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No Blaring: MacNeil on Emmy, Keeping a Reasonable Tone in Broadcast News

Recently, a man stopped me as I passed him on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. He was wearing a denim work shirt with the number of the building where he worked embroidered over the pocket. He said, “I just have to tell you that your show is the best news show on television. It’s the only news show left on television.” I thanked him and walked on, flattered that he should call the PBS NewsHour still my show. I’ve been retired from it since 1995, but as Jim Lehrer’s partner in MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, I am still a producer of the program, and my pride in it grows every year. To have it recognized now, after many other awards, by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with their Chairman’s Award is deeply gratifying.

It ratifies what many Americans, such as the man on 43rd Street, feel about the program and the journalistic culture it has maintained despite the explosion of alternatives in the 35 years since we began. By journalistic culture I mean the determination to give the public a straightforward, unhysterical and unsensational account of the news with stories of a length that permits understanding, a place for civil dialogue that allows people to air their views thoroughly — and permits full thoughts, not clipped sound bites.

In his new novel “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen writes of “the blare” of cable news, specifically CNN. Blaring is the perfect word to describe what so many of our competitors have turned to in their desperation to win an audience. Personally, I hate being shouted at on television, and that has become unnervingly common — a ratcheting up of strident voices in the belief that a reasonable, conversational tone will turn viewers away.

Many years ago, when I left Reuters to join NBC News in London, my colleague was the late John Chancellor. Coming from a print medium, I was wondering how to address an American audience from overseas. There were many broadcast styles at the time: Some intoned the news in a priestly singsong, some declaimed it like town criers, some shouted like excited racetrack announcers. I listened carefully to Chancellor and thought that’s how I like to hear to the news: delivered in a sensible, conversational tone and not without humor. And in the years afterwards, I tried to do it like that.

Lehrer also came from a print background. When we teamed up first in 1973, we found we were kindred spirits in how we wanted to broadcast. And we imported that feeling into our nightly program when it began.

Here’s a look back how the NewsHour’s brand of journalism has evolved:

In those days, most American cities had only three or four television stations, one of them an educational or public station. Television news had just become a national fixation and was dominated by the three commercial networks. To make any kind of mark with our slim resources compared to theirs, we had to be consciously different. So in addition to broadcasting as though we were talking to ordinary people, we also decided to take more time to explore only one subject a night for half an hour. We even advertised ourselves briefly as a complement to network news: “Watch Walter Cronkite, then watch us.” Since our half hour came right after the network news, many viewers did that, and the concept worked. One of our first producers on that half-hour program was Linda Winslow, who is today the executive producer of the PBS NewsHour. And after he retired, Cronkite in turn watched us, because we were able to achieve what he had wanted on CBS: an hour-long program.

In 1983, we decided that public television should not merely complement network news but compete with it, and we became America’s first hour-long, national, nightly newscast. We able to hire Lester Crystal as the first executive producer of the hour, and he brought us his experience from the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and as president of NBC News. Although we added what are known in TV as more “production values” — in our case more documentary reportage from the field — we did not feel that competition required us to change the sensibility of the program. We continued to treat “newsmakers,” in Lehrer’s words, as we would like to be treated if we were in the news. And our interviews were designed to reveal the interviewee, not show off the interviewer — a rarity in television land. We also benefit from the unique value public broadcasting offers: Although we credit funders at the top and bottom of the program, the show is never interrupted by commercials.

As we expanded to an hour, cable news was emerging. More cable news followed, and then every imaginable kind of program was selling news from everywhere: Wall Street, Hollywood, supermarket-scandal magazines. So the audience began to fracture. Competition intensified, and more and more tabloid values were introduced to hold on to viewers. By tabloid I mean taking a colorful story like the O.J. Simpson murder case and staying with it breathlessly hour after hour, reporting every little scrap or tidbit until it began to be joked that it was “all O.J., all the time,” as though Simpson’s fate was the single most important — if not the only — thing of consequence in the world.

That was tabloid. So was the practice in Los Angeles, inspired by Simpson, of sending news helicopters to follow any car chase and staying with it, even if they didn’t know who was in the car or why it was being chased. The news director for the Fox station in L.A. with charming candor told The Wall Street Journal that his job was to raise ratings. He said many people spent their time channel surfing. When they hit a car chase, they stayed, and ratings went up. That was tabloid.

The new game is to turn cable TV into a contentious harangue-fest of polarized political views, strong on distemper and contempt, short on enlightenment — as tedious as the endless attack commercials in a campaign — with CNN trying to play it straight while being squeezed by the raucous extremes.

Through all these years of frenetic competition in TV news and the slicing and dicing of audiences, viewers have stayed loyal to the NewsHour, which continues to offer what it always has: an honest, unopinionated look at the nation and the world every night. In fact, on many nights the NewsHour has a larger audience than its cable rivals. Another fact: a survey this year by the independent GfK Roper polling organization found the American people consider PBS the most-trusted source of news among broadcast and cable sources. The NewsHour surely deserves a share of that trust.

The program has evolved, with Jim Lehrer gracefully opening up the anchor duties to a team of Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown, with their skills and personalities emerging along with those of the correspondents: Margaret Warner, Ray Suarez, Hari Sreenivasan, Paul Solman, Betty Ann Bowser, Kwame Holman, Tom Bearden and Spencer Michels. It has moved aggressively into the digital age, with its journalism available on a wide variety of digital platforms. But no blaring!

It’s wonderful that the Television Academy — the authority behind all the Emmy Awards that determines mass approval in today’s America — has given the PBS NewsHour this special recognition.

From left, former Executive Producer Les Crystal, current Executive Producer Linda Winslow, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil.

Monday night’s National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences ceremony will be aired on a C-SPAN network in the near future. Check back to The Rundown for more details.

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