A Tribute to Robert MacNeil
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some words from and about our man, MacNeil, who leaves the NewsHour after tonight. The first words will be spoken by me over videotape.
JIM LEHRER: Robert Breckenridge Ware MacNeil. That’s what they named him then. Robin MacNeil is what we call him now. His parents in Canada gave him much more than a name. They gave him an appreciation for words and ideas. And that helped him grow up to be our Robin MacNeil, the man who gave us the “Story of English.”
ROBERT MacNEIL: Our story is not about the correct way to speak English but about all the different varieties and how they came to be.
JIM LEHRER: He’s the man of television who realized that television was more than an electric box that made sounds and transmitted moving pictures, that it was also an instrument for transmitting the words and ideas of serious people, of people with things to say that deserve to be heard; the man of television who for 40 years has practiced what he realized, who’s always walked ahead of his class in journalism, as a reporter for Reuters, a correspondent and anchorman for NBC:
ROBERT MAC NEIL: Robert MacNeil, NBC News, Liverpool, England.
JIM LEHRER: For the BBC, and for the last 20 years for PBS, public television.
ROBERT MacNEIL: In a few moments, we’re going to bring you the entire proceedings in the first day of the Senate Watergate hearings.
JIM LEHRER: It was his day in 1975 to do a nightly program that looked seriously at one story a night for 30 minutes.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening.
JIM LEHRER: Those in charge at WNET, New York, supported him in his idea, and eventually so did the entire Public Broadcasting family. In 1983, he joined with others in offering another idea. The half hour program had been a supplement to nightly newscasts on the commercial networks.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And I think–
JIM LEHRER: He said, How about doing a program that was an alternative to them, something to be watched instead of them, rather than in addition to them. Not everybody in public television thought that was a terrific idea, but enough did to give him and his colleagues a fair and good, clean shot.
ROBERT MacNEIL: When we return on Monday night, it will be in our new format.
JIM LEHRER: The end result was, is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
ROBERT MacNEIL: After the news summary, our entire focus tonight is the Soviet nuclear disaster.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We lead tonight with a look at teen-agers and the AIDS epidemic.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Still to come on the NewsHour, what’s ahead in Bosnia and rethinking affirmative action.
JIM LEHRER: It’s a program that’s many things to many people: serious, too serious to some, O.J.-less, too O.J.-less to some– even-handed, too even-handed to some.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We get four outside views now.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We get three assessments now.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Now, four views of welfare reform, two from the states, two from Congress.
JIM LEHRER: But whatever, most of the critics and the fans of the program agree on one thing. It’s a civilized place, and that is no accident. It’s civilized because its creator is a civilized man who believes civilized discourse is the way to real revelation and understanding.
ROBERT MacNEIL: How are your orders communicated to the millions of your followers? Would you, Fidel Castro, who values the independence and integrity of a small country–
ROBERT MacNEIL: What is it about the kind of flower in the Amazon Forests that attracts you, the artist?
ROBERT MacNEIL: You say you have feelings.
ROBERT MacNEIL: How do you feel? Can you explain in simple terms to perhaps bewildered Americans why there is so much equivocation- -
ROBERT MacNEIL: Are you saying that in order to get a maximum audience that some talk show hosts are actively and consciously promoting, you said, paranoia and anger and hatred?
ROBERT MacNEIL: How, without growing cynical, can citizens protect themselves against stubborn ignorance or misplaced zeal of their leaders?
JIM LEHRER: He’s not perfect, though. He has problems, huge problems, for instance, with names, particularly those of guests on the program.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Sen. Owens, what’s your–I mean, Sen. Hopper, I’m sorry.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mister–I beg your pardon–I called you Seith– Reef–are you in favor of–
ROBERT MacNEIL: Ed Grubbs in LA, do you hear me?
KEN GRUBBS: That’s Ken Grubbs.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Ken Grubbs. I beg your pardon. I’m sorry, Ken. I beg your pardon.
JIM LEHRER: There will be no more of that after October 20th, but that’s about it, as far as what we will have no more of. Television is often called the most transient and fluid of mediums, here for a minute or even an hour, and then gone and forgotten. But Robin MacNeil will never begone or forgotten. He will be there when his immediate colleagues of today carry on the NewsHour and when anyone practices serious journalism of any kind on any television.
He’s leaving permanent tracks along the way he traveled and worked and created. They are tracks of courage to do what he knew to be right, and to actually do it right, and to do it with grace and class and with good humor. Yes, Canadians really do have a sense of humor. [Mr. MacNeil whistling]
ROBERT MacNEIL: Thank you, sir. That is very generous.
JIM LEHRER: We’re going to miss everything about you, except the whistling maybe.
ROBERT MacNEIL: The only thing that leaves out, Mr. Lehrer, in your modesty is that you’ve always been more than 50 percent of the creative energy behind the NewsHour and the program that went before it.
JIM LEHRER: Well–
ROBERT MacNEIL: But I have to say one other thing, and you know this. It is not creeping senility which causes me to forget names on the air. I’ve been forgetting names for more than 40 years. The very first television interview I ever did, which was live in Canada, I forgot the names of both the people I was interviewing and had to say so to them.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Why don’t you–why don’t you tell us something about what we’ve all been calling the new world order that starts on Monday.
JIM LEHRER: Well, it’s–the fact of the matter is it’s going to take hundreds of people to replace you, sir. No, the big emphasis is going to be on the repertory company. It isn’t going to be on me. It’s going to be on all the folks, and the people who watch this program regularly know who they are, the correspondents who are going to be functioning in kind of sub-anchor roles. The kinds of things that you and I now do most of is now going to be done by a group of folks, correspondents who are now familiar to us, and they’re going to be familiar to the audience.
They’re going to be all over the country, as well as here in Washington and elsewhere. And then, of course, the existing team, Shields & Gigot, of course, the new Gergen dialogue, our regional commentators, the essayists, the historians, and other specialist reporters, and my plan is to, as I say, have a multitude of voices and, and perspectives on this program. As I say, it’s going to take hundreds to replace you.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I think the neat thing about that is you lose one almost 65-year-old white male and you gain a lot more attractive, younger, varied people from all over the country and all that. So that’s–
JIM LEHRER: Well, we will see about that.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Look, I honestly feel–I’ve been telling people everywhere when they ask about it–I think every institution benefits from change, even forced change, and, and I really believe that with the program consolidating in Washington under your very inspired leadership, it’s going to be reenergized, it’s going to be revitalized, and it will benefit from the change. And I think the viewers will see that.
JIM LEHRER: Well, I hope they do. The only–the only positive thing is that in order to replace–not–we can’t replace you–but compensate for your not being here is it is going to tax all of our imaginations and all of our energies to do that, and, and I’m sure on Monday that will be exciting, and I will concentrate on that. We’re ready. We’re all ready for it, and I feel–I feel good about it. As I say, I’ll probably feel better about it once I’m doing it. Right now that’s a little hard to think about.
ROBERT MacNEIL: There’s another idea I’d like to kick around a little bit.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I’ve been saying this kind of stuff outside the program when people come and ask how I feel about leaving and all that, and I just–if you’ll forgive a little partisanship–I know you will–
JIM LEHRER: I will.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I–I think there is a growing need for this kind of program. We were very confident, remember, in the half-hour form that it was something different and needed then, and we were scared but confident when we went to the hour, but I think the, the environment in which this program operates, looking at the whole spectrum of television today, there is more need for it. There is a relentless drive in our medium to make everything more entertaining.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And it’s been borne out in the–in our audience. I mean, our audience continues to grow, and the people who are watching for the first time in twenty years actually sit and talk to each other, they must be stunned. But, anyhow, they have–they have seen–they have seen how this thing has progressed, and I agree, in many ways you could make the case–and I would make the case–and I know you would make the case that we’re needed more now than ever before as there are so many outlets now for news and for everything else. One place that you can go every hour–I mean, every day for an hour and find out what’s been going on and what’s important, I mean, that’s our function, that’s our mission, and that’s not going to change with your leaving, of course.
ROBERT MacNEIL: You know, I’m constantly asked, and I know you are in interviews, and there have been a lot of them just now–I’m constantly asked, but isn’t your program a little boring to some people, and I find that amazing, because, well, sure, it probably is, but they’re people who don’t watch. The people who watch it all the time don’t find it boring, or they wouldn’t watch.
JIM LEHRER: That’s right.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And it’s the strange idea that’s come out of this medium, because it’s become so much a captive of its tool–as its use as a sales tool that it’s driven increasingly, I think, by a tyranny of the popular. I mean, after all, you and I’ve said this to each other lots of times–might as well share it with the audience–what is the role of an editor? The role of an editor is to make–is to make judgments somewhere between what he thinks is important or what they think is important and what they think is interesting and entertaining.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. And we think we have found, Robin, that if you pay taxes, if there’s a story about the possibility of their going up or down, that ain’t boring. If you’re on Medicare and there’s an opportunity–there’s a possibility that you may get more or less of it, that ain’t boring. If you are a young person or related to a young person who might or might not have to go to a foreign shore with a weapon in his or her hand, war and peace ain’t boring, and it’s, it’s–we know that. And the folks who watch the program know that. Look, tell us about–I know–but tell the audience what you’re up to now. What are you going to do after tonight?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, I’m going to have the great luxury, I think it is, for the first time in virtually forty years that I’ve been mostly in daily journalism of being able to wake up in the morning and not have to fill my head up with the sort of stuff you’re just describing. And I can do it with–in the same way the average citizen does, when he chooses, and so when Mr. Gingrich does something or something happens in Bosnia or the President does something, I can read about in the afternoon or the next day, if I want to. And I can spend my time writing books, which I really want to do. I’m not like you, as you know very well. I can’t write a chapter of a book in one hour and then work on the program in another.
JIM LEHRER: I don’t write ‘em in one hour. It’s an hour–it usually takes ninety minutes or two hours. [laughing]
ROBERT MacNEIL: Right. And I–I just have to tear myself away from one thing and then do something else, and so that’s going to be a great luxury, and then, as well, we have this partnership, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and Liberty Media, who are now 2/3 owner of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, and while you oversee the NewsHour side of that, I’m going to oversee whatever programs or series we’re able to do outside the NewsHour.
JIM LEHRER: Like the story–comparable to the “Story of English.”
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah. I hope so, if we can land that. And so that’s what I’m going to do.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
ROBERT MacNEIL: But there’s one thing–I didn’t quite finish on the other point. You must be amazed, as I am amazed all the time, the number of people who were amazed about why did you do O.J. Simpson so little, why–what’s your answer when you’re asked that question?
JIM LEHRER: Well, it’s a matter of news judgment. We believed, you and I and our whole team believed that when O.J. Simpson, when the murders occurred, that was news. The white Bronco thing, that was news. When O.J. was arrested, that was news. When he was indicted, that was news.
When the trial started, that was news. The Mark Fuhrman tapes were news. The verdict was news. Everything else in-between that, those eight and a half months, has been fascinating, it’s been interesting, but it’s been–and it’s been real, but it’s been a soap opera, and it has not been news.
That’s our judgment. That doesn’t mean that everybody else who disagreed with us is wrong, but that was our basic judgment, particularly when you compare it to all these other things that I was just talking about in terms of what’s important, that just didn’t fall into our–into our judgment as something that was as important on any given day.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Amen. Amen.
JIM LEHRER: Hey, Robin.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I guess that’s it.
JIM LEHRER: Hey! Good night, Robin.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good night, Jim.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Finally, I’d just like to say to the audience how grateful I am to public television nationally and to all the 300 local stations who carry us for the opportunity you’ve given me to work in a manner I could be proud of when I went home every night. But that applies equally to our viewers.
Without you, no program. There are now some 5 million of you a night, and you express a loyalty to this program of a quality I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Thank you for understanding what we do. You’ll find all the same values there on Monday night and in the years ahead. Thanks and good night.