Inside Media: Jim Lehrer

May 23, 2009

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

Jim Lehrer believes journalism is a serious profession that doesn’t require hype or sensationalism to survive.

Lehrer explained that at "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS, certain journalistic guidelines are followed.

"We’re not in the entertainment business. If you want entertainment, go to the circus. Don’t watch the ‘NewsHour,’" he said.

Passionate words, yes, but one wouldn’t expect anything less from Lehrer, who started his career at The Dallas Morning News in 1959 before eventually moving to public television. For more than 20 years, he worked with Robert MacNeil. That journalistic partnership resulted in "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," which became "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" after MacNeil retired in 1995."

But Lehrer acknowledged that even good journalism can be expensive. Funding for public television operates largely from an endowment, which isn’t untouchable, especially in lean economic times.

"We had a $25 million annual budget 18 months ago. Now it’s down to $20 million. We haven’t laid anybody off, but there are jobs that aren’t being filled. We’re trying to figure out all types of ways to save money," he said.

While journalism is Lehrer’s first love, he moonlights as a playwright and novelist. His 19th novel, "Oh, Johnny," tells the story of a young Marine whose dreams of a big-league baseball career and romance are postponed when he’s deployed to the Pacific during World War II.

Lehrer, a former Marine, drew from his own experiences to write much of the book. Like Johnny, he, too, aspired to be a baseball player. His years in the service also fostered an appreciation for the U.S. military.

"At ‘NewsHour,’ we do the Honor Roll, where we show the photographs and hometowns of service men and women who’ve died in Iraq or Afghanistan. These people are dying in our name. We who write about the military always have to remember that," he said.

Lehrer added that the press should remember that it’s not about them.

"If you want to be a star and go get presidents impeached and county judges indicted or show how tough you are, go into another line of work, please."

In the end, he Lehrer said, journalism is about "chasing fire trucks."

"It’s basically little boys and little girls’ work," he said. "You have this need to know what happened."

Lehrer signed copies of "Oh, Johnny," after the program.

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