Jim Lehrer: Moderating Presidential Debates Is “Never About Me”

By Alissa Krinsky 

5 Questions for…Jim Lehrer

Alissa Krinsky
TVNewser Contributor

Often called the “dean of moderators”, PBS’ Jim Lehrer is scheduled to moderate his eleventh presidential debate September 26 in Oxford, Mississippi.

Each matchup, he says, is a “defining event in American politics.” Tonight, Lehrer hosts a one-hour special, Debating Our Destiny II (a follow-up to 2000’s Debating Our Destiny), in which he interviews former candidates — including President Bush and Sen. John Kerry — about their debate performances.

Lehrer started his journalism career at The Dallas Morning News, before joining Dallas’ PBS station. He later moved to Washington, DC and teamed with Robert MacNeil to cover Watergate. Lehrer went on to report for PBS’ Robert MacNeil Report, which eventually became The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and then, after MacNeil’s retirement, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Lehrer is the program’s anchor and executive editor, and he is also an accomplished author and playwright.

1. TVNewser: As I prepare to host my eleventh presidential debate, my moderating skills and approach have evolved…
Lehrer: The most important thing I have learned about moderating these debates is that they are never about me. They are not opportunities for moderators to show off, to demonstrate how tough or smart they are. They are events in a serious process that leads to the election of the President and Vice President of the United States. Period. I never lose sight of that and I never will.

2. TVNewser: After aortic valve surgery in April, an update on how I’m feeling:
Lehrer: I am doing great! I just had a three-month check up at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where the surgery was done. Everything passed in flying colors — the valve, the heart and me. I couldn’t be happier or healthier.

3. TVNewser: More than thirty years after its debut, The NewsHour’s longevity is due to...
Lehrer: Our longevity is due to two seemingly conflicting things — our reliability and our flexibility. We know what our purpose is and so do the folks who watch us. We do not invent ourselves every evening. That is the reliability. But, on the other hand, The NewsHour of today barely resembles the original MacNeil-Lehrer Report. Everything we do and the way we do it is always as subject to change as the news itself. That is the flexibility.

4. TVNewser: In this age of cable and the internet, what I believe the future holds for evening newscasts such as The NewsHour:
Lehrer: There is evidence that the future for newscasts that report the real news is a glowing bright one. As the joyful noise of reaction and opinion continues to rise within the world of cable, radio, and the web, there is a corresponding rise in the public’s desire for some professional, trustworthy help in sorting through it all. That’s where we and others who do nightly television news programs come in or, in some cases, return.

5. TVNewser: [On November 21, Lehrer and former co-anchor Robert MacNeil will be honored with the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. The two remain partners in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces The NewsHour.] What my longtime professional partnership with Robert MacNeil has meant to me:
Lehrer: None of what matters to me professionally as a journalist would have happened without Robert MacNeil. It was his vision and leadership that led to our program and thus to our partnership. I am but one of his many beneficiaries — a most fortunate and grateful one.