JIM LEHRER: Robin, good evening, sir.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening.
JIM LEHRER: First, tell the story of how all this happened. How did the Robert MacNeil Report come into being?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, you remember that when you and I did the Watergate hearings, it created a bit of attention and people thought you and I were a team, and maybe there should be a nightly program; that was back in '73. And it didn't work out then, and I went back to the BBC, where I was working, and then the New York station, WNET, said, why don't you come and start it here, and I did.
And we were trying to create in an atmosphere so different from today - when there were basically only the three networks and maybe one independent station in each city - something that would complement what commercial television did brilliantly but briefly each night and would also create a role that would be different for public television and make a journalistic contribution.
And that's really how it started. And we were given a budget of $1 ½ million, which for a year was about what the networks spent in a week - sometimes in a day. And what we came up with was something that we could afford with that amount of money that would be a real alternative. And so that's really how it began.
JIM LEHRER: And it was one story a night for 30 minutes.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Exactly. Because what did the networks not do in their brilliant half-hour coverage, which commanded the attention of the whole - of the whole nation? They didn't go into any detail into one story, and so we thought, well, we can do that.
And Channel 13 had the brilliant idea of scheduling it right after the network news shows ran. So we could pick up the audience that might have hunger for something in more depth right after that. In fact, you remember, we even ran some funny commercials saying - or newspaper ads - saying, watch Walter Cronkite; then watch us - watch John Chancellor; then watch us.
And because there was nothing much else on then, it worked, and it really caught on. Within a few months it was picked up by the PBS network and then the station you were attached to - Washington - joined in, and instead of being with Jim Lehrer in Washington, it became the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.
JIM LEHRER: Which I remember as being a brilliant decision too when it became the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I can't imagine why.
JIM LEHRER: Remember our joke at the time was that there was some discussion and some dispute about what the title should be.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: And that they turned it over to our mothers, and they decided on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, the other thing that - remembering now what we thought at the time - and you're nice to ask me these questions, but you were at least as much a contributor to all this as I was -- that we thought, what are the networks not - what can we introduce that isn't going? Well, as you know, television at the time despised talking heads. Talking heads were all we could afford. So how could we make talking heads interesting and coherent? How could we add a kind of respect for complexity to the news that was already there? And really that's how our concept was born.
JIM LEHRER: Well, speaking of talking heads, I quote you all the time, so why don't we get it directly from you about your wonderful line about how we get all the things that really - all the information that really matters to us.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah. It struck me as really extraordinary that commercial television had built up this antipathy to the talking heads. For one thing, the talking head is the only thing that fits the television screen life size, and I think at a primitive level in all our consciousness, that meant something; it was real.
And the other thing is this despised talking head is how all of us hear the things that really matter to us: You're hired; you're fired; I love you; I hate you; will you marry me; I want a divorce - whatever it is - these are the things - and those talking heads don't usually come in a box with a picture over the shoulder, or voice over, action pictures, and so we thought that if we could re-establish the talking head as something vital and well edited, which was very important, and that we could just slow things down a little bit and make them a little more coherent and provide a little more context to the news, we would provide an alternative, and something additional, which is what commercial television, as I say, really brilliantly provided.
JIM LEHRER: And then in 1983, we got very ambitious; that's when we went to an hour.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah. And we've begun to feel the limitations of the half hour because if you're doing only one story a night, which was our gimmick, and a good one, to attract attention to ourselves and be noticed, it is very limiting, and sometimes we made some really silly mistakes, mostly my fault, you know -
JIM LEHRER: No, no, no.
ROBERT MacNEIL: -- doing a light program about the plastic tomatoes, when something really important was happening.
JIM LEHRER: We did 30 minutes on Pringle's potato chips.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We did.
JIM LEHRER: With outrage… (laughter)…phony potato chips.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I take the blame for that. And we really got - you know, we really got hoist with our own petard a few times, like going on about what terrible tomatoes the industry was producing now so you could have them all year, and we went out at random, bought tomatoes around the areas of the New York station, had the leading expert on tomatoes in, and she cut through the first one, and it was the most delicious smelling tomato ever and so on and so on …
JIM LEHRER: I remember also in this very studio back in those days we were doing 30 minutes on new advances in banking, and they had brought in what was then called the new revolutionary thing called an ATM machine.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And we were live, of course - everything we did was live -
ROBERT MacNEIL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And I couldn't get the thing to work, and I kept putting the card in; the money wouldn't come out and all that. Go ahead, sorry.
ROBERT MacNEIL: ATM's have survived that.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, I know; they really have.
ROBERT MacNEIL: But, so if we were saying we were just a complement to the networks up till '83, after '83, in the hour, we could really claim to be an alternative, and I think we and you have been ever since.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And as we changed all along - and then of course we - when you left five years ago, there were other changes of personnel, as well as other little things all along, but the one thing that's never changed, Robin, is the philosophy behind this, the underlying principles under which we operate, which you started 25 years ago tonight.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, I started, but with - with your input because I'd learned a lot from you doing the - during the Watergate hearings. I learned a lot from you about fundamental fairness and objectivity and also the idea that the American public is smarter than they're often given credit for on television.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And they don't all need things in little bite-sized, candy-sized, "mcnuggets" of news. Some of them want something a little more grown-up and at a slower pace, but a more thoughtful pace. And I think it's that ethic and those standards that have led to you being asked for two presidential elections in a row to be the moderator of all the debates.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well -
ROBERT MacNEIL: And you've just been through the fire on that.
JIM LEHRER: Boy, I really have been through the fire. That's the hardest work I've ever done, I must say, these last three debates.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, but you brought all those values to it. You know, there are a lot of people who still want the debates, and in the special you did a few weeks ago on previous debates, a lot of people are looking for the kind of gaffes and fireworks and dumb things or one liners or displays of anger that have been colorful in previous debates.
And I think there's another factor, and I know that some people have criticized the way you - I think unfairly - or wrong-headedly - about the way you handled it. I think there's another factor here. Increasingly, as the candidates are more and more molded and controlled by the products of their focus groups and their advisers not to do a single thing that might alienate some potential voter, they become more and more sort of plastic in that - and restrained - in that way.
And, therefore, their partisans failing - the candidates failing to really go at each other hammer and tongs and stick knives in each other or punch each other in the face, they want the moderator to do it. And that's not the moderator's function.
JIM LEHRER: They want the moderator to do the dirty work.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I thought you did great.
JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you. But the bottom line here on these debates - and it's hard - and I believe this -- I would believe it if I had nothing to do with these particular three debates or any of the other ones I've moderated - is it doesn't matter what the format is; it doesn't matter about - that's kind of interesting if you have this format, that format, that format - but the bottom line is when you have the two major candidates for President of the United States on the same stage anywhere for 90 minutes talking about things that matter, it is in and of itself revealing to the voters.
It reveals a lot about themselves, no matter how lousy the questions might be from the moderator, no matter how confining the format might be. The American people get to see these two men - in this case Vice President Gore and Governor Bush - as individuals, what they - hear them talk about what they believe, no matter how they expressed it or whatever. I mean, it is a terrific exercise for the democratic process.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And it's a format that you didn't choose.
JIM LEHRER: No.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Every case, you were the prisoner of the format as much as they were.
JIM LEHRER: I know. People have jumped me for - you kept talking about the rules, the rules, you're violating the rules -- but I was confronted with a situation. I'm really not trying to defend myself, but the fact of the matter is that I'm going to - no, I was given a set of rules to enforce, and one of the candidates - Vice President Gore - wanted more flexibility in them - and Governor Bush wanted them rigidly enforced. And I would go a little bit one way and a little bit the other way, and I made some bad judgment calls, no question about that here and there along the way.
ROBERT MacNEIL: No, I don't think you did. And what people don't know is how much behind-the-scenes work there was in that and, for instance, in the last debate you had 140 questions that came to you, and you had to choose among them with a reasonable balance and everything, and that was a major contribution. But I'd like to make another point about this: I think it flows out of the values of the program you do every night that it has a respect for the institutions of the democracy. I don't mean for the people in it occupying them necessarily, and I think we both agree that journalists are not here as disinterested bystanders in the democracy.
We're not here just watching the idiots screw it up and making - and making a joke about it. We're all here as participants; we hold the edge of the fabric, and I think the exercise that you've done is a major contribution to that democratic process. As square as that may sound to a lot of people these days, we believe in it.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we do, and the people who watch this program know where it all came from. Of course, it came from you and it's been here for 25 years. Thank you very much, by the way, for what you just said, but before we go, bring us up to date on you. What have you been doing with yourself these last five years without us?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, it's nice of you to ask. But you always ask questions you know the answer to.
JIM LEHRER: Well, it's a very simple question.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, I've been writing. I've published a couple of novels.
JIM LEHRER: Tell us the titles.
ROBERT MacNEIL: One was called -- since leaving the program - "The Voyage," and "Breaking News."
JIM LEHRER: Which is a terrific book about the television news business.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Thank you. I'm not up to your prolific rate, but - and I just finished the first draft of another one. I'm working on a play. I'm working with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions on trying to develop the 11 o'clock national news program called "National Edition," a sequel to "The Story of English" called "Do you Speak American?" on American language today; I'm the chairman of the McDowell Colony, the oldest artists' colony in the United States; I work with the Freedom Forum, and the New York Public Library and the Japan Society, and the Theater for a New Audience, so I've been busy.
JIM LEHRER: So we shouldn't worry about you.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, if you want to …
JIM LEHRER: Hey, look, as we used to say five nights a week, Good night, Robin.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good night, Jim.