When the Tucson massacre broke, PBS’s Jim Lehrer spent two days glued to … CNN.
That’s because the tragedy occurred on a Saturday, and on weekends, the public network has no regular news presence. PBS didn’t get around to covering the story until that Monday evening — on Lehrer’s “NewsHour,” with correspondent Tom Bearden reporting from the field.
Even PBS ombudsman Michael Getler labeled PBS’s absence as “an abdication of duty” that resulted in “sending regular PBS viewers to other networks.” Including regular viewers like Lehrer, one of the most respected journalists on the planet.
“I was itching to get on the air,” he acknowledges. “Despite my advanced age , when I see the fire trucks, I want to know where they’re going. It’s a hell of a story. I wish we had had the airtime and resources to cover it.”
The acerbic Lehrer, who’s been at PBS since “aught four,” has lobbied PBS for decades to expand the weekday “NewsHour.” Sisyphus had a better shot.
“It’s something we pushed for many years, but the resources have never been there for it,” says Lehrer. “We’ve had a couple proposals to have a Sunday edition of “NewsHour,” but it’s never come into being. Maybe we haven’t pushed hard enough.”
“NewsHour” has long been a crown jewel in PBS’s news-and-public affairs lineup. It launched with Lehrer and Robert MacNeil in 1975 as the 30-minute “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” Eight years later, it became the country’s first hour-long nightly national newscast. MacNeil left the show in 1995.
Even if “NewsHour” had done special reports on the Tucson situation that Saturday and Sunday, there would have been another problem, according to Lehrer. Nobody would have
watched. With no “NewsHour” on weekends, he says, “viewers would have no expectation we’re going to be there. The only people who would see us would be channel surfers.”
Still, Lehrer says he feels better about “NewsHour’s” weekend absence than he would have in the prehistoric days before cable.
“Cable news was there around the clock. Some people have problems with cable, but one thing they do well is cover a breaking story. I watched them all weekend, as did everybody else. The commercial broadcast networks didn’t spend a hell of a lot more money on it than did PBS. That’s why cable was created for that sort of thing.”
Speaking of cable, Lehrer says the explosion of politically-driven news shows is “just a phase. There is already evidence that people are wary of opinionated news. They want it straight. There’s an increasing appetite for that… The great majority of people are not that opinionated. They just want to know what’s going on.”
As for Lehrer himself becoming a pundit someday, “it’s too late,” he says. “My instincts are locked into what I call ‘factual granite.’ I’m not in the opinion business.”
He is, however, in the book business, big time. “Tension City,” about his experiences moderating presidential and vice-presidential debates, is due out in the fall. It’s his 23rd book; only his third in the non-fiction category. (“They require a lot more checking and double-checking.”) Lehrer has moderated 11 debates, most recently Obama-McCain in 2008, in Jackson, Miss.
Lehrer doesn’t think about retiring, he says, but he knows, at some point, he’ll have to walk away.
“As long as I hear the fire trucks, I’ll be fine. One day, I’ll wake up and not hear them anymore. Then I’ll say ‘goodbye.'”