It is homecoming season, and that means the University of Missouri is honoring alumni with spots in what it calls the Homecoming Hall of Fame. This year, an honoree is someone close to our hearts here in public radio – and at the Missouri School of Journalism. Jim Lehrer graduated with the MU J-school’s class of 1956 and went on to become one of the most notable news personalities of his generation. Current J-school student and KBIA reporter Zia Kelly got a chance to catch up with him over the phone, and learned some things haven’t changed.
LEHRER: The professors who edited us were the best. And, and I mean, and of course, and they were they were absolutely ferocious. Early on, I got a middle initial wrong on a story and I got an F on there. You know, I mean, I was I was in jeopardy for that sort of stuff. Those kinds of things are… those kind of lessons you learn, you never forget. And when I went on through, you know, the various Texas newspapers I worked on and all that, and later on in television, public television, all this sort of stuff, I never lost sight of the basic things that I learned at Missouri.
KELLY: You might be happy to know that fact errors will still earn you a zero in some classes, or at least a failing grade.
LEHRER: That's terrific. I'm glad to hear that.
KELLY: Your emphasis was in broadcast journalism, right?
LEHRER: No, no, no, no, no, no. My goodness, no. It never occurred to me I'd ever be… In fact, I was beneath television. I mean, I was a print person. I was a writer. And I will… No, no, no, no, I would never have thought about a career in television. No, no, no, that was… That happened much later in life.
KELLY: We talk about just the political divisions and the polarization in our country today. But some of your early political reporting, at least on kind of the national stage was another very contentious period of history. Reporting on Watergate, that process, what did that teach you about your job as a journalist and the role of journalism generally during divisive times?
LEHRER: Well, the country wasn't divided. The government was divided a little bit around, particularly during Watergate, and particularly during the Nixon administration for all kinds of things. And journalism, the serious journalists at the time, just reported what he said and did. You go through the overview of the of the press coverage of Watergate and the Nixon administration up to an impeachment and his resignation, you'll find damn few opinion pieces.
KELLY: Do you have any thoughts about how coverage of our current impeachment proceedings measure up to that time?
LEHRER: The situation, the real world situation is creating in the minds of the American people some questions about the reliability, the credibility of journalism, because people are attacking journalism all the time. Even those who are pro-Nixon never went after the press, the way it’s going on now. So this is new, this is really new.
KELLY: It seems like a lot of people are really worried or they're really pessimistic about the turns that the industry has taken. How, how do you see the role of broadcast journalism, in this age where dissemination of information has really been democratized? Where anybody can contribute?
LEHRER: I am, I am optimistic, that it's all going to sort out. If we're going to keep our democracy, and I think the overwhelming majority of the American people want that to happen, journalism is going to have to be adjusted and the people practicing it are going to have to adjust to the realities. The people have with us. There's no question about it.
KELLY: Alright, wonderful. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Mr. Lehrer. It’s been a lot of fun.
LEHRER: Well thank you and thank you for taking time to prepare, which you clealy have. If you were my student I’d give you an A+.