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Robert MacNeil on Jim Lehrer’s ‘Stealth’ Exit

May 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Jim Lehrer announced Thursday that he is taking another step toward ending his 36 years of anchoring or co-anchoring out daily public television news broadcast. Long-time colleague and friend, Robert MacNeil offers this reflection.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to some warm words for Jim from his friend and colleague Robert MacNeil.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I find Jim Lehrer’s manner of withdrawing as chief anchor of the NewsHour quite remarkable, because I can’t recall any news anchor doing it as he has.

First, he took his name off the program. Has anyone ever done that before? Voluntarily? In 2009, with his full approval, the program ceased being “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and became the PBS NewsHour. It was a groundbreaking moment.

It ratified the NewsHour’s position anchoring the PBS evening program schedule. It helped further to fix the PBS identity in the public mind, enhancing the brand name, and it recognized the unique freedom and support public broadcasting gave us in creating an alternative form of television journalism and building an audience for it.

So, Jim took his name off the program. But no one made him do that. He was not being pushed out. There was no clutch of network execs saying it was time for him to go, no secret market research to find a young hotshot from the TV hinterland, no vice president of interior decorating, as they used to say at the networks, already concocting a new set.

The PBS execs love Lehrer, and so does the audience.

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It happened because, for several years, Jim has been presiding over a steady, but subtle rebirth of the NewsHour, in the process, gradually handing over the journalistic and anchor responsibilities.

Instead of shopping for a new bright star, he’s encouraged the emergence of a team of colleagues who increasingly share the anchor duties, as well as field reporting.

Now the NewsHour works like a repertory company in the theater, with different correspondents coming forward to take the lead part, or share it with another, on different nights. And, as Jim has gradually subtracted himself from anchor duties, the individual correspondents have emerged, each with more space, giving the different personalities and their particular skills more breathing room.

So, what Jim and his team have achieved is anchor replacement by stealth, without the hoopla and speculation that usually accompanies the enthronements and dethronements of these kings and queens of our media culture.

Jim has been able to bequeath the most precious commodity in journalism, the enormous trust and credibility he has inspired over the years. That cannot simply be passed on like a parking space or a key to the restroom.

It starts with fairness. Jim’s sense of fairness is distilled in the personal guidelines he works by as a journalist.

This is how he outlined them recently in a talk at the National Press Club in Washington: “Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

“Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously. And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”

Regular viewers of the PBS NewsHour, along with visitors to its website, see those principles in action every night.

Now, by osmosis, viewers can be confident that each member of the NewsHour team will continue to practice the kind of journalism Jim has instilled.

So, that is the quiet, but important revolution Jim has guided, while gradually extracting himself from the most visible and public role. It’s the most constructive and graceful exit strategy I have ever seen for someone holding such a coveted and senior position.

It guarantees a continued place in today’s bewildering media spectrum for a program that will stay devoted to serious journalism.

I know Jim very well. We have been colleagues, friends and business partners for decades now. And I salute him for how he is handling his exit by stealth.