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Two Men, One Story, 15 Years

December 02, 1990

As a TV news duo, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer have lasted longer than the pairing of Chet Hun tley and David Brinkley on NBC in the 1950s and '60s.

MacNeil, 59, a Canadian who had worked for NBC and the British Broadcasting Service, and Lehrer, 56, a former Texas newspaperman, began working together as co-anchors of PBS' daily coverage of the Watergate hearings.

This week PBS will broadcast a 90-minute retrospective of their 15 years together on the "NewsHour" and its predecessors, "The Robert MacNeil Report" and "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report."

Jane Hall interviewed the pair together--MacNeil in New York and Lehrer via speaker phone from Washington.

What was your impression of each other when you first worked together during the Watergate hearings? Did Lehrer seem like a noisy Texan?

MacNeil: He didn't seem like a cliched Texan. He's a modest man, very engaging.

Lehrer: When I first met Robin (MacNeil), I was intimidated by him. He'd been around the world 15 times, worn out eight or nine trench coats. I'd mostly been to Nuevo Laredo. But one of the reasons it worked is that we were in sync on journalism.

How would you differentiate yourselves from network news shows?

MacNeil: I think our distance from the network evening shows is greater now than when we started. Partly, it's in the demeanor and the feel of what we do, and certainly in our intention.

We are quieter, more thoughtful. And, I think, as they get more frenetic, as their competition increases and their audience shrinks--while we have stuck to what we do, which is a reasonably, civil, quiet, thoughtful way of doing it--I think the differences between their product and our product get more pronounced.

Some of the elements of "MacNeil/Lehrer" have shown up on network news.

MacNeil: One thing I think we can say we did is re-direct attention to the value of talking heads and to debriefing news sources. What we introduced was letting the audience hear directly from the kind of sources that a reporter would go and talk to on a story.

Do you think you're ever dull?

MacNeil: We are dull for those people who think we're dull, and they probably don't watch or have stopped watching. We are not dull to the people who like our product.

Lehrer: Where the networks have got it wrong, in my opinion, is that they think that in order to avoid being dull, they have to jazz up the news. If there's somebody out there who doesn't care about arms control, then anything you do about arms control--I don't care if you can find a way to get bombs coming out of your TV set--it's going to bore them.

A media watchdog group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting commissioned a study this spring that concluded that the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" has too many white establishment figures on as guests, that your program is overly white and overly male. (The group drew similar conclusions about "Nightline" in a study last year.) What do you think about the FAIR report on your program?

Lehrer: It was extremely unfair. It was incompetently done. It was done from an ideological point of view. They attacked us, which they have a perfect right to do. The only problem was that they were not honest about (their point of view).

There are legitimate criticisms to be made about every program in American journalism, but it isn't a matter of sitting there with an adding machine and looking only at what the color of a person's skin is, and what a person's gender is, and not listening to what the people are saying or how they're being held accountable.

MacNeil: They did their arithmetic wrong and in a prejudiced way. They chose only certain stories at a certain time, at the beginning of a new (presidential) Administration when you would naturally have more of a certain kind of people on.

You are said to be best friends. Given the world of television, do people find that hard to believe?

Lehrer: This isn't some friend you see every six weeks--this friendship is tested every damn day of the week. As a consequence, it has defined friendship for me--what it means, what it requires.

MacNeil: We tell each other things we may not tell our families, and the program is only part of what is valuable in the friendship. If the program stopped tomorrow, we would still be friends.

Lehrer: You know, some people, the first time they get recognized in the 7-Eleven store, they never get over it. Being on television does things to grown-ups--it can turn them into little children very quickly. Robin and I are not immune from that.

MacNeil: We can express our selfish thoughts to each other. And we can talk with each other while thinking, think while talking. We don't have to have finished, articulate thoughts--that's one of the greatest values of friendship.

"Fifteen Years of MacNeil/Lehrer" airs Monday, 8-9:30 p.m. on Channels 15 and 50; and Tuesday, 7:30-9 p.m. on Channel 28.

The "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" airs 6:30-7:30 p.m. weekdays on Channel 28; and 7-8 p.m. on Channels 15 and 50.

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