In a busy news cycle, it’s sometimes difficult to notice the untimely departure of a media icon, particularly if they were known for being on public television.
And yet, a media icon is exactly what Jim Lehrer was, even if he stepped down from nightly hosting duties almost a decade ago.
I can still hum the dramatic theme to the “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” — PBS’ nightly news show, and a favorite of my father’s.
Lest you think I was raised by inveterate lefties, my father would turn on Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show, which came on right afterward, as soon as Lehrer and Co. were done.
It’s probably hyperbolic to say the 85-year-old Lehrer was the last of a generation, but in many ways, it’s also true.
It’s also difficult to say that an 85-year-old was gone too soon — and yet, that’s exactly how it felt.
I’ve heard plenty of great backronyms for PBS in my time, but none are quite as apt these days as Progressivism’s Broadcast Subsidiary.
That was true back in the day, too, but not by as much as you might think. After all, “Firing Line” was on there.
Now I doubt Lehrer was a covert William F. Buckley or anything, but he was certainly a man who was fair and objective, and he and brought rigor and exigency to his work.
It’d be easy to highlight how his career shamed our current crop of newsmen. Instead, it might be instructive to look at Lehrer’s nine rules for journalists and where today’s reporters have fallen short.
Rule 1: Do nothing I cannot defend.
Last Summer, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell claimed on the air that “Russian oligarchs” had cosigned Donald Trump’s loans, for the first time drawing a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin.
One problem: There was no evidence it was true, and O’Donnell was forced to apologize.
“Last night on this show, I discussed information that wasn’t ready for reporting,” O’Donnell said.
“I repeated statements a single source told me about the president’s finances and loan documents with Deutsche Bank,” he continued.
“Saying ‘if true’– as I discussed the information — was simply not good enough. I did not go through the rigorous verification and standards process here at MSNBC before repeating what I heard from my source. Had it gone through that process, I would not have been permitted to report it. I should not have said it on-air or post it on Twitter. I was wrong to do so.”
Rule 2: Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
Unless Jim Lehrer had a strange thing for being humiliated in public for no good reason, then no, that one hasn’t been carried through. And if he did, hey — I’m totally not being judgmental.
Rule 3: Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
Ahahaha, no, seriously, a newsman thought this once upon a time. Isn’t that adorably charming?
Rule 4: Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am
Lehrer clearly saw the rise of CNN and MSNBC and knew what it meant to his fourth dictum, but I’m not quite sure he realized just how much he’d be forcibly disillusioned of this principle.
Rule 5: Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
Do you think the mainstream media assumes Trump is “smart,” “caring,” or “good?” Just the opposite, in fact.
Rule 6: Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
In a world where Barron Trump is considered legitimate game by CNN and MSNBC, I think we can figure out where this one went.
Rule 7: Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything
It’s as simple as putting your objective, straight news stories in the “news” section and your opinion pieces in the “opinion” or “commentary” section. Plenty of supposedly straight news sites would do well to heed this advice.
Rule 8: Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should be allowed to attack another anonymously.
Several ambulances were called to The New York Times building in Midtown Manhattan as staffers read this one. There’s no word on condition of the journalists, but early reports indicate that it will be months, I repeat, months before they can eat brie again.
Rule 9: I am not in the entertainment business.
It was a good thing Jim Lehrer was well-established before the internet became a major force, that’s all I have to to say about that one.
And yet, it isn’t too late to realize these rules shouldn’t just be scoffed at as the relics of an earlier era.
There’s a reason why we’ll remember Lehrer: He may not have lived up to all of these rules on occasion, but he tried.
It’s not that most of us don’t try. Most of us don’t even think these rules are applicable in 2020.
Jim Lehrer was a giant of journalism. He’ll be missed. Tragically, however, he just wasn’t made for these times — and that’s something that should worry us endlessly.
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