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End of an era? Not to Lehrer

The TV anchorman concept is doing fine, insists the 'NewsHour' host, whose nightly PBS show just turned 30.

October 21, 2005|David Zurawik | Baltimore Sun

All the talk these days about how the era of the anchorman has ended amuses Jim Lehrer.

With good reason.

With Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather all leaving their newscasts during the last 11 months, there has been monumental change in TV news. But the Texas native, who has put in more years as anchor than any of them, each weeknight still brings 2.5 million Americans what many critics regard as the most dependable hour of information and analysis on television.

And Lehrer, who heads the PBS broadcast now known as "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," which on Thursday marked its 30th anniversary, has no plans for change. At 71, he intends to remain at his desk "eyeball to eyeball with the viewer" for many nights to come, practicing a form of TV journalism in which facts and civility outweigh hype and razzle-dazzle.

"I have been kind of amused by all this stuff," Lehrer said the other day. "Everybody's saying, 'Well, it's the end of the anchorman era.' But then there's Brian Williams, who's got about 10 million people watching him every night on NBC, so what the ... is that all about? I've kept my powder dry on this. You're the first who asked me about it directly. But I've been amused, because I just don't get it."

Lehrer laments the departure from the anchor desks of journalists whom he respects and considers friends, including Ted Koppel, who will leave ABC's "Nightline" next month.

"But remember, who did they replace? Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Roger Mudd. The anchorman is a continuing process," Lehrer said. "Yes, there are all these other things happening in cable news and other media. But the basic function of delivering the news one-on-one is still alive and well, and that era is not going to ever end.... When I leave, it will be the end of the Lehrer era, but it won't be the end of anything other than that."

Technically, the Lehrer era did not begin precisely 30 years ago. The program that made its debut on Oct. 20, 1975, was known as "The Robert MacNeil Report." It was named after the former Canadian Broadcasting Corp. newsman who anchored public television's first nightly newscast alone from the studios of WNET in New York.

But in his role as Washington correspondent, Lehrer was featured prominently several nights a week. After six months, MacNeil invited Lehrer to serve as co-anchor on the retitled "MacNeil-Lehrer Report."

MacNeil and Lehrer already had proved themselves as a viable team when they co-anchored PBS' landmark 1973 coverage of the Senate Watergate Hearings, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. PBS aired more than 300 hours of live daytime coverage during that summer. Videotape replays of the hearings shown at night earned record ratings for the fledgling network of public stations.

"That's how we were able to sell the idea within public broadcasting for a nightly show.... We were able to say, 'Look, there's an audience for serious news and journalism on public broadcasting.' "

In 1983, the 30-minute program expanded to an hour, making it the first national newscast of that length. Three years later, MacNeil and Lehrer became the first anchormen to own their broadcast. (MacNeil/Lehrer Productions owns "NewsHour," just as Children's Television Workshop owns "Sesame Street," which means they arrange their own underwriting and control content of the show.) When MacNeil retired in 1995 at age 64, the program took its current title.

Despite sweeping changes in the media, Lehrer says the program "has not changed one iota" in its original vision of speaking to audience members as citizens rather than consumers.

"I have an old-fashioned notion that news is not a commodity. News is information that's required for a democratic society to function," said Lehrer, a University of Missouri School of Journalism graduate and former city editor of the Dallas Times Herald. "What the founders did was create a society that was dependent -- dependent -- on public involvement. And the only way the public can have the information to get involved is with our help. That's our constitutional mission -- those of us who signed on as journalists -- to provide that information. And there is no other mission involved."

That translates onscreen to vastly more government and international coverage than any other newscast, with stories that often run five times as long as their counterparts on the networks' evening broadcasts.

The audience for such a news show is not large by network standards. (Last week, 8.7 million viewers watched "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams," while 8.2 million tuned to "ABC World News Tonight" and 6.5 million saw "The CBS Evening News With Bob Schieffer.")

But Lehrer's nightly audience of 2.5 million viewers is larger than that of any newscast on cable. And that's large enough to allow "NewsHour" to pursue in-depth journalism in a medium that's otherwise becoming ever more corporate and commercial.

"In 30 years -- 30 years -- nobody in the political part of public broadcasting, nor any of our many underwriters, has ever attempted to influence what we were going to do," Lehrer says. "That's a wonderful freedom and independence that I have -- and very few people in this business have it. That's another reason, I guess, that after 30 years, I'm feeling still as fresh as a daisy."

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