When he signed off from his long and excellent broadcasting career, Jim Lehrer was still the same sort of journalist that he started as. He was, as he put it, a newspaperman.
The term is dated now, but Lehrer described in a common term then something important about the kind of journalism he did. It was a journalism that was sober and serious, more attached to reason than emotion, and in relentless pursuit of the facts.
His journalism was rooted in the way he did his job early in his career on the city desk of the Dallas Times-Herald and the Dallas Morning News, before he sat in front of a camera at KERA and launched himself in broadcast.
The camera’s lights never changed the man or the way he did his work, and the nation was better for it.
In his years alongside Robin McNeil and alone, Lehrer, who died Thursday at age 85, presented the news fairly, fully and with genuine balance, standing as an example of how the work should be done of both presenting and consuming information about our world.
And it stands in such stark contrast to the nonstop nonsense of bias, noise and garbage that presents itself as television news today. That is entertainment created to hold eyeballs and sell ads. And that wasn’t Jim Lehrer’s journalism.
Lehrer was of the old school. In public broadcasting he perhaps did have the same pressures that commercial television might have applied. But given his personal character and his strong sense of the ethics of journalism, we doubt any commercial calling would have fit him at all.
Every journalist practicing the craft today should listen to his words about how to do the job and do it well. Because that is exactly what he did.
Here is what he said:
“People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call McNeil Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are, and here they are. Do nothing I cannot defend. 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 as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously. And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”
Rest in peace, Jim Lehrer. You were a great newspaperman.