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The NewsHour Turns 30

October 20, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: So, Robin, is the program today about what you had in mind 30 years ago?


JIM LEHRER: The vision was all –

ROBERT MACNEIL: I think, in all modesty, both of us would have been astonished to think that 30 years from then it would have become a national institution, which it has been, I think it’s fair to say.

But I also want to say something else. Last night in promoting this event tonight you called me the founder of the program.

JIM LEHRER: You are.

ROBERT MACNEIL: In fact, you and I were coequally the founders. By a little political accident my name was on it because it was started in New York, but it soon became the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and all the ideas that went into it were equally yours.

JIM LEHRER: But the basic idea at the beginning, which was one story tonight for thirty minutes, which was what the Robert MacNeil Report and then the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, that was your idea.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yeah, yeah, it was. It was a way to do something that seemed to be needed journalistically and yet was different from what the commercial network news were doing.

Remember, this was a time when in each city there were only three or four television channels.


ROBERT MACNEIL: It was easy to be, relatively easy —

JIM LEHRER: There wasn’t a cable news or any of that sort of stuff.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Nothing of that. And we even had the temerity to take out a couple of ads down the line and say, watch John Chancellor, then watch us; watch Walter Cronkite and then watch us.

And the irony is that as long as he lived, John Chancellor watched this program every night, and Walter Cronkite still does.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I’m pleased to say – which means that all the sort of original intent that we had has been carried through and hasn’t altered in 30 years.

JIM LEHRER: Is there – what’s the story behind the story about how you were able to start the program in 1975?

ROBERT MACNEIL: I think the genesis was you and I did the Senate Watergate hearings —


ROBERT MACNEIL: — for 49 days and nights –

JIM LEHRER: And actually in this very studio.

ROBERT MACNEIL: In this very studio.

JIM LEHRER: That we’re talking in right now, which is in a place called Shirlington, which is in a suburb of Washington just beyond the Pentagon.


JIM LEHRER: That’s where we’re sitting right now.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Right. And it convinced a lot of people that public television could do news and public affairs honorably and fairly and responsibly and not get the public television stations into trouble, which a lot of them were worried about.


ROBERT MACNEIL: Anyway, by a narrow vote, the system decided to do it, and you and I got a lot of exposure then, and people began talking about us as a team, and then we did a nightly program.

JIM LEHRER: Because, remember, we did it not only during the day of the hearings, they were taped and they were re-broadcast during prime time –

ROBERT MACNEIL: And, anyway, it took two years after that to get it going, and it was the New York station with Jay Iselin and Bob Kotlowitz –


ROBERT MACNEIL: WNET – who provided the kind of venue and the money originally to start it with you in Washington, and then quickly it became the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

JIM LEHRER: I’ve always joked about that – where did the title come from – I said, well, the normal politics of public broadcasting, they formed a committee with Robin’s mother and my mother, and they came up with the title MacNeil/Lehrer Report – well, pretty much the case.

ROBERT MACNEIL: What I’m so pleased about now as you’re here every night is that what we intended in the beginning, that there should be a place for civil treatment and in-depth treatment of the news, a place on television where it’s taken quietly and seriously and not sensationally and with no gimmicks is essentially what it still does. And it’s fair, and it’s balanced, as was intended then, and it still is.

JIM LEHRER: The decision to go to an hour in 1983, that was – my recollection of that — was a tough decision, a very difficult time to get through.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It was a very difficult thing. It was jointly – it came from several sources – from Larry Grossman, who was then running PBS, and from Jay Iselin. And my only anxiety was that the public system showed that it really wanted it to go to an hour –


ROBERT MACNEIL: — that we weren’t ramming something down their throat, and also that we would have enough money to do it reasonably well and not look kind of amateurish trying to fill up an hour. Some people in public television said we thought you already were an hour.


ROBERT MACNEIL: But, anyway, we got over those hurdles, and then we began the hour, and the hour was a mess at first –


ROBERT MACNEIL: — due principally to a lot of silly ideas that I had.

JIM LEHRER: That I had – we matched –

ROBERT MACNEIL: But, anyway –

JIM LEHRER: We tried everything.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And then you got ill and you had three months off and you watched the program, fortunately, and said when you came back full of vim and vinegar, we’ve got to change this and put the news back on the top of the program where it belongs.

JIM LEHRER: And we still do it that way, of course, with the news summary and all of that, but people who weren’t watching then – how silly you and I were at the time – remember – we took the news and spread it all through the hour. So you never knew –


JIM LEHRER: Sprinkled it through the hour. The other thing that changed of course which was really the significant change is our whole idea, our whole contract, our whole concept changed, but rather than just say, watch Cronkite or John Chancellor and then watch us, we were saying, you only had to watch us.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yeah. We started as a complement –


ROBERT MACNEIL: — because we couldn’t be much more than that —


ROBERT MACNEIL: — and we ended up starting in 1983 as an alternative. And given the dozens of channels now that are doing something called “news,” from the serious to the comic, this is the one that has stayed absolutely gimmick-free and, therefore, its uniqueness is more apparent now I think than it was when we started 30 years ago, and the audience thinks that.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Somebody said that to me the other day, in fact, that when you all started 30 years ago, you weren’t that unique; you’re more unique now.


JIM LEHRER: You obviously agree.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yeah. Well, I think it stands – the uniqueness stands out. It’s thrown into relief but because there are so many channels competing for viewers’ eyeballs to make money –


ROBERT MACNEIL: — that they have to do more and more gimmicky things or in the words of Les Moonves of CBS, who’s now looking for a new way to do the same as CBS News, “We have to make it more entertaining.” That is not something you and I have ever thought you should try to make the news.

JIM LEHRER: We have always said if you want to be entertained, don’t watch us; go to the circus.

JIM LEHRER: All right. A personal question – I’m asked all the time: What has happened to Robert MacNeil? What’s Robert MacNeil up to? Tell us what you’re doing; bring us up to date.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, apart from being mistaken for you sometimes –

JIM LEHRER: Right. The same thing happens to me. They say, hey, how are you enjoying retirement, Mr. MacNeil? They think –

ROBERT MACNEIL: A lot of people think there’s a “MacLehrer” out there somewhere.


ROBERT MACNEIL: But, anyway, I have written a number of books since I left, a couple of novels, and a memoir, and a book that went with the PBS series “Do you Speak American,” which was on this year –

JIM LEHRER: We ran an excerpt on the NewsHour. We promoted –

ROBERT MACNEIL: It ran in January; it’s running again this month. And I’ve been working on a play. I’m the chairman – have been for 13 years – of the McDowell Colony, which is the oldest artists’ colony in the country and the biggest. It’s going to be 100 years old in a couple of years. And I’m on the board of the Freedom Forum Committee that is building the Museum of Journalism on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was just over there, and that’s going to be a big deal.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, I know the answer to this question myself, obviously, because you and I stay in daily contact almost, but you were in daily journalism for how many years?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, if you include this show, more than 40.

JIM LEHRER: More than 40 years. The daily journalism part of it, did you, have there been any times since you left the NewsHour in 1996 that you really missed it?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, in 2001, as you know, I felt after Sept. 11 stunned by the television for a couple of days – I felt so useless – like a lot of people –

JIM LEHRER: And you lived in New York –

ROBERT MACNEIL: I lived in New York right there and I called you and said, can I help out, can I do something, and you very graciously said, yes, come back and do some things, and I did some things. I didn’t think they were very good.

JIM LEHRER: I did. I thought they were terrific. Remember the piece you did of the New York Times reporters and editors –

ROBERT MACNEIL: Who had done the obit.

JIM LEHRER: Exactly – people who died.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yeah, yeah, very moving. But I also discovered, not having done it for, by then five, six years, how hard it is, how hard it is to do four-guest discussions, which is the hardest thing this program does and does them unlike any other program.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, happy anniversary and thanks.