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'Fresh Air' Remembers 'PBS NewsHour' Host Jim Lehrer

Jan 27, 2020
Originally published on January 31, 2020 9:22 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jim Lehrer, the respected journalist and a nightly fixture on PBS for more than three decades, died Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 85. Lehrer is best-known for co-anchoring "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" from 1983 to '95 with co-host Robert MacNeil and then, when McNeil retired, "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" until his retirement in 2011.

Lehrer grew up in Texas and was a newspaper journalist before getting into broadcasting. He was also a prolific writer. He published more than 20 novels and three memoirs and wrote four plays. Known for a calm, unflappable style and a commitment to fairness, Lehrer moderated presidential debates in every election from 1988 through 2012. He won numerous Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal.

Jim Lehrer spoke to Terry Gross in 1988, five years after he'd suffered a heart attack and had double bypass surgery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You have been the subject of many interviews since your heart attack, really, in 1983 and then since the writing of your plays and your new novel. Have you learned a lot about interviewing from being an interviewee yourself?

JIM LEHRER: I have, I think. I - MacNeil says, I think correctly, that I am a terrible interviewee because I give very long answers. In fact, as he said, you know, Lehrer, if you were ever on our program, we'd never invite you back because your answers are very - you asked me a question when we started. You know, I went on for five minutes, I think. I mean, that's a problem I have, and I understand. I sympathize, and I'm sure you must, too. I mean, I have great sympathy for the people I'm interviewing because I ask a question of somebody - now, keep in mind 99% of the interviews I do are live. I ask somebody a question, and then I'm immediately jumping, ready for the next question or ready to go on with it, you know?

I mean, I would much rather interview than be interviewed. I have learned a lot just out of sympathy for the people as a result of being the subject of the interview. There's no question about it. I now understand how difficult it is.

GROSS: Well, do you tell the people who are appearing on your program to give you short answers (laughter), and how do you stop them if the answers...

LEHRER: No.

GROSS: ...Are long?

LEHRER: What I tell the folks to do is to give their best answer. If it's short, that's fine. If it's long, that's fine. I can always interrupt them. I interrupt people for a living. That's what I tell them. It's very important that the person not have to be - not have to confine themselves to your rules. For instance, if - let's say somebody is like me, gives long answers like I'm giving you right now, as a matter of fact. And - but, I mean, that's your problem, see? That's not my problem.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEHRER: I mean, if I'm going...

GROSS: Hey; thanks a lot.

LEHRER: Yeah, right. I mean, I've come - if you asked me the story of my life and if it takes two hours to tell you the story of my life, I think it takes two hours. And it's your job as the professional to cut it down a little bit. And I think that also, you get better answers that way. If I say to somebody who sits down who's already nervous - now, that's not true of people that are used to television. But if somebody comes in there very nervous - live show going all over the country, their mother's watching and everybody's there - and I say to them, all right; keep your answer short and blah blah blah, all it does is add to their anxiety. And I want people to be relaxed. I want them to forget that there are all these lights and cameras around and have eye contact. Our studios are set up, both in Washington and New York - are set up...

GROSS: This answer's too long. No, I'm kidding.

LEHRER: No, I know (laughter). I know it is.

GROSS: Just thought I'd try that out, see what happened (laughter).

LEHRER: See, it doesn't work with me. That's - it feels right. But we set our people - our guests are very close to us, and there's direct eyeball-to-eyeball contact. So that - so you try to confine the situation so the person is comfortable, and all they have to do is look at you. They're not - they don't have to look around. There's not a place to - you know, to be distracted. It's to make people comfortable.

GROSS: You've had to interview many politicians over the years, and I think that is always so difficult because politicians give you answers, but they're not necessarily answers to the questions you've asked. I don't mean you in particular.

LEHRER: Oh, I know.

GROSS: But in general, what are some of the techniques you've come up with for actually getting an answer to the question that you want answered because you're just not necessarily going to get it?

LEHRER: Terry, there's only one technique that works, and that's to have enough time to ask the question a second time and then a third time and maybe a fourth time. And then, if Billy Bob Senator isn't going to answer it, you at least have a stab. That's his option. If he didn't want to - you know, I mean, there's no law that says he has to answer all the questions that Jimmy Charles Lehrer asks him on television, but I have the time. We have the time on our program.

Senator, what is your position on selling grain to the Soviet Union? Well, you know, Jim, that reminds me of when I was a little boy growing up in Oklahoma. And then he tells you a story. And you ask, yeah, but Senator - you give him the time, you know? He does that, and you say, yes, but what's your position on selling grain? Well, you - first of all, you got to understand what grain is. Grains are these little - he still hasn't answered. So then you say, yes, but Senator, again - you know? And then finally, you have to decide. And you're sitting there in a live situation. Do I ask this sucker this question again, or do I go on? You have to - at some point, you have to have real confidence in your audience that they realize, hey; this jerk isn't going to answer this question, or, this wonderful man isn't going to answer this question, or whatever the situation is. Then you go on with it.

I do not believe in beating up on guests. I don't - we don't invite people on our program to abuse them. And so the other way to do it if you don't have the time is you say, you didn't answer my question, you know? Hey, hey, blah, blah, blah, you know? We don't do it that way. And it's because - it's not because we object to it. That's somebody else's job to object to it. That's just not our style. We're not comfortable doing that. And we have the luxury of time.

GROSS: You know, you strike me as one of the few news anchors on television - I mean, you and MacNeil, really - who do more than just read the news while the newscast is on. Does the emphasis that American news viewers put on news anchors on commercial news seem a little absurd to you?

LEHRER: It seems incredibly absurd to me. I don't understand it. I do - I simply do not understand the value that is placed on the ability of somebody to look into a television camera and read a teleprompter. Now, that's called a short answer.

GROSS: Right (laughter). But would you ever want to be in a situation like that? What I'm thinking is that your partner, Robert MacNeil, went back and forth during his career between commercial and public television. To my knowledge, the only television work you've done is on public television.

LEHRER: That's right. I went right from newspapers to public television. Look; my feeling about that is always - it's always been consistent, I must say. The one thing I've been consistent on is that if commercial television or any other kind of television or a bus company or anybody else came along and offered me a job that was better than the one I have, I would seriously consider it. And if it was really better, I'd probably take it - now, better in any way you want to define better.

I've had opportunities to go into commercial television, but none of them involved anything that was anywhere near - I have the best job in television journalism, and it happens to be on public television. I mean, it could be somewhere else. But what I do now in the atmosphere in which I do it with the people with which - with whom I do it, and particularly Robert MacNeil, who is one of the really nice people in this whole world - he's my best friend, in addition to being my partner business-wise and journalistically - journalistic-wise and whatever. I - you talk about my heart - we were talking about my heart attack. He got me through that. I mean, he really did.

I'm - but I'm not - if somebody were to come along tomorrow and offer me something that's better than what I'm doing, I would do it. I think it's impossible because I cannot conceive of a better job than the one I have. They'd have to create it. It doesn't exist now. Let's put it that way.

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.

LEHRER: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Veteran PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Lehrer died Thursday. He was 85.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be singer-songwriter Amy Rigby. She has a new memoir about growing up Catholic in Pittsburgh, living in the East Village during the New York punk era and raising a daughter on the road. She first earned critical acclaim with the release of her 1996 solo album "Diary Of A Mod Housewife". Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

We'll close today's show with a shout-out to the Charleston, S.C., band Ranky Tanky, which just won a Grammy for their second album, "Good Time." Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. Good time, a good time - we going to have a time. When we all get together, we going to have a time. I got a letter - shake it - from Tallahassee. Shake it. My sweetheart - shake it - writing to me. Shake it. Oh, (unintelligible), shake it. Shake it in the tree. Shake it. Shake it in the mattress. Shake it. Shake it in the money bank. Oh, baby, oh, baby... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.