The announcement that veteran PBS newsman Jim Lehrer is calling it quits – sort of, eventually – touched off a wave of appreciation for his unprecedented 36 years at "PBS NewsHour" and provided media prognosticators another opportunity to wonder about the future of TV journalism.
The nightly "NewsHour," which Mr. Lehrer anchors, will continue after his June 6 departure. Indeed, Lehrer will return to moderate the program's Friday news analysis segments.
Lehrer may not be quite the household name that, say, news anchor Walter Cronkhite was during his day at CBS, but he perhaps has come the closest. Though the audience for "NewsHour" is smaller than for other network TV evening newscasts, Lehrer longevity at PBS and his role as a moderator of 11 presidential debates make him familiar to American TV viewers.
“Lehrer's main legacy to the American news culture will be the many presidential debates he moderated," suggests Jeff McCall, media professor at DePauw University in Indiana, in an e-mail. "His selection as the moderator for so many of these important political events signifies that both parties considered him a reasonable and dedicated professional journalist – not a pretty-boy TV anchor looking to boost his career or spark sensational side shows.”
Neil Foote, who began his career as a summer intern for public television's "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" back in 1980, says "NewsHour" is not "the most exciting news program on the air." But Mr. Foote, now a senior lecturer at the University of North Texas’s Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, says "it is a hundred times more solidly informative and with more credibility than anything happening on cable.” And he credits Lehrer for that.
"What is it that Jim does so well? He provides a fact-based, well-reasoned approach to news and events from around the world,” says Foote.
The PBS newscast "is one of the jewels in the crown of television journalism,” agrees Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “It was one of my favorite places to appear as a guest because it is so civilized and reasonable.”
Last month, the National Press Club bestowed a career achievement award on Lehrer. “Amid the cacophony of a sometimes shrill media landscape, he has remained the true voice of reason, balance, and fairness,” said president Mark Hamrick in a statement.
The tone of moderation and measured reasonableness at "NewsHour" may be challenged as PBS moves to secure the program's future in an increasingly insecure financial media landscape flooded with competitors, says Mr. Thompson.
“PBS has to be thinking about how to entice a younger generation to watch its programs,” he says. Whether that means the network will resort to “jazzing up the show" – with anything from younger faces, more entertainment-oriented content, or snappier graphics, as cable and broadcast networks have done – remains to be seen. PBS does not have the same pressure to garner the kind of Nielsen ratings that cable and broadcast networks do, but “they still have to think about cultivating their audience for the future,” Thompson says.
Politicians and policymakers have long regarded the hour-long newscast as the place to air serious issues, says political strategist David Johnson. “Inside the Washington Beltway, if you wanted to get your whole point of view out without being interrupted or harangued," he says, “this was where you went.”
Lehrer’s announcement Thursday included an affirmation of the show’s commitment to moderation and seriousness of purpose. “I have been laboring in the glories of daily journalism for 52 years ... 36 of them here at the 'NewsHour' and its earlier incarnations ... and there comes a time to step aside from the daily process, and that time has arrived," he said in a statement.
That will be a tough row to hoe in the increasingly competitive and combative media landscape, says Mr. Johnson.