In 1988, stalwart PBS news anchor, writer, and longtime presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer was accused of being too soft on the candidates. He snapped back, “If somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus.” The folksy quote sums up the Texan journalist's philosophy succinctly. The news was a serious business. But Lehrer, who passed away last Thursday, witnessed the distinction between political journalism and the circus collapse, with the spread of cable infotainment, and corporate domination of the Internet and radio.
Kottke remarks that Lehrer seemed “like one of the last of a breed of journalist who took seriously the integrity of informing the American public about important events.” He continually refused offers from the major networks, hosting PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour with cohost Robert MacNeil until 1995, then his own in-depth news hour until his retirement in 2011. “I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” he said. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society... That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”
To meet such high standards required a rigorous set of journalistic… well, standards—such as Lehrer was happy to list, below, in a 1997 report from the Aspen Institute.
- Do nothing I cannot defend.*
- Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype.
- Do not falsify facts or make up quotes.
- Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.*
- Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.*
- Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.*
- Assume the same about all people on whom I report.*
- Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
- Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise.*
- Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.*
- Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.*
- Do not broadcast profanity or the end result of violence unless it is an integral and necessary part of the story and/or crucial to understanding the story.
- Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.
- Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers.
- My viewers have a right to know what principles guide my work and the process I use in their practice.
- I am not in the entertainment business.*
In a 2006 Harvard commencement address (at the top), Lehrer reduced the list to only the nine rules marked by asterisks above by Kottke, who goes on to explain in short why these guidelines are so routinely cast aside—“this shit takes time! And time is money.” It’s easier to patch together stories in rapid-fire order when you don’t cite or check sources or do investigative reporting, and face no serious consequences for it.
Lehrer’s adherence to professional ethics may have been unique in any era, but his attention to detail and obsession with accessing multiple points of view came from an older media. He “saw himself as ‘a print/word person at heart’ and his program as a kind of newspaper for television,” writes Robert McFadden in his New York Times obituary. He was also “an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.”
Lehrer understood that civility is meaningless in the absence of truth, or of kindness and humility. His longtime cohost’s list of journalistic guidelines also appears in the Aspen Institute report. “The values which Jim Lehrer and I observed,” MacNeil writes, "he continues to observe.” Journalism is a serious business—“behave with civility”—but “remember that journalists are no more important to society than people in other professions. Avoid macho posturing and arrogant display.”