Departed PBS newsman Jim Lehrer’s rules remind us how to be better

Debate moderator Jim Lehrer speaks during the first of three presidential debates before the 2008 election Sept. 26, 2008 in the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS

Here are three things that happened on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., an impeachment trial was going on. It was aimed at determining whether the president of the United States is guilty of abusing the power of his office and obstructing a congressional investigation.

A short walk away from the impeachment fight, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists staged a news conference. It was to announce that the Doomsday Clock had been moved 20 seconds closer to midnight. By that metaphorical measure of the planet’s human-made perils — climate change, nuclear war and cyberwarfare — we’re a minute and 40 seconds away from global annihilation. In other words, half a pop song from extinction.

Meanwhile, on the same day, in the same city, Jim Lehrer died at home in his sleep.

These three events may not seem connected, but they are.

As celebrities go, Lehrer, who was 85, wasn’t in the blockbuster tier. If you were to ask people randomly on the street how they felt about his death, most would probably reply, “Who?” But among people who pay serious attention to news, he was a star. Not a rock star, but a guiding star, a man whose news principles have inspired many followers.

Lehrer co-founded the PBS “NewsHour,” a show he anchored for 36 years. Before that, he was a newspaperman in Dallas, where he covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, just one of the world-shaking events he documented in his long life.

He moderated more presidential debates than anyone else has (12), covered the impeachments of two presidents (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) and day after day, sitting in his anchor’s chair, speaking with his Texas drawl, worked to communicate events in a way that informed before it alarmed.

As news of his death spread, Lehrer was widely hailed as “courtly,” “gracious,” “gentlemanly,” “steady,” “kind” and “humble,” an outpouring of adjectives that evoked a man whose quiet style, girded by intelligence and grit, seemed out of sync with our hyper times.

No matter when he died, Lehrer would have been praised and mourned. But his way of being — thoughtful, clear-eyed — seemed extra noteworthy in a moment rumbling with talk of impeachment and global catastrophe.

People seized on him and his legacy as if to say: It hasn’t always been this bad, has it? We can do better, can’t we?

On social media, many people passed around a list of “Jim Lehrer’s Rules”:

1. Do nothing I cannot defend.

2. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

3. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

4. Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.

5. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

6. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

7. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.

8. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should be allowed to attack another anonymously.

9. “I am not in the entertainment business.”

They’re good rules, though, like all rules, open to interpretation and annotation. I suspect Lehrer had his faith in one or two of his rules tested more than once, but it speaks to his good character that he started with an assumption of the goodness in others and a belief in the fairness everyone is owed.

The news cosmos changed through Lehrer’s life, and with it the state of the nation. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter in December, he talked about the nation’s divisions and how division “is the story in the country right now.”

President Donald Trump, he said, didn’t create those divisions.

“They already existed,” he said. “He took advantage of them and is still taking advantage of them. ... This is his political lifeblood, the division.”

Noting that the division is also good for the cable TV business, he went on to talk about how differently Americans get their impeachment news than they did in the past. TV, once the primary source, still plays a role but so does social media, and the fracturing exacerbates the divisions.

“We’re still in the middle of the revolution,” he said. “It’s hell being in the middle of a revolution.”

For all his wisdom, he didn’t know how to solve the news revolution, but he saw the problem. And he leaves us with a few thoughts that, if each of us applied them to our own lives, might help us postpone doomsday, not the least of which is: “Do nothing I cannot defend.”

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Tribune Wire

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