PBS icon Jim Lehrer died in January at age 85. Lehrer was a talent. He was the writer of memoirs – three – and plays and screenplays – six – and novels – twenty! – but America knew him best for his hosting role over the decades on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and PBS NewsHour. It was this hosting work that earned Lehrer many accolades, including the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.
I had the great fortune of working briefly for the NewsHour in 1983 and 1984, shortly after it expanded its format from 30 to 60 minutes. The newly revamped program needed more material, and I was lucky to be tapped as a Twin Cities-based producer for America’s first hour-long newscast. I prepared field reports on topics ranging from the farm crisis to AIDS to regional politics. Paul Wellstone’s first appearance in a national newscast was in a story I prepared for the NewsHour about a farm protest at a Paynesville, Minn., bank.
As a young producer, it was a great thrill to be able to call my mother in Michigan and tell her that a story I had created would be on her PBS station that evening. I have to admit that neither Robert McNeil or Jim Lehrer had a perfect track record of pronouncing my name properly (HEEN-a-han is that way I say it), but that was a humorous price to pay for playing a small role in the most-respected newscast in America.
From my perch in the Midwest, it was clear that the NewsHour family was a tight one. Hosts Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil weren’t mere newsreaders; they were writers and reporters and editors as well. Journalistic backbone was evident throughout the newscast, but it showed up best during the live interviews the NewsHour was famous for. I never saw a time when the program’s hosts weren’t well-prepared for a discussion. Seeing that excellence in action was important when, in 1984, I moved on from doing NewsHour stories and began a new public affairs program on Twin Cities PBS called Almanac.
In September of 2012, the Almanac team was honored to have Jim Lehrer as a guest on the show. He was in town to do a Twin Cities PBS event and was available to join us in studio. We found him to be generous and gracious and thoughtful. At the time, Jim Lehrer was going to host his final presidential debate – he had moderated more of them than any other journalist – and we spent most of our time in his Almanac interview focusing on this debate experience. My favorite section of the conversation was in response to a question about debate preparation. Lehrer said, “Preparation is all about listening. It isn’t about writing nifty questions. The homework for a moderator is designed to get comfortable enough so you can listen to what the candidates are saying.”
Rewatching that interview today, I’m reminded that Jim Lehrer’s comments about the importance of listening speak not just to journalists, but to all of us.