Jim Lehrer: An Unimpeachable Journalist Who Made His Colleagues Better

Make no mistake, he could be demanding — but demanding in a way that brought out the best in you. When Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence, journalists the world over began packing up and heading for South Africa. After a brief conversation with Les Crystal, the executive producer, who was all in on me joining the hoards, I started packing my bags, too. But a short time later, Les called after having talked with Jim, and told me Jim, always concerned about our public television coffers, had one condition for giving me permission to go: I had to guarantee an interview with Mandela. I assured Jim I would get the interview — because there was no way I was going to let him down. That was his way of instilling confidence, by demanding of everyone else what he demanded of himself. By the way, thanks to the time Jim had allowed me to spend in South Africa over the years and the contacts I had with anti-apartheid activists, I got one of only two half-hour interviews with Mandela a few days after his release, while all the other reporters got only 10 minutes.

No one put it better than journalist Lee Cullum during a remembrance of Jim on the “NewsHour” (the successor to the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report”) when she said, “He was disciplined, without overdoing it. He was ambitious without avarice. He was gifted without guile.”

After nearly two decades of traveling the world reporting for the “NewsHour,” I took a deep breath one day and went to tell Jim I was leaving the program to join my husband, an American banker now working in South Africa, and that I would become the NPR bureau chief there. Jim’s initial reaction was one of frowning disbelief. But shortly thereafter, he opened his home for a going-away party that included what looked like half the District of Columbia. And, even though I had come to the program after almost 20 years of reporting experience in print and TV, Jim polished my armor in ways that made me, like all who worked with him, even better — including all the other strong women he went on to hire in top positions on the program.

While Jim enjoyed a good joke and was capable of telling one on occasion, when it came to journalism, he lived his philosophy of producing news that people could use to make informed decisions about their lives. That meant pressing hard when a guest was avoiding the question or not being forthright, as so often happens today. But unlike what we also see in our profession all too often these days, Jim never talked over a wordy guest and was always polite, even when pressing hard. He rarely, if ever, interrupted a speaker without saying, “Excuse me.”

Even as so many in the media today decry the “fake news” label that autocrats the world over have embraced, I worry that far too many journalists have allowed the phrase to enter their lexicons, in turn dignifying and helping to propagate it. Knowing Jim as I did, I can’t imagine him ever falling prey to using such a disgusting turn of phrase, or responding to it even if anyone criticized the “NewsHour” in that way. And while he occasionally took liberties with grammar in his fiction, he was careful with it, perhaps to a fault, on the air. I can’t imagine Jim saying “first began” or “exact same” — two redundant phrases heard all too often on TV these days.

Yes, Jim Lehrer stands tall in the line of distinguished journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who believed television was an “instrument that can teach … illuminate and … inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.“

I never heard Jim quote Murrow, but I saw him live those lines. And while I am not sure what he thought about all the new ways of communicating that are popular now with a younger generation, I am sure he would continue to insist that whatever means today’s reporters employ, they do it with journalistic values that are timeless — values that will keep our profession as it was intended to be: a voice for the voiceless and a bright light for citizens in our democracy to use when searching for truth, often in the kind of dark places inhabited today by those who would subvert the truth.

And so, I honor the man who lives now among the ancestors, and I say on behalf of all who enter the world he left behind, now and in the future: Long live his values — personal and professional. Long live!

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