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Q & A

Two Men, One Story, 15 Years : Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer

December 02, 1990|JANE HALL

Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer are a TV news duo that has lasted longer than the pairing of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC in the 1960s. Their "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on PBS has been praised by critics for its even-handed style and its format of focusing on one or two stories in depth each night.

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. Off camera, each has published numerous books, including novels, plays and nonfiction. They also received Emmys, Peabodys and the Dupont-Columbia awards for excellence in journalism.

This week PBS will broadcast a 90-minute retrospective of the journalists' 15 years together on the "News-Hour" 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, D.C.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

NBC News recently announced with lots of trumpets that they were going to devote the whole newscast one evening to the state of the nation because they think it's so important. That's 22 minutes, when you subtract the commercials. We've been devoting 22 minutes and more to one story every night for 15 years because we think it's so important.

I know that when NBC News does it, with all their very talented people and their serious journalists, and their good training and everything else, they're still going to have to do it with the kind of dash and pace and lots of sorts of excitement noise and fast talking, a kind of barely controlled hysteria about it. It's the culture of what they do as well as the intention, which is so different from what we do.

We are quieter, more thoughtful. I'm not saying that we're God Almighty or that we're the right way or anything else-it's just that we are very different in what we do and the way we do it. 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.

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

MacNeil: One thing I think we can say we did is redirect 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.

Q. 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.

If you're in the business of doing serious journalism, you do serious journalism for those people who want serious journalism-you do not do it for those who do not. We have an obligation to make a story as interesting as possible. We don't have an obligation to hype it.

Q. 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.)

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