Let me tell you a brief story about Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor of The PBS NewsHour, who died yesterday in his sleep at 85. The story illustrates his integrity and his commitment to news and fairness.
When he invited me to join The NewsHour in 1998, it was to establish and anchor something new: the Media Unit that would report and analyze the news and the way it is reported to the American people. Jim believed that news about the news IS news and should be covered as such. He was prepared to devote a portion of his broadcast to it and had even secured a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to fund it.
The grant was for three years and lasted for seven, precisely because Jim backed it all the way. He never wavered from his conviction that it was important, even crucial, for the news to be presented honestly, fairly and with respect for the intelligence of his viewers. He might have called it “Fair and Balanced,” had another organization not co-opted that phrase.
I came to the NewsHour from decades in the news business, at The New York Times and CBS News, two fine organizations. From the first morning meeting at the NewsHour, I discovered that Jim and his former partner, Robin MacNeil, had created a culture at their broadcast that was special. The news and truth came first. It would be presented fairly and honestly. Every day. It was not a competition for ratings and eyeballs. It was more important than that. Did we “Dare to be dull” at times? Guilty as charged. Did we make mistakes? Of course.
Integrity was the key word. And it still is. That was Jim — and Robin’s — gift. To everyone.
Back in 2001, Jim was quoted in the American Journalism as follows:
“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity. News is information that is required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but it is the truth.”