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Sunday, December 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Lehrer's Rules

Last Friday evening, Dec. 4, was the final broadcast of what has been known for many years as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The following Monday, Dec. 7, the new-look version of the venerable, one-hour, weekday nights, news broadcast made its debut as the PBS NewsHour. Lehrer was still in the anchor chair but his name was gone from the logo and some things had changed. I'll come back to that.

One of the things that has not changed, however, is Lehrer's unwavering approach to journalism. So, in closing that final broadcast on Dec. 4 and providing a glimpse of the forthcoming new look, Lehrer said:

"I promise you, one thing is never going to change. And that's our mission. People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

  • 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."

A couple of people wrote to me in the aftermath of that Dec. 4 sign-off to say how much they liked Lehrer's guidelines and asked how they could get a copy. That's why they are reproduced above. A subscriber to the widely-read Romenesko media news site also posted them there on Dec. 6 and they also were posted on the campus site of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). "Whether you agree with all of Lehrer's guidelines, or not," that posting read, "he has surely earned our attention."

That's certainly true in my case. I've also been a devoted watcher of the NewsHour in all of its evolutions during most of the past 30-plus years, long before I took on this job four years ago. Although segments of the program have been the subject of critical ombudsman columns on a number of occasions, I've also said many times that it remains the best and most informative hour of news anywhere on television, and it has never been more important. I follow the news closely but almost always learn something from this broadcast every night.

Boring, at Times, But a Luxury Always

Sometimes, of course, it can seem boring. Sometimes the devotion to balanced he said/she said panel discussions can leave you frustrated and angry and no smarter than you were 15 minutes earlier. Sometimes the interviewing is less challenging than one might hope. But the luxury of an uninterrupted hour of serious, straight-forward news and analysis is just that these days, a luxury. And, in today's world of media where fact and fiction, news and opinion, too often seem hopelessly blurred, it is good to have Lehrer — clearly a person of trust — still at work.

I had the sense when he added his guidelines to that closing segment last Friday that the 75-year-old Lehrer was trying to re-plant the flag of traditional, verifiable journalism that he has carried so well all these years so that it grows well beyond his tenure — whatever that turns out to be — and spreads to all the new platforms and audiences that the contemporary media world now encompasses.

Oddly, I did not get any e-mail from viewers commenting on the new NewsHour format, other than one critical message that said "do not post." Maybe that's a good sign since people usually write to me to complain.

Make no mistake, the now defunct NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is still quite recognizable within the new PBS NewsHour. So those who wrote earlier and said they didn't want any change won't be terribly disappointed. I, personally, found the first few days of the new format and approach to be a distinct improvement. The program seemed to have more zip and energy, faster paced, with good interviews and without the always predictable language that introduced the show in the past. It presented its news judgments more quickly, benefitted from the early introduction of other top staff members as co-anchors, and from the introduction of a promising "new guy," Hari Sreenivasan, a former CBS and ABC correspondent who presents a headline summary from the newsroom and is the liaison to an expanded NewsHour Web operation.

Now, just to keep this a respectable ombudsman's column, let me add a few quibbles when it comes to Lehrer's rules, as posted above.

First, one of the interesting things about American journalism is that there are no agreed-upon national standards, no journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. There are, of course, many universal values and practices that vast numbers of journalists have voluntarily adhered to generally for many years, best exemplified by SPJ's Code of Ethics. But the fact is that all major news organizations — from the Associated Press to the New York Times to PBS and CBS — have their own guidelines and standards that they try and live by. And they all have their differences.

Naturally, a Few Quibbles

Lehrer's guidelines embody lots of the good, praiseworthy stuff, and we come out of the same journalistic generation and traditions. But I think on a couple of points they are actually too nice, too lofty, cruising somewhere above some of the grittier realities of journalism.

For example, "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." Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?

Then there is: "Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise." I would argue, and have, that the NewsHour withheld from its viewers at the time a legitimate turn in a major story — reported by all other major news organizations — last year when it declined to inform them that a former senator and former candidate for the vice-presidency, John Edwards, issued a public statement and went on ABC Television to acknowledge that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films for his campaign. That's news.

Finally, there is, "Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions." I agree about the blind quotes when they are used to attack someone personally. But anonymous sources have often proved to be absolutely crucial to the public's right to know what's really going on in scores of major stories as they have unfolded from Watergate to secret CIA prisons overseas.

The most accurate and important pre-war stories challenging the Bush administration's on-the-record but bogus case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were based on anonymous sources. Many of those stories, in part because they were based on anonymous sources, got buried or underplayed by newspapers at the time. Many of them never got reported at all on television, including the NewsHour. But there are times when there are mitigating circumstances — like internal threats within an administration or maybe jail time for leakers — when some sources must remain anonymous and when editors need to trust their reporters. And often you don't know if the occasion is "rare and monumental" until it is too late. Pre-war Iraq, again, being Exhibit A.


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