Lehrer expects to feel some heat: ‘What we’re doing is kitchen work’

Remarks by Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer, co-founder and host of PBS’s NewsHour, spoke April 12, 2005, at the PBS Showcase meeting in Las Vegas, where he accepted the PBS Be More Award. At one point, he refers to CPB’s appointment of a pair of ombudsmen, announced a week earlier.

Thank you. It is always a pleasure to be among the professionals who make up my public television family, and have done so for more than 30 years.

There are indeed many familiar friendly faces in this room, but few that would have been in a comparable place when I began my life in public television.

In fact, there was barely public television then. It was mostly only Fred Rogers and a lot of ideas and dreams.

I’m sure you kids wonder what it was like in the good old days, the golden days of public television. … Back when there was only peace and quiet. …When the programming was easy and the funding was high. … When there were no calls for our heads. … No fights over content and bad words. … When both the right wing and the left wing worshipped us equally and passionately …when Republicans and Democrats in Congress stood in line to vote “yes” to our every request … our every desire. … our every dollar. …When there was no need to ask for money during pledge breaks. … Or to stage auctions … or galas … or begathons.

The good old days? Dream on, boys and girls.

There has never been a time in my time in public television when anything has been easy. There has always been somebody out to get us. … to edit us … to advise and consent us.

There has never been a time in my time in public television when anything has been easy.

You know the line from Harry Truman, borrowed no doubt from somebody else, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Well, friends, what we’re doing is kitchen work. Because public television is the kitchen.

It always has been and it always will be. And, my opinion, it always should be. We who have the pleasure and the privilege to work in public television should be held accountable for everything we do … every dime we spend … every decision — programming, editorial and otherwise — we make.

We owe the public our best judgments, complete transparency and straight explanations. Any time we fail to do so, we deserve every centigrade of heat that comes our way.

In that regard, the recent announcement of the CPB ombudsman project is — from the NewsHour‘s perspective — a terrific and most welcome step. Only a lack of resources has kept us from establishing our own such set-up. We intend now to contact the CPB folks about the possibility of using our media unit for reporting the ombudsman findings on a regular basis on the NewsHour.

Thirty years ago there were the three networks and us.

Now there are the three networks, us and hundreds more — on cable, on radio, on the Internet, and more are still to come.

I hear what some people are saying. With all of these other outlets, broadcast and otherwise, who needs public television?

I can only believe that those who say such things do not actually watch public television. There are many examples on our air every night.

“A Company of Brothers,” the Frontline documentary about a U.S. Army unit in Iraq. … I watched it at home that night with my wife. … And when it was over, I turned to her and she to me. And with almost the same words said, “Thank God for public television. Nothing like that would ever be produced, much less broadcast anywhere else.”

There are other examples in all areas of programming.

But let me stay on the one that I know best. … The one represented so superbly by Frontline. I’m talking about news and public affairs.

There’s Nova, the best science program there is … Charlie Rose, the only serious conversation program of its kind on television. … And there’s Washington Week, American Experience … And there’s By the People, our ongoing project to open up the public dialogue on the issues.

And there is, of course, the NewsHour. What we do speaks for itself, five nights a week. Like it or not, watch it not, cherish it or not — there is no other program like it on any of these many other information-dispensing outlets.

It is different because it operates on the basic rules that have been in place in public television for more than 30 years.

I know because, then, as a representative of KERA in Dallas, I was on the committee that wrote the “standards and practices” for journalism on PBS. I don’t know if they’re officially still in place, but I do know they are still in effect every day on the NewsHour.

We believe that our job — our purpose — is to present facts, insights, analysis and opinions of others, not our own.

We believe that it is not our job to pass judgment from on journalistic high as to what constitutes the truth.

Our viewers will do that after we have done our job of presenting what is known, thought and believed about any given issue or event.

We believe that our mission is to bring fairness and balance to everything we do. And try as hard as we can to do so within each reporting segment or program.

We agree with what David Brinkley said many years ago. … Yes, it may sometimes be difficult for human beings working as journalists to bring objectivity to their work table, but it’s never difficult to bring fairness and balance.

And, let me say, as most of you know, that there is an audience for this kind of thing that we do. Some 3 million unduplicated viewers a night watch the NewsHour Significantly outdrawing CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in our time period.

And, by the way, for the record, our audience is one-third higher than that of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, according to the latest ratings figures from PBS.

These numbers don’t even include all of our repeats that some of you run on your stations, or the increasing number of public radio stations that simulcast us.

Sure, we’d love to have a larger audience. But it’s more than large enough to justify my putting on a coat and tie at 6 o’clock Eastern time, five nights a week.

I know that there are people who claim our kind of journalism is outdated. They argue for an advocacy form of journalism, where judgments are made about the participants and the ideas or proposals.

I say to those folks: Public television has never been and should never be the place to practice that kind of journalism.

It has nothing to do with the heat such things might generate. As I said earlier, heat is part of what we signed on for when we entered the kitchen called public television. No, it has to do with common sense. … And, in the current environment, even marketing.

Why in the world would we want to do what every body else is doing?

This explosion of new information sources is increasingly opinion-driven. There are right-wing programs and blogs, left-wing programs and blogs. They are often overtly and openly designed to generate heat, not light. Thus the shouting, the bickering.

Some are also quite frank in saying they want to turn the news into entertainment. Thus the obsessions with celebrity criminal trials. Plus other fun and games.

I have no problems with any of that. I would defend any news or information organization’s right to do most anything, short of lying and distorting. I am a First Amendment purist.

But tell me, please, why would we want to copy what they are doing? That really would be programming redundancy.

I would argue — quietly, of course, with no shouting — that the future of public television journalism remains partly with our present and our past.

Frontline was not the only vehicle for serious documentary reporting when it first went on the air. It is now.

The NewsHour, when we began 30 years ago, was not that unique. There were many news programs that approached the news the same way we did. There are few left that still do.

I would argue also, that with the proliferation of information and information outlets, there is an increasing need — and demand — within the public for assistance in sorting through it all.

“Help me please, understand what the facts on Social Security reform.”

“What is it exactly the president is proposing?”

“And, what exactly is it that the critics don’t like about it?”

“And what are the alternatives?”

“I hear the noise out there from advocates on all sides telling me what I should think. Please, public television, help me figure this thing out. … For myself.”

I have always believed that is our journalistic mission in public television — to respond to those public cries for help in sorting out.

And I believe it more now than ever before. Because the need is there more now than ever before.

Now — as we say on the NewsHour — on the other hand, another part of our mission, back then when we started, and now 30 years later, is to innovate … to experiment … to dare. Organizations that stand still eventually start sinking in place.

We must not only remain open to change. We must encourage it, promote it, symbolize it.

We are at the moment — at the NewsHour — involved in a credits-to-credits examination and appraisal of everything we do … on the air and off the air.

We are looking at story and guest selection. … the stories we’ve missed, intentionally and otherwise… the stories we should have missed, intentionally and otherwise. We are examining our program mix. … in-studio versus on tape … and on and on and on.

The only things not on the table are our mission and our purpose.

Why are we doing this now? Not because we’re in a state of panic. Just the opposite.

We’ve just come off one of the heaviest news periods ever. 9-11, Afghanistan, Iraq and presidential election coverage have preoccupied us night after night. But now there is an opportunity to raise our heads and look around at ourselves. And the new climate in which we operate.

We feel strongly that what we are up to has more potential for growth than ever before. We’re smart enough to know it.

Now we must be smart enough to do it. … To shake it and bake it. All under the premise that has guided us from the beginning. That the best is always yet to come.

And allow me to add another “on the other hand” to that. I believe that taking to heart our exciting renewal is not enough — if we keep it among ourselves.

We must shout it from the housetops. We need to advertise and publicize what our kind of journalism is. … why it is different. … why we believe in it.

We should not only practice it. We should make it our trademark. Our brand, to use a current word in broadcasting.

PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service. In journalism it stands for public service broadcasting. That is who we are and what we do.

Hip hip hooray … and right on … now and forever more.

I have been doing this program of ours for nearly 30 years now and I am sometimes asked, Why are you still doing it? Why are you still here?

Well, you have just heard my answer. I am as excited today about what we do and why we do it as I was the day we began.

Yes, we have our problems in public television. They will pass. But our purpose, our mission should never pass.

I believe the best is yet to come. Not only for the NewsHour, but for all of us in public television. I very much appreciate the honor that has been paid me and the NewsHour today.

I want to thank each and every one of you for making it possible for me to practice the kind of journalism I want to practice.

Thank you, fellows and sisters in the kitchen. And more power to us all. … To be more.

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