix of guests. And I do the news summary. There is a news editor who presents it to me in rough form, and I came out of print, so I am not what you’d call the terrific news reader. So I need all the help I can get. And one of the big helps I need is that I have to write my own stuff. It has to go inside. I think I am such a writer now that I think with my fingers more than I do of my own head. Some people would agree with that. But at any rate it has to go in. The way it gets to my head is through my fingers. I don’t really have it until I’ve written it. And so that’s the process. It goes through your head. And at 6 o’clock eastern time, we go on the air! And the great thing about doing live television is that 6 o’clock eastern time you go on the air whether you are ready or not. There’s none of this, “Hey, I’m not ready yet!” Come back, you know, listen to some music, have a drink and come back.
Question: What is the joy in what you do?
Jim Lehrer: I’ve been in journalism for 40 years now, and over 30 with the News Hour. And it is the most exhilarating kind of a thing. It’s little boy/little girl work. Let’s face it. I know everybody says, “Oh, it’s serious.” Yeah, sure it’s serious – serious issues, serious events. I’m in the serious issues, serious event business. But as a journalist it’s like eating candy because I’m exposed to all these things that are happening. Important things, important people. Not so important people, but interesting people. All kinds. There are no clichés to me. I’ve met every kind of person there is. Somebody might say, “Ah, he’s just a left-handed Texas billionaire’s son,” or something. I know a left-handed Texas billionaire’s son. “Oh, he’s just a homeless kid. He’s just a kid who can’t find a job. He’s down and out. He’s been on drugs.” And I’ve interviewed every kind of person there is, I have interviewed and been exposed to. And it is a thrill.
Question: Who is responsible for balance in the media?
Jim Lehrer: Well the consumers bear a much bigger responsibility now than they used to, because there are so many places to go and they have to find these places. Let’s say that an ordinary person of any political persuasion, any age, hears a loud opinion about something. And let’s say it’s about global warming. And the person says, “Wait a minute. It didn’t sound right to me. I think I agree with that, but what are the facts on this?” There’s got to be an automatic way for that person to access the facts from some vehicle. It could a news service. It could be a newspaper; an online newspaper. It could be anything. But it could be a way to go back if you have to, to get those facts. But that’s different, you see? I mean a consumer then has to go and do that. And you have to be a smart newspaper reader. When you read a newspaper you have to think, “Hmm. Well is there more to this? Is somebody spinning me on this?” You have to be very, very careful. But that’s okay. Because the good thing is that everybody can be heard now. There are all kinds of citizens reporters. There are all kinds of this and that and whatever. But the consumer of the news has to really work harder than they ever have before to get it all down.
Recorded on: July 4, 2007