Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, who together created and for 20 years led the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, were in town this week to receive the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, a lifetime achievement honor, from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix campus.
MacNeil retired in 1995, but Lehrer continues to anchor the NewsHour and, every four years, serves as presidential debate moderator. The broadcast journalism legends took a break from the festivities to sit down with the Tribune's Ryan Gabrielson.
Tribune: In 1975, PBS launched the show that would become the NewsHour as a high quality alternative to the major networks' evening news. Is that still the NewsHour's role?
Lehrer: The underlying concepts, the underlying standards, the underlying principles remain the same from Day One.
MacNeil: And since I'm not on the program anymore, I think I can say, I know I can say, the program's relevance is more apparent today than ever. Because its competitors, its rivals are not even as serious and as comprehensive as they were when we first began and thought they needed a supplement. The cable news networks are leading a charge that is trying to claw audience - and they're small audiences, smaller than (Lehrer's) audience - by resorting to all sorts of tactics.
Tribune: What's wrong with CNN's holograms?
MacNeil: Yeah, right. Which, of course, tempt the networks too, that fear they might lose a few viewers. The NewsHour has held its share remarkably well without any additional bells or whistles or holograms or whatever you can think of.
Tribune: Have you ever faced any pressure to interact with the audience more personally or, in other words, to write a blog?
Lehrer: I'm sure I have been asked, but I won't ever do that. I won't say never, it's just not my thing. I'm a journalist; I'm not a blogger. I want people to react to what I do through the news, not some back story about my dog. I'm not into that. By the way, I don't have a dog.
Tribune: Does it undermine a journalist's credibility when they talk about their personal lives?
Lehrer: I don't have any negative feelings about it. I just don't want to do it.
MacNeil: I was in Walter (Cronkite's) house years ago when he was still living in a brownstone, and they had a little study. And on the wall were framed pictures of all the times his faces had been on the cover of a magazine. The whole wall was covered. He'd been on the cover of everything, maybe not House and Garden.
Tribune: Three years ago, PBS hired an ombudsman to assess and report on whether the network's news programs are meeting its standards, a first in broadcast journalism. How has life been with a full-time critic?
Lehrer: It's terrific. Our executive producer spends a lot of time responding to things, but it's a good thing. We all should be accountable. Transparency is everything in journalism and it used to not be anything. When I first started, anyone (wrote) a letter to the editor criticizing, we considered it a violation of the First Amendment.
MacNeil: The typical reaction of a journalist to criticism used to be, you pulled down the First Amendment shutter and retreated to the bar.