Parting Words: Jim Lehrer on Democracy, Journalism and Mizzou
Jim Lehrer, pioneering PBS NewsHour anchor and proud Missouri School of Journalism alum, died Thursday at 85. He never lost his sense of humor, decency or the news.
On his last visit to campus, for his October induction into the MU Hall of Fame, he sat down in the studios of the Reynolds Journalism Institute to talk about his storied career, about the future of journalism for Global Journalist.
A full transcript of the conversation with Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies, follows:
Kathy Kiely 0:36
Jim Lehrer, over the course of your distinguished career, you've received many honors, including your induction into the University of Missouri Hall of Fame. Since we're doing this interview on Mizzou's campus, can you start out by telling us how you first got here and what kind of impact Mizzou has had on your life?
Jim Lehrer 0:57
Well, I came to Mizzou because — and solely because — of its reputation of having the best journalism school in the whole wide world.
And I was going to a little junior college in South Texas. And when I say little, I mean, really little. Junior college had a student body of 300, and all of that. And I'd already decided when I was in high school that one day I wanted to grow up and be a writer, and I wanted to be a newspaper man — which is what journalists were called back in those days.
And at any rate, I just — with some help — I got an application and did the whole thing and applied to come because the journalism school obviously is junior and senior year. And I was a sophomore.
It was in the spring of '56. And I was about to graduate or would graduate at the end— At any rate I applied. And Missouri and you know, few days later, or several days later, I get a letter back from the admissions office here at Mizzou and said hey, essentially — I'm paraphrasing but hey kid, you know when we heard of your school we can't we can't accept your credits — because I want to go as a junior and they said the only thing we could do is admit you as a provisional sophomore, which would have been devastating for me.
So it wasn't gonna work. But I went to this guy, who was a wonderful man, who was the dean of this little junior college and he was the only dean — he ran the school — and he was furious at this letter, saying his his school didn't count.
And this guy said to me, he said, "You you want you really want to go to Missouri, Jimmy?" And I said, "Yes sir. I really do." And he said, "Okay, are you ready to roll the dice?"
Anyhow, the point of it is, he engineered a deal, and some anonymous guy — and it was a guy — at the in the admissions office at Missouri, bought his offer. In other words, the dean said, "Look, this kid can do the work. We will administer exams in all subjects that you won't give him credit for as a junior. If he passes, you'll agree to admit him as a junior." So the admissions guy says, "You're on."
So few days later or a few weeks later, I guess it was two, three weeks later, I spent one Saturday and took five exams. You know, English grammar, Spanish, biology, all that sort of stuff. And I aced them. And they not only accepted me, they accepted me as an advanced junior so it was terrific.
So anyway, I went to, I went to Missouri and to MU to Mizzou, all those things it's called — and the J school and — it was it lived up to its reputation for me. I ended up my senior year, first semester I covered the police beat, I got up early in the morning when
Kathy Kiely 3:49
So you were working at the Columbia Missourian?
Jim Lehrer 3:51
Columbia Missourian. Yeah, exactly. And then the second semester I covered the courthouse, the Boone County courthouse and it was just — and from then on was - and then the Missouri credential helped me get my — I went, I had to go into the service in the Marine Corps for three years after I graduated. But I got out, I got a job at the Dallas Morning News solely because I had graduated from — they didn't even interview me. You know, but they, he said, "Come on, come on to Dallas" and because I had gone to Mizzou."
Kathy Kiely 4:22
Where did you serve in the Marine Corps?
Jim Lehrer 4:24
Well, I was an infantry officer and so started in Quantico, that's where obviously SS and all that stuff and then I was in the first battalion ninth Marines, which is an infantry battalion stationed at that time in Okinawa, but it was all we would — We were, we were when the Chinese started banging on Quemoy and Matsu, I was part of a 1500 Marine detachment.
It was supposed to scare the daylights out of out of a billion Chinese. We did a little landing in Taiwan and all that sort of stuff. And then when Beirut came about, we went aboard ship in Okinawa and we were supposed to help the landing in Okinawa — I mean in, in Lebanon, and by the time we got there the war was over, because other Marines had already done their job.
But but most of the time I was in Okinawa and then I was at Parris Island and all that sort of stuff, and I did three years and it was — just like the two years at Mizzou were critical to me. The three years of the Marines were just as critical
Kathy Kiely 5:29
Jim Lehrer 5:29
Well, the Marines brought, made me maybe grow up quite a bit and made an element of the reality — what what I was learning and wanted to cover as a journalist. I mean, you the military, you really feel if you've ever been into — anybody who's ever been in the military becomes a foreign policy, foreign affairs, not expert, but you're interested in foreign affairs from that moment on, because the the main instrument of foreign affairs for the United States of America and actually for other countries as well is the military. So you want to know, Well, the thing is, we're going to have a little fight here. And we're going to send Marines there. And so I had to get interested in it. And I stayed interested because of that.
Kathy Kiely 6:13
Now, you're best known for your work on television. But as you mentioned, you started your journalism career as a newspaper reporter in Dallas, and you covered the assassination of President john F. Kennedy. What from that experience stands out in your mind?
Kathy, what the Kennedy assassination did for me — I we had been a —that was a 1963. I had been a newspaper reporter since 1959. So I was still learning. But what I learned that day — I worked for the afternoon paper at the time, the Dallas Times Herald, and my assignment that day, because the president was coming — President and Mrs. Kennedy were going to be only going to be in Dallas about three hours just for this luncheon, and it was right on our deadline.
And so everybody in the news department had some assignment to cover because we had three or four editions and all that sort of stuff. And my assignment was to cover the arrival of the Kennedys at Love Field and then stay there until they came back and cover the departure.
And, anyhow, and I was right there at the airplane. You see me, way, way back in the background in some of the pictures and all of that, of the of the arrival on all that.
And then anyhow, we went into the terminal, and then the word came and I ran to a telephone I got the the — how I got through, I do not remember. It's still a miracle to me. I got through to the city desk and they said, go to the hospital. The president is there and again, you know, so so the hospital was just two or three minutes for me.
So I went there just as they were announcing that Kennedy was dead. And then, some of them when the reporters there said, "Hey, they want you to go to the police station." So I got there just as Oswald was being brought in. So I mean, I was in it. And as a result of part of my, you know, just, but it was a miracle really.
But it changed my whole approach to journalism forever. The managing editor assigned me to cover the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. I did that for six months, I ran into every culvert, I investigated every kind of conspiracy theory that was floating. Because there were no Pulitzer Prizes to be won by anybody who proved that it was one man alone, firing three rounds in 15 seconds that was — It had to be a conspiracy. And for that reporter who could find the conspiracy, there was a Pulitzer Prize. And I was one of them. There 2000 maybe or more reporters all over — tfrom all over the world who were covering the story..
Anyways, the bottom line is though, to answer your question, directly, I came away from that whole experience with a forever ingrained, forever DNA that I knew for a fact that everything was fragile. That any given moment the phone could ring.
So naturally when I later became city editor, of the Times Herald I was a fanatic. If the phone rang on the city desk and it wasn't answered on the first ring, somebody's head was going to roll, because that's how it all happens and you have to be alert to it. And that that at any given moment. A lone — it turns out one man with a rifle, gets off three rounds in 15 seconds and changes the course of history.
I never forgot that from that day on to this, that I was in the business and in my, in the soul of the business, of being aware of that all the time. Not any kind of fear way, but in not any kind of pleasurable way. But just realizing. And of course, there were two big assassinations afterwards, there were all kinds of things. So you know, things like called the Vietnam War. Kind of weird things like impeachment of a president,
We're going to get into that.
Jim Lehrer 10:21
Anyhow, that's what I learned from the Kennedy assassination.
Kathy Kiely 10:23
But I want you to pause for a moment and reflect, as somebody who started on a local newspaper, I want you to reflect a little bit on the state of that particular part of our industry today. Do you think in such a media-saturated era, should we be concerned that so many local newspapers are struggling to survive? Or does it not matter when there's so much information around?
Jim Lehrer 10:49
It matters terribly to me, I think, and I think it should, it should matter to everybody. Yes, there are different ways to do newspapering. It doesn't have to be the old-fashioned print way. solely. But but the function, the function of the local newspaper is what is is diminishing and has diminished.
And what's at risk is the, you know, our whole country is a government, it's governments. It's a it's a coalition and a collection of governments at all levels. It's all dependent on information. I mean, the vote, you don't have an informed electorate, you don't have an informed populace. You don't have a democracy. You don't have a representative democracy.
Well, the only vehicle for people getting informed about anything is local journalism. Or journalism generally, but in terms of what's happening at the school board, what's happening and that's important. You don't have to have kids to care about the school board because you're going to pay for it, if you're, you know, if you're alive and well. And, and every element of government, the the paving the roads and all that sort of stuff. You need to know about this because it affects you.
And as these newspapers fold or diminish, or in some — no longer exist, you know, I mean, that function is being lost. And it's not about the newspapers it's not about the future of journalism. It's about the future representative democracy at all levels. And there are attempts being made now to figure this out. How do do you replace the necessary function of local journalism? Because that's what it's about now, it's replacing it. But there are a lot of people worried about — this isn't just you and me Kathy — there are a lot of people worried about this. And a lot of effort has been made to try to correct it through nonprofit reporting, nonprofit organizations and all that sort of stuff.
Kathy Kiely 12:48
Yes, the Columbia Missourian, where you started as an example of that.
Jim Lehrer 12:52
Is that right?
Kathy Kiely 12:52
Yes, it's a 501 C. Yes.
Jim Lehrer 12:54
Yeah. That's great.
Kathy Kiely 12:56
Well, now, just another question about journalists. You helped establish what is now the PBS NewsHour with your longtime collaborator Robin MacNeil, and you and that I would say that program is known for its deep dives into important and sometimes not well explored topics. And for the platform it provides for civil conversation about news. Do you worry about whether there's a future for that kind of journalism?
Jim Lehrer 13:30
No, not really. I think the the necessity for that, for what we what we did and what still they continue to do on the NewsHour will always be there. It may may change and some of the mechanics may change or whatever. I think, you know, the, the — But the need for that is never going to go away.
Kathy Kiely 13:54
Is it harder to get support for that kind of journalism?
Jim Lehrer 13:57
Oh, sure. It always has been though. It's a little bit it easier now because people realize, "oh my God," You know, in the past, I mean, but if if this goes — I don't need to be specific about the NewsHour but if that kind of journalism goes, nationally internationally, whatever — it also affects the the ability to self govern.
Because you gotta have information and the deep dives, as you call them, are basically just you know what happened? Why? And what's the future? I mean that's essentially a deep dive. The short dive is you just pick one of them and you just hit it hard quickly and move on.
What NewsHour, what we tried to do then, and they still do, is try to answer all three of the questions over a period of time and and be fair about it. And Robert MacNeil, who was my best friend and mentor on all of this and we did all this together, but his his whole thing was, we invite people on our program and they are our guests. We do not invite people on our program to beat up on.
And so we always treated people who even, who did not deserve that kind of treatment probably in some — but it made it easy for us then, in other words, we didn't have to say, "Oh, well, this is somebody I gotta really go after.”
We treated everybody the same way. And when you have air time, you can take the time to ask that follow up, the whole Oh. And you can ask the same question five times and the audience feel— You don't have to say, "Oh, you're not answering the question!" It's been demonstrated: You ask thee same question four or five times. you realize — Anyhow, bottom line is, that's critical, to, in my opinion, critical to becoming an informed citizen. And that type of journalism will — that need for that will never diminish.
Kathy Kiely 15:57
Now, you alluded to this earlier: You broke onto the national stage covering Watergate.
Jim Lehrer 16:02
Kathy Kiely 16:03
And those were hearings, that were really a prelude to an impeachment — an impeachment that never happened because President Richard Nixon resigned. But can you compare and contrast that time to now?
Jim Lehrer 16:17
It'd be hard to do. There are many differences and there are many similarities. The big difference is that the news world for instance, that's what we're talking about, is very different now than it was in, during the Nixon — during the Nixon impeachment.
Kathy Kiely 16:36
Jim Lehrer 16:38
Yeah, very, very different. It was old school. Those who remember about
Kathy Kiely 16:44
Talk about what you mean by old school?
Jim Lehrer 16:47
99% of the American people who cared about information, they all read a local newspaper. And they all had a shared set of facts as a result of that. And they watched the same nightly news program, or one of the three nightly news programs, and maybe they read Time and Newsweek and that was it.
But when they sat down to argue at a bar or at a restaurant or in somebody's living room or back porch or whatever — yard, they sat down with a shared set of facts. And what's what's — in this new world order, where where. Now I mentioned 5, 6, 7 ways to get information.
Now there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to get information or opinions or analysis of those, of that information or those quote news stories. And it's become very, very difficult to to separate the three basic forms of journalism: straight news, analysis and opinion.
All of them are legitimate, but each one of them needs to be separated from the other. The person who does the reporting shouldn't be doing the analysis. The person who does the analysis shouldn't be doing the opinions. These are all separate functions, of different different schools of journalism. I mean schools in lowercase. And so that's very different to begin with.
In terms of the parallels otherwise, it's it's fairly similar. Here you have from the outside world, people leaking about the inside world. And journalism here again, journalism played a key role in that, The Washington Post in particular, about what happened in Watergate, and then the Watergate hearings, and here —
But here's where it's different, really hugely different. The approach to finding the facts — the Congress of United States, in 1971 72, Republicans and Democrats, realized that there is a need to get information to the public. To them — the members of Congress wanted to know what the hell happened in Watergate? And they worked together and particularly Snate Watergate hearings, the ones that Robin and I — you said exactly right, that was a big deal for us. But Howard Baker, Republican who was vice chairman, Sam Ervin, the Democrat who was the chairman, they worked like this. You know, they each had their own staffs, investigative staff and their other members, other senators on the committee, but all of them involved. They were all involved together and trying to find out what happened. Yes, there were partisan approaches, which I mean, I'm, you know, I'm a Republican, so I want to know that; I'm a Democrat, you know — but there was never, in my recollection — maybe I missed it. It's conceivable that I did. I wasn't paying close enough attention—
Kathy Kiely 19:42
That seems hard to believe
Jim Lehrer 19:44
But the fact is, I never — I was very much into all of that, as MacNeill was — I never saw what I would call a blatant partisan move by any of the key players in the search for information about Watergate. That is terribly new. What's going on now is just the opposite of that.
Kathy Kiely 20:04
Now staying on politics, one of your colleagues dubbed you the dean of the debate moderators, because I believe you've moderated 12 presidential debates, which I think puts you in the Guinness Book of World Records. No one else has done that. Do you have any advice for your colleagues who are going to be likely moderating a debate next year featuring President Trump?
Jim Lehrer 20:29
Well, here's the problem. I got a problem. I am on the Commission for Presidential Debates, and there are only, you know, 20 of us. And the one thing I do not need to do - need for the commission, for America, is for the commissioners like me to be talking about the the upcoming debates. So I have nothing to say about what's going to happen in 2020. We are we are now planning all that and to make it available to the candidates and all that and it's, it's going to be – these things are always difficult. There's an awful lot riding on it. I mean, every just about everybody who casts a vote, either watches the debate live or watches repeats or watches pieces of it and is affected and so it's extremely important.
Kathy Kiely 21:16
Has it changed a lot? Running the debates?
Jim Lehrer 21:19
No, it hasn't, except that the format has changed and I feel I feel good about how I have contributed to that, not as a member of the Commission, but when when I was — back when I used to work for a living and also when I was, as a debate moderator.
The whole idea was to open the debates more to, rather than "Okay, we're going to ask a question. One minute answer two minutes this." To drop that, and and let the candidates kind of mix it up and let it stay on a subject etc. And so, I helped in my my small way, I helped contribute to, I helped get that done. And so that is now part and parcel of the debates. It's frustrating. It's much more difficult to be a moderator now, that was when I first started.
Kathy Kiely 22:05
Why do you say that?
Jim Lehrer 22:07
Well, because you got when you're sitting, you got two candidates, and one of them gives an answer. And then they start and then they start, maybe they not attacking each other, but they talk over each other, or this one, you know, doesn't listen to this. And so as a moderator, what you want to do is stay out of it. But but but, but just come in when it's when you need to make the timing time issue and there are time issues.
Kathy Kiely 22:33
So what you are saying is, it's harder to be a traffic cop these days.
Jim Lehrer 22:36
Absolutely right. And, and it was easy when he said, "Okay, so and and, Mr. President, you have two minutes." So, okay, you know, one minute response and that's it, then you move on. And it's no longer that so that so the moderators, they have to really know what they're doing.
Kathy Kiely 22:54
Is it hard to get people to moderate these debates because it's such —
Jim Lehrer 22:58
No everybody who is ambitious wants to moderate one of the debates. That problem is getting people who understand that this isn't about them. This is not about — this is not a career move. And a moderator of a presidential debate — one of these presidential debates, and I know this, because I was one of them, as you say, as you said, many more than one time—
Kathy Kiely 22:59
Jim Lehrer 22:59
But I thought I was part of a process of the democracy in action. I mean, not a journalist. I wasn't a journalist when I was moderating a presidential debate. I was a moderator. I was there to help the American people understand what these two candidates or three candidates and— I also did, Clinton, George HW Bush and Ross Perot —but it was the people need to know who these people are.
And remember that by the time these debates come, they come right before the election, so most of the people have already made their mind so they watch the debates for confirming, but there are few percentage points of folks have not made up their minds.
And also the other thing is, which is critical to this, is that they already know what the issues are for the most part, people who follow the election all that. So they want to know who this person is. So the body language becomes as important almost and sometimes more important than the real language. So if somebody comes over as a jerk, or comes over really kind of nice open person, even though you might disagree with what he or she is saying, it is but it's all part of the the voter focusing, really focusing finally, before they cast a vote on who this or even I don't may not agree with this person.
Kathy Kiely 24:40
When I covered debates, we often used to say that you could tell who won by watching it with the sound off.
Jim Lehrer 24:46
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely right. Oh, and that's a hard lesson to get over to people. That and you know, it's just, you know, the public understands this is the professionals who have problem. Because it's all you know, There's somebody said, Listen, listen, listen, listen those but it's, this is hard. This is hard work.
Kathy Kiely 25:06
So I understand that you couldn't give advice about the Commission, the debate because of your role on the commission. But what about if you were a managing editor today? Or a news director in a TV station? How would you cover this campaign?
Jim Lehrer 25:22
I would cover it the old fashioned way, because the old fashioned way is the way of professional journalism. Unfortunately,
Kathy Kiely 25:30
And for those who aren't professional journalists, what is the old fashioned way?
Jim Lehrer 25:33
The old fashioned way is to pay attention to what has happened. What somebody has said, what somebody has done. Report it straight. Straight, meaning, no adjectives, no adverbs, just say what happened. Billy Bob said this, Sammy Sue said this, the background on it is that Sammy Sue, you know, was was was a left handed bank robber and and Billy Bob was a was a this or that or whatever.
And the facts — just the facts the fact that bump bump bump bump bump. And that is the sole, that's that is a function of mainline straight journalism. And then you turn to somewhere else. And and those — inside — inside the newspaper or it can be on the front page or it can be a piece of journalism on TV or radio, where somebody is the number one expert on on it, some of the subjects that Billy Bob and Sammy Sue, are interested in, and that and that is an he's he or she is a nonpartisan about it, but is analyzing it. "Well, you know, you put what he said and the other guy." And then that's another that's the middle function.
And then the other one is the editorial page writers, the columnist, the commentators and all of that, and "This is bad. Here's what I think you should do. Here's my view, how you should vote," You know, so all of these things are, but you knew the difference the old fashioned way that was, you know what the difference was.
And the other old fashioned way was that there was limited reporting about personal lives. Now everything everything goes and there's some of that is legit. I mean there's there's some personal — for instance, John F Kennedy's problems with with womanizing. Every reporter who was covering the White House knew about it or suspected it but never reported it. That would never ever happen again. And that all ended with with Watergate and all it all the fallout from all from from all of that.
Kathy Kiely 27:37
But you're saying some personal matters are not legitimate topics of public discussion?
Jim Lehrer 27:43
Right. And that is up to their — ultimately, the judges, the people are going to judge that of course are the people who read about it and hear about it and whatever. But see, that's a cop out. I mean, people say, "Well, you know, I just think this is terrible — Let me read that story."
And, and and it but that's what journalism is about and people who go to the go to the Mizzou journalism school get trained to say, "Okay, this is a legitimate public interest that this person is having an affair with his wife's best friend." Okay? But then another story. No, that's not relevant in that in that particular case. And only a journalist can make that decision and the only journalists who are qualified to do it are people who understand what constitutes relevant relevance, what constitutes required knowledge, in other words that the people should know about this before they cast a vote or before they have an opinion about something.
And that's, that's hard. I mean, and there's no way to get it. 100% right all the time. You're always going to make mistakes. That's the one thing, MacNeil and I used to lecture to our kids, our kids, kids, I mean, kids on the staff, you know, we're going to do our best, you know, to never made a mistake, make a mistake and get everything right. But no matter how hard we try, and no matter how qualified all of us feel we are and all of you are, we're going to screw it up from time to time. And the important thing is to know that we've screwed screwed it up and be willing to tell people we have done it.
When I started in journalism in the early 60s, there was no such thing as an ombudsman, or even really criticism of any kind, and none internally. And nobody ever corrected a mistake. And I remember the Dallas, Dallas Morning News, I had written a story — an obit, I'm sorry to say, where I got something wrong. And so I told the city editor afterward, you know, we need to correct that. And he said, Oh, no, no, can do that. So we were like, why can't we? And he said, "Well, the policy of the paper is that if you do a lot of corrections people will lose faith in everything else they read. So you don't want to tell people that we get —
Kathy Kiely 30:05
Well that's changed.
Jim Lehrer 30:07
Yeah. You talk about an old fashioned view of things? Yeah.
Kathy Kiely 30:09
So, some things about the old ways should go.
Jim Lehrer 30:12
Kathy Kiely 30:13
Well, I just have one last question. And that is, do you have any words of advice for the Jim Lehrers of the future, the students at the Missouri School of Journalism,
Jim Lehrer 30:23
It matters. Journalism matters. This is not about, you know, bylines for future. This is not about becoming a star. Any Anybody who wants to become a star, please don't go into journalism.
You may end up being a star as a journalist, but that's not the reason to go. The reason to go into journalism is because, for whatever reason, you want to do this — one of these three things, three avenues of getting the people to participate and help the people participate in our representative forms of government. And to be able to take satisfaction in this. Not, and "Oh, I'm going to get some people indicted. Oh I'm going to get some people elected or whatever." Don't.
It's it's it's almost a public service. In fact it's not only almost, it is a public service. And the other thing, I would tell people you know for moderating debates even: It's not about you Billy Bob, it's not about you. It's about the folks out here etc, etc etc.
And everybody can't go to the White House so we reporters go on your behalf — on your behalf we go. We don't go on my behalf. We don't even go on behalf of the News Hour or the Associated Press New York Times or Columbia Missourian and or whatever. We go on behalf of our readers, of our of our listeners, etc, etc, etc.
And anybody who goes who's thinking about journalism needs to understand that and then they must hang in there. This is a difficult time to go into journalism. There's no question about it. However, the future couldn't be brighter for smart people who really want to make a difference. Journalism is still the place to go.
Kathy Kiely 32:16
Jim Lehrer, journalist, former Marine, thanks for your service. Thank you. Thanks for your time.