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Interview With Jim Lehrer

Aired August 31, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: He anchors the most serious news show on the planet. He's America's debate moderator and an accomplished novelist. Jim Lehrer talks about the media, the 9/11 anniversary, handling Bush and Gore, and what makes the news hour tick. Also, all those political magazines, are they preaching to the converted? And Peter Jennings pay cut, did he or didn't he?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Our guest today has been bringing you the news each night for more than a quarter century. You've undoubtedly seen him as the host of "THE NEWS HOUR" on PBS. But he also keeps busy off screen, writing novels. His latest is called, "No Certain Rest."

Jim Lehrer, welcome.

JIM LEHRER, HOST, "THE NEWS HOUR": Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: We're about to get swept away by the 9/11 anniversaries. All the saturation media coverage a good idea?

LEHRER: Well, I think everybody has gone at it from their own perspective. Whether it's -- I think it's impossible to generalize. My own view is that the people of America can commemorate this incredible one year anniversary without a lot of help from us.

KURTZ: We're going to give them a lot of help.

LEHRER: We're going to give them a lot of help.

KURTZ: Specials, and town meetings...


KURTZ: ...and 24 hour. Could we be overdoing it in this instance?

LEHRER: We could be, but let's remember that everybody has access to a remote control and access to not reading a newspaper. They don't want to. Or read all these books that are out about it.

I have a view on this. I think that what happened on 9/11 is a personal thing for each one of us. I don't think there's one big, giant thing that covers all Americans on this. If you live as one of our daughters does, 30 blocks from ground zero in New York, her memories are very different than somebody who lives in McPherson, Kansas or whatever. So -- and everybody, some people want to look at it, and look at it again, and want to see all the things again. Some people don't. Some people want to think about hey, have we changed in one year? And if so, how? We as Americans, we as a country, we as a world, all that -- all of those things, I think the media is perfectly legitimate to raise the questions. I think we ought to leave the answers though to a lot of other people.

KURTZ: OK. Turn on any cable network at virtually any hour this summer, and you will see what seems like an epidemic of child snatchings and abductions. How many hours have you devoted to this issue on "THE NEWS HOUR"?

LEHRER: We have done one eight minute piece on the media coverage, actually. Terrence Smith, our media guy, did a piece on this very subject. But that's all we've done.

KURTZ: Yes, we've got -- well, we seem to suggest that it's not that big a story or that cable is turning it, sensationalizing it, merchandising it into a big story?

LEHRER: Well, I think that could be happening. I must say, unlike -- I am not a qualified media critic as you are and Terry Smith and a lot of other people are in this country. I don't spend that much time watching everybody else. So for me to generalize would really be unfair.

KURTZ: But you've seen some of the stories today.

LEHRER: Oh, I have.

KURTZ: And actually, the statistics show that the number of child abductions has not gone up. You don't get that impression on the airwaves.

LEHRER: You know, Howie, here's my view on this. There is a -- the influence of cable news is -- it covers the waterfront. And it's with us. And it's had tremendous -- it's had a tremendous impact.

KURTZ: Sure.

LEHRER: One place it's had an impact, which your question touches on, but is not talked about a lot, is that the television sets in every newsroom in America are on all day. And they're watching one or all of the cable news networks. And...

KURTZ: So it's journalists who are...

LEHRER: Exactly. And they see oh, breaking news.

KURTZ: Amber alert.

LEHRER: Amber alert.

KURTZ: Two girls missing.

LEHRER: And so, the city editor of a newspaper in McKinney, Texas, oh, my God, that's big news. And it has a kind of -- like it was the same effect that the wire machines used to have. Clack, clack, clack, and we'd all run to the wire machines. And -- but this is a little bit -- it's a little bit more unconscious, I think. And they -- because here's the thing. These editors and people like me, I mean they're all of us were in the news business. We're affected by this. And I think America has been watching all of this. America has not been watching all of this.

KURTZ: They have lives, they have jobs, they're out doing things.

LEHRER: They're going to school. They're going to work.

KURTZ: Right.

LEHRER: Absolutely. And we just have to guard against. So I think that is where it's possible that all this coverage of the Amber alert coverage, that sort of thing, is having its effect. But I don't know. I couldn't prove that if my life depended on it.

KURTZ: The other big story in recent weeks, obviously, is the coverage of Iraq.


KURTZ: Now do you have the sense that some of the media, at least, are covering this as a kind of a political chess game? Here's Cheney and Rumsfeld on one side. And here's the advisers to former President Bush on the other side. And perhaps glossing over some of the complexities involved in whether or not we should go to war?

LEHRER: Well, probably, they are. I am so overjoyed as a citizen and as a journalist over the fact that it has finally now become a public debate. It doesn't matter which side you come down on. In fact, most Americans don't come down on any side, because they've just now beginning to join the debate. They're beginning to listen. They're beginning to listen to what the president and the vice president and those folks who think the way they do are saying, and also thinking -- and also listening to what the other side are saying. Some members of Congress, and people in the press are saying this is what democracy is all about. And we are about to at least consider a major military undertaking, an unprecedented thing in many ways, to take a preemptive strike.

KURTZ: But of course, the press keeps handicapping the politics of it.

LEHRER: Exactly, exactly. And that's a side bar. I don't mind side bars. All stories have side bars. We do -- you do side bars.

KURTZ: Sure.

LEHRER: I do side bars.

KURTZ: Right. LEHRER: That's all right. But that is not what this about. This is not about Cheney versus Powell, Rumsfeld versus Powell, Wolfowitz versus, you know, fill in -- this is not what this story is about. This story is about whether or not the United States should use its most incredible power to do this to Iraq. And that's what the -- and we should never lose sight of that. And if we don't, this is terrific.

KURTZ: Turn briefly to another president. January 24, 1998, you had a previous scheduled interview or you already know where I'm going with Bill Clinton.

LEHRER: Right.

KURTZ: The Monica Lewinsky story had broken that morning. And you asked -- I went and looked at the transcript, what about these reports, Mr. President, that you had an affair. And he said, "That is not true. There is no improper relationship."


BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship.


KURTZ: Did you feel at that moment the president was not telling the truth?

LEHRER: Howie, I have gone -- I have relived that so many times. And I know I did not think he was not telling the truth. In other words, I had no reason to disbelieve him. There had been no leaks about this story. This was not, you know, the final culmination of a build up to it. It was just in "The Washington Post."

KURTZ: Investigation, Ken Starr...

LEHRER: Yes, top of the page.

KURTZ: Former intern.

LEHRER: Yes, and who came out of nowhere from my perspective.

KURTZ: You took him at his word.

LEHRER: I took him at his word. I had no reason not to take him at his word. And when I left that -- the White House that day, got back to the office, and people asked me the same question you just asked me. "Well, do you believe him? Is he telling the truth or not?" I said, "I have no reason not to believe him." And that's the way it remained until there was good evidence to the contrary.

KURTZ: All right. Some people look at "THE NEWS HOUR," widely regarded as a high quality program. And say, you know, it's easy for Lehrer. He doesn't have to worry about ratings. He doesn't have to sell commercials. It's -- he can be high minded, where the rest of us are down in the competitive pit. What do you make of that take?

LEHRER: Well, I think that's absolutely right. I have a unique opportunity to practice journalism. The unique opportunity is that I can practice the kind of journalism I want to, not what kind of journalism somebody else wants to. This was developed over 27 years with Robert McNeil and all the many folks who have worked with us, who work with us now, who worked with us through the years. And we are truly free to do it our way.

KURTZ: Do you still have to attract an audience?

LEHRER: Oh, absolutely. And we have a good sized audience. And because otherwise, what would be the point? As McNeil used to say, if nobody's watching us, why put on a coat and tie? Why don't you just call me every evening and we'll talk about it on the telephone? No, I mean, this -- there is a serious -- there -- I am stunned, frankly. If you will allow me to say this, that because our program, the size of our audience and the impact of our program is commercially viable. It -- as all of these things continue to proliferate and the total audience continues to divide up, I have been surprised that somebody hasn't come along and done a program like ours on one of the cable networks or one of the commercial networks.

I think eventually they will, because there is a sizeable audience for people who do want, maybe not exactly the way we do it, but wants something a little bit more and they care a little bit more about certain things.

KURTZ: And on that point, when you interview administration officials or members of Congress and you have the luxury of having a lot of time.

LEHRER: Exactly.

KURTZ: But you don't act like a Russert or a Donaldson. You're not a confrontational interviewer. And some say, well gee, you know that really lets these public officials just come on and recite their talking points.

LEHRER: Well, I've been listening to that for years. And my answer to that has always been the same through the years. Listen very carefully to what they're saying. I am not a prosecutor. I didn't go to law school. I'm not there to prosecute. I am there to allow people to say what they want to say, and let the audience decide whether or not the person -- in other words, if I ask you a question, and then I follow up on it two or three times, somebody's paying attention, they can decide whether or not you're telling the truth or not.

Well, they have me to say, well, you may -- you know, hey. I don't, that's not my style, for one thing. And I don't think that's -- I just don't think that's my function. Now that is not a put down of other people. They -- everybody has to do it their own way. Other -- some people would be uncomfortable doing it my way.

KURTZ: Right. LEHRER: They feel -- it's a different style. I have my style. My style works for me and I'm happy with it.

KURTZ: It's a style that you have used in a number of these presidential debates that...


KURTZ: have moderated. And I am sure whether it was Bush and Gore last time or in some of the previous cycles, that candidates have given answers that you felt were not responsive, but you, maybe even more so than on "THE NEWS HOUR..."

LEHRER: Certainly more.

KURTZ: ...don't say, well, just a minute.

LEHRER: Yes, yes.

KURTZ: Mr. President. What about this?

LEHRER: No, I've been criticized for that on the debates. And my answer there is that my function as a debate moderator has always -- way I've seen at least, was to just to facilitate the exchange between the candidates, to get them to talk about it. I was not there to confront them. And I was there not to introduce any new issues, not there to pursue them in any way whatsoever. It was up to the candidates to pursue each other. And it's up to the audience to decide. It's not a television program. It's not "THE NEWS HOUR."

I was not -- I don't see moderating a debate as a journalism function in a pure way. It's a moderating function. And I know it's hard to separate that out, but it's not hard for me. I mean, I know exactly what I'm doing. For instance, I said somebody -- told somebody the other day my bottom line is I don't want somebody to be able to write a story afterward that says Sammy Sou-Smith is president of the United States today because the moderator did fill in the blank. The moderator should be invisible. The moderator should not be a player, should not be a participant. The moderator should be a facilitator. And that's how I feel. I feel very strongly about it.

KURTZ: I can't think of too many journalists who would like to be invisible when that many people are watching. How did you get to be, you know, there used to be different moderators.


KURTZ: Sometimes you were panelists. Now it seems to be Jim Lehrer. How did you get this unofficial job?

LEHRER: You know, I had no idea except I know the time that -- I do know, actually. They couldn't agree on anybody else. You know this thing -- these -- a lot of people don't understand it...

KURTZ: Tons of negotiations. LEHRER: ...the debate -- oh, and the debate. And the people who select a moderator are the representatives of the candidates. You know, it's not the debate commission or Sammy Sou over here...


LEHRER: ...or some group.

KURTZ: Yes, if they don't want you, you are out.

LEHRER: Exactly.


LEHRER: And they argue and argue and argue. And they could -- or they could usually agree on me. And then they would talk about others. And they couldn't agree on them. So finally, they saw what the hell with this. Let's just let Lehrer do it, if he'll do it. And that's what -- that's exactly what happened. In other words, I was -- so much we could agree on.

KURTZ: Least objectionable choice.

LEHRER: Exactly. You've got it.

KURTZ: You available in 2004?

LEHRER: Oh, hey, I feel the people like you in the -- have civil obligation, just like your lawyers and doctors do. When asked to do something like that, obviously, I would do it. I can't imagine -- I've done nine of them. It's probably time for somebody else to do it. We'll see.

KURTZ: All right, now you've just written "No Certain Rest." That is your thirteenth novel. It's about a government archaeologist. Tell us briefly what the focus is?

LEHRER: The remains of a Union soldier from the battle of Antiedam are found like yesterday, just buried off the battlefield at Antiedam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. And an archaeologist for the park services given the job of identifying who this guy was and how he died, because he was buried face down. His hands are tied behind him. He's been shot through the back of the head, one shot.

It's a story of a forensic mystery story about how he finds out. It's the story about what happened on the battlefield to cause this kid to die. And then, it's the modern day aftermath of his finding out. There's some folks who don't really want that story to get out, et cetera, et cetera.

KURTZ: How did you research the Civil War period in order to write this?

LEHRER: Oh, Howie, it was so much fun. I'm not a Civil War buff, never have been. My wife, Kate and I, have a house up in the panhandle of West Virginia, 20 minutes from the Antiedam battlefield. We used to go over there and walk, still do, walk, ride our bikes. And I know it sounds mystical. I don't mean it to sound this way, but it's the fact of the matter is that, that ground starting talking to me. I wondered -- this is the bloodiest day in U.S. military history. 23,000 kids, north and south, died or were wounded in a 12 period from dawn until dusk on -- in fact, the anniversary just coming up on September 17, 140th anniversary.

KURTZ: You're a tremendously successful TV journalist. Why do you -- what drives you to write fiction?

LEHRER: It's what I've always done. It's a part of me now. I don't think about it anymore. It's not something, oh my goodness, now I got to write a novel. I do it everyday. I work on something having to do with my fiction writing, literally, every day, whether it's taking notes, or whether it's reading something or writing something, or editing something, it is what I do every day.

I do that and I do "THE NEWS HOUR." And I am so fortunate, Howie, to be able to do the two things I want to do.

KURTZ: Well, some of us in the news business are sometimes accused of purveying fiction in news reports.

LEHRER: Right.

KURTZ: With you, it's label fiction. Jim Lehrer, you're 68- years old. How many more years do you plan on doing "THE NEWS HOUR?"

LEHRER: I'll give you the same answer McNeil used to give is that I will continue to do this until one of two things happen. I don't have -- get a kick out of anymore. Because if I don't get a kick out of it, I can't do it. This is hard. It's hard work. A daily news program, having to be -- having to avoid making a fool of myself on national TV, and all of that, all that goes into that.

I get a huge charge out of it. I'm still, you know, journalism is a state of mind. Some of the oldest people I know are 23 years old. Some of the youngest are 68. It's all a kind of your attitude. And I still get a kick out of the next story. And -- or if that happens...


LEHRER: ...if I lose the kick, or I start drooling on the air. In other words, I just can't do it anymore. But until one of those two things happens, I'll be dead.

KURTZ: Sounds like you'll be around for a while.

LEHRER: I hope so.

KURTZ: We hope you'll come back. Jim Lehrer, thanks very much for joining us.

LEHRER: Thank you, Howie. KURTZ: Well, coming up, Peter Jennings, TV man of mystery. Political magazines, are they dinosaurs in the modern media age? And Scott Pelley's exclusive with the commander in chief. Should other journalists get in on the action? That's all ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Peter Jennings has signed a new deal at ABC News, we think. It's been reported. Actually, we're not sure. Jennings won't say, though he hasn't exactly denied it. At a press breakfast this week, Jennings would not comment on reports that he took a modest pay cut at the assistance of Disney-owned ABC. He makes about $10 million, give or take a few bucks. He said a "New York Times" report on the matter was not entirely accurate, but declining reporter's request to say just what was wrong. So we'll keep seeing Jennings behind the desk at "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT," we presume until further notice. And that's the way it is or not.

Well turning now to the spin cycle, in these days of huge corporate media companies like say, AOL/Time Warner, a handful of small magazines are still managing to break through the static. These magazines don't make money or sell much more than 100,000 copies, a small fraction of "Time" or "Newsweek." But they are a key part of the political buzz.


(voice-over): When the liberal "New Republic," along with "The Washington Monthly," suggested that John McCain run for president as a Democrat, suddenly everyone from David Broder to "CROSSFIRE" was debating whether the senator just might maybe possibly conceivably switch parties.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: Now if there's one group able to recognize a Democrat, it's the guys at "The New Republic." And one of them recently...

KURTZ: On the other side, "National Review" has made the conservative case against the Arizona lawmaker, with such stories as "Wrong Way McCain," "What's the Point?" and "The Spoiler, John McCain's Angry Crusade." Not much doubt about where they stand. Another liberal magazine, "The Nation," helped draw attention to that other Jesse Jackson, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and an attack on big media prompted Congressman Bernie Sanders to ask a "Nation" staffer to brief lawmakers on the Hill.

The conservative "Weekly Standard" launched by Rupert Murdoch six years ago, broke the story of plagiarism by historian Steven Ambrose. And two weeks later, similar offenses by Doris Kearns Goodwin. "The Standard" has also been a staunch supporter of George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, and Karl Rove.

Sometimes these magazines are shouting in the wilderness. "The Washington Monthly" ran this piece on the administration's bureaucratic confusion. "There's Anthrax in your Subway, Who You Going to Call?" Back in May of 2001, months before those anthrax letters were sent to Tom Daschle, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw.


KURTZ: But it's in print, where there's room for reporting, analysis. And sometimes a complicated argument where these publications make their mark. And if you don't read them, you can always catch the made for television version.

"National Review's" Rich Lowry, "The Nation's" Katrina Vanden Heuvel, "The Weekly Standard's" Bill Kristol, "The New Republic's" Peter Beinart, all these editors have become major league talking heads.

When we come back, the big 9/11 exclusive that should have been open to the press says Bernard Kalb. The Back Page is next.


KURTZ: Now for an item that gets filed under the category of "you know it's a slow news day when..." On this Labor Day weekend, it was the story about a vending machine, not just any vending machine, a brand new 18 foot wide contraption here in Washington known as an automated convenience store. The story first turned up on the front page of "The New York Times." And TV reporters couldn't resist putting in some money with the cameras rolling, live.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got back up coins if this bill doesn't work. OK, you put your money in there. And...

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, TODAY SHOW: Uh-oh. Someone gave you a wrinkled bill, Bob.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ah there we go. All right. Now we're going. OK, now I'm going to try to buy some Tostitos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's see, what I'm supposed to do here. It says go. Let's hit go and see if it actually does this. Here we go. Now you see this scary thing sliding over. It's going to the Pampers. By the way, I'm really a little bit worried about what's going to happen when I put diapers on my expense account, but at any rate, we're going to see. You can see that it is sliding the diapers over. And the diapers will come out. We could get eggs. We could get Snickers. We could get trail mix.


KURTZ: What will they think of next? Well, time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The next 9/11 is only a few days away. So get ready, the media are now revving up both print and TV to take a look one year later at how this happened, and how to avoid a replay.

The emotional impact of that day, we all remember it, the worst such day in American history, bonding us in unity with this follow-up message by the president.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Either you're with us or you are with the terrorists.


KALB: There's been a lot of history since then. The war in Afghanistan to root out the Osama terrorists, the warnings against Saddam, the global search for terrorists everywhere.

One year later, it's a time for a summing up, which puts the central focus on the commander in chief to share his thoughts with the country on this very special day. Now the media requests have been piling up at 1600 Penn., but the White House has decided that the president will give only one interview, an exclusive interview, in connection with 9/11 to Scott Telling of CBS' "60 MINUTES II" for its own 9/11 special.

One interview only. Well, I don't want to sound like journalistic sour grapes, but I must confess that I am not, how to put it, wildly enthusiastic about that decision, just the opposite. Now yes, it's true that the White House tries to rotate its reportorial access to the president, that the president spoke earlier this year with NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Claire Shipman. But 9/11 is not your usual event, not a guided tour of the White House or a day in the life of the Bushes. The president should be giving one big interview to the press with his comments embargoed for use on 9/11.

9/11 was everyone's day, all Americans. It wasn't anyone's exclusive. And so too should the president's interview be, open to all in the media.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.




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