NO FRILLS. NO BELLS.NO WHISTLES.  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

NO FRILLS. NO BELLS.NO WHISTLES.   

With a heavy emphasis on government, foreign affairs and culture, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” is television’s bastion of long-form serious news and civil dialogue.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


CBS' Dan Rather did something unusual after President Bush's August 9 nationally televised address on embryonic stem cell research: He encouraged interested viewers to read a newspaper.

Rather noted the broadcast media's shortcomings when it comes to complex issues and concluded, "So we can, with, I think, impunity, recommend that if you're really interested in this, you'll want to read, in detail, one of the better newspapers tomorrow."

Could we expect to see the TV anchor in an "It all starts with newspapers" ad? Newspaper Association of America officials must have thought about it. But Rather was not revealing some dark secret. The next evening at 6:30 p.m., his "CBS Evening News" devoted about five minutes to reaction to the president's address, "NBC Nightly News" ran five minutes that night and ABC's "World News Tonight" ate up six. A good chunk for network news, but hardly an encyclopedia.

It was a different story, however, for viewers who tuned in to PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." They were treated to 50 minutes--yes, 50, the entire show minus the five-minute news summary--of stem cell talk: a taped segment explaining what the research is and what the president said; an interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Bush's decision to allow funding for existing stem cell lines only; a panel discussion with a scientist, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a bioethicist who's head of the president's commission charged with monitoring stem cell research and a professor of law and bioethics; a segment on the reaction; and cross talk from Mark Shields and Paul Gigot on the political implications of Bush's stance.

Whew. This is not a show for the faint-hearted.

Perhaps the next time Rather refers viewers to other news outlets, he'll want to point them toward "The NewsHour."

Not even a part of most discussions of the evening newscasts, "The NewsHour" is something of a loner--strolling along to its own beat. Certainly, its viewership is a fraction of what Rather, Brokaw and Jennings attract. But at the same time, the "they've gone soft" criticism increasingly hurled at the Big Three and cable news networks doesn't touch this hour-long evening newscast. Media critics charge, and evidence shows, a decline in hard news, less foreign news and shorter sound bites in commercial TV newscasts. The quest for higher ratings, and hence higher profits, often translates into shorter-is-better. Quick. Snappy. Visual. Lest they change that channel.

Then, there's the calm, quiet "NewsHour." All substance; plenty of politics and foreign affairs; long, long, long segments. No frills, no bells, no whistles. And it's been like that for 26 years. At a time when CNN Headline News acts as if it were defending a quickest-news-in-the-U.S. title, how does something like "The NewsHour" survive?

"In this period of dynamism, if you had said an organization would slowly evolve...and hardly change..that would be a prescription for disaster," says Joe Foote, director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunications at Arizona State University. "But in this case, it has been a recipe for success, because it is that constancy of purpose of execution that has kept the standards of 'The NewsHour,' its mission clear, while everything else has changed, most things changed for the worse."

David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun's television critic, prefaces his remarks with: "I mean this in a very good sense." In television news, he continues, "it's become the worst thing in the world you can be is boring. These guys dare to be boring.... We overwrite, we overstate, we do all these sins" because of a mandate not to be boring. "The NewsHour" "really is a sort of island of sanity in the madness of television news."

Judy Woodruff left "The NewsHour" in 1993 for a job with CNN after a decade as senior Washington correspondent and a frequent anchor. "Sure there are shows that do serious treatment of [important issues], but not at that length," says Woodruff, anchor of CNN's "Inside Politics." "I think there are moments on CNN, and I'd like to think that the program that I do" airs some serious interviews. "But what we don't have is the luxury of time.... ['The NewsHour'] is not feeling the hot breath of daily ratings breathing down their back.... They don't have to tinker with the formula [to get] six more eyeballs...or 2,000 more eyeballs."

The program may not study minute-by-minute ratings, but its financial numbers do matter. "The NewsHour" has not escaped the money issues that have plagued most news organizations in a down economy. One of its underwriters, Citigroup, has pulled out, and securing new funding has been a greater challenge than usual for a show that's a pretty unique buy.

On television today, Woodruff says, "there's nothing quite like 'The NewsHour.' "

Every weekday morning at 10:15, about 10 of "The NewsHour's" top producers and correspondents gather in Jim Lehrer's office. They sit around a Greyhound bus lines carpet, amid Lehrer's museum of old metal signs and advertisements for Greyhound and Trailways, model buses and a white and green "Buses Only" traffic sign. Lehrer's father worked for a bus line, and Lehrer had one of his first jobs in a bus depot.

First, they critique the previous day's show, what went right and what went wrong. Then, various proposals for what will air that evening at 6 p.m. are discussed.

Lehrer, 67, says it's a "collegial" atmosphere, "a combination between Quakerism and authoritarianism." He generally makes the final call.

By 10:45, the meeting breaks up, and Lehrer, Executive Producer Lester M. Crystal and Deputy Executive Producer Linda Winslow decide which correspondent will do what. From then until 6 p.m., tape is assembled, guests are lined up, questions are prepared--usually for four main pieces, which range from about seven to 17 minutes apiece. Some segments are planned in advance, particularly tape pieces--there is a weekly hour-long planning session on Thursdays--but, when a news story breaks, "often we scramble the jets," says senior correspondent Margaret Warner.

Now, to say the show hasn't changed isn't exactly correct. There have been numerous cosmetic alterations. In 1975, it debuted as the half-hour "Robert MacNeil Report" and became "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" in the following year. With MacNeil (known as Robin) in New York and Lehrer in Washington, D.C., the show explored one story and acted as a supplement to the nightly news. In 1983, it went to an hour. "Our contract with the audience changed," says Lehrer. Then the message became, "You don't have to watch anybody else, just watch us."

MacNeil, now 70, retired in 1995, leaving Lehrer to anchor solo. Since then, the program has added a crop of new correspondents--Warner, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez, Terence Smith. Believe it or not, "NewsHour" segments have gotten shorter. Instead of 16 or 18 minutes a segment, tape pieces run about 10 to 13 minutes; similarly timed discussions are often preceded with a three-minute tape piece that gives the background of an issue. Plus, with the added correspondents, "there were more on-air people that we were committed to getting on the air," Winslow says. "That in and of itself has brought about some reduction in length."

But despite those changes and the vast transformation of the media landscape, the mission MacNeil and Lehrer began with hasn't budged.

"When we started 26 years ago, most news programs had the same general tone as ours did," says Lehrer, "which was a quiet approach to the news.... We will leave it to you to go elsewhere to get entertained.... I would like to think that we have not been affected by a tendency in some quarters to say, 'Hey, our news is better than your news.' That news is a commodity. I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity. News is information that's required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry.... That sounds corny, but I don't care whether it sounds corny or not. It's the truth."

The philosophy of the show is strict basic journalism: Balance and fairness are stringently imposed; civility is exercised; no one thinks the public--which is quite intelligent, thank you--wants its news dispensed quickly. "We've always assumed that there are some Americans who...like to hear some things at a sensible length, [who] have an appetite for complexity," says MacNeil. "And that is the fundamental difference between 'The NewsHour' and the networks and cable...not being afraid of this complexity."

The show gets amazing access to sources because people know they'll be treated fairly, and they'll be able to get their point across, say many "NewsHour" employees.

"We're obsessed with balance," says field producer Terry Rubin, a nine-year employee who works in the Denver office, "which is great, but on the other side it prevents you from doing some stories." Rubin produced a story on the Staples office-supply retail chain being criticized by environmentalists. Staples allowed the show to videotape in one of its stores but wouldn't talk for the piece. "Fortunately, I figured out a way to do the story so we did get some balance.... I'm always thinking of how...even with just footage or how much time am I giving each person on a sound bite...'Is this a balanced report?' "

Senior correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, who joined the show as a contributing correspondent in 1983 and came on staff full time in 1994, recalls a discussion about Argentina in 1997. One of three guests who appeared on "The NewsHour" had been expected to defend the government of President Carlos Menem. He didn't. The next week, Lehrer brought on the Argentinian ambassador to Washington to make up for it. "If a discussion went wrong [on a network program], would they bring in the ambassador the next week to correct it?" Farnsworth asks. "I'm not sure."

Betty Ann Bowser, a Denver-based correspondent who started working for the show in 1986, says, "There is a certain level of civility that correspondents for this program are expected to approach people and stories with that I find very much missing...even in presidential news conferences." Bowser, who previously worked for CBS for 14 years, says that, usually, both sides in a story are willing to talk, and she's "never had a door slammed in my face, not one.... I'm convinced it's the level of civility."

"The NewsHour" is very reasoned; even the talking heads upon which the show is often based don't really argue--they disagree. The irate, high-decibel pundits on some news talkfests don't have a place at the table here. Then again, "The NewsHour" does get criticized for not exploring the full range of the political spectrum in terms of guests. They're a little too nice to each other at times.

"The show represents a very narrow consensus," says Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies and director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University. "It never makes waves, and it rarely offers points of view outside the general highway of received opinions." Miller gives kudos to the program for its in-depth treatments and investigative reports but says it handles authority figures too lightly. "I've seen [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Tommy Thompson on there many times laying down the White House line without much contradiction or argument and usually without contradictory voices."

Norman Solomon, a syndicated columnist on media and politics and a longtime associate of the liberal media watchdog FAIR, agrees that the program serves as a platform for government spin, particularly in times of U.S. military action. FAIR studied "The NewsHour's" coverage of the first two weeks of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and found that critics of the military strikes made up 10 percent of the show's sources. (Critics represented 5 percent of the sources on "Nightline," however.) "There seems to be a reflex to go into stenography mode for movers and shakers in Washington," Solomon says.

"That's just not true," says Lehrer. "And anybody who watches our program regularly knows that." As for the range of guests, he says, "we try very hard to represent all of the relevant positions..on any given issue as best we can." That includes left, right and the middle. "Obviously, we can't please everybody."

Senior correspondent Ray Suarez says there's a constant conversation at "The NewsHour" about choosing appropriate and provocative guests. "There's always a tension between picking people with out-of-the-mainstream ideas that are interesting to hear but often aren't going to affect the way a policy gets implemented," he says, and choosing someone who is closer to the middle but represents the thinking in Washington and the policies that are going to affect people.

So just what is worth a good 10 to 15 minutes of the show? A heavy dose of politics--including video of congressional debates--foreign affairs, national issues and the arts.

A political junkie, Gwen Ifill left her correspondent position at NBC News to work for "The NewsHour" and to moderate PBS' "Washington Week in Review" in October 1999. The concentration on government suits her just fine.

"When I worked at NBC," she says, "there was little to no interest in anything happening on Capitol Hill or even the White House unless it was connected to scandal, rip-off or other bad news about Washington. And here...it is a point of pride to cover exhaustively sometimes what's really happening.... Here, it's a given that what happens in Washington affects people's lives."

And what happens abroad. Crystal estimates that foreign affairs makes up one-third of the program's content. Despite the fact that "The NewsHour" has no foreign bureaus--only the Washington headquarters, a Denver office with 10 people and a San Francisco office with six--it uses video feeds, takes advantage of its proximity to ambassadors and foreign officials to bring them on air, and sends Elizabeth Farnsworth around the world.

This job "was always the only place that I could do what I wanted to do..substantive stories on foreign topics," says Farnsworth. It's "very tough to do that anywhere else." Farnsworth and Producer Joanne Elgart spent three weeks in Malawi and Botswana for a series on AIDS in Africa that aired in May. "I felt very lucky to do that," Farnsworth says. "I do think there are places where you can see this [type of work] in commercial television...even in local television...but not with the consistency that we do it."

Farnsworth also does many of the author interviews, a staple of the program's commitment to the arts and culture. The show will feature the winners of the Pulitzers, but not the journalists--the poets, the writers, the composers. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reads poems. On television.

Despite the highbrow tendencies, the show will surprise you: such as, say, when it ran 15 minutes on MTV reaching its 20th anniversary, about 17 minutes on HBO's "The Sopranos" with an interview with its creator, David Chase, a piece on why three-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong keeps winning.

"Jim is fairly open to all kinds of ideas," says Ifill. In fact, Lehrer admits, he was skeptical about the value of doing a discussion with cycling guys when senior producer Jeff Brown first brought up Armstrong's machine-like athleticism. "I don't follow cycling," Lehrer says. "And I said, 'Well, why do we want to do that?' " Brown talked about why the story was worthwhile, somebody else spoke up in agreement, "and I was very enthusiastic about it," Lehrer recalls.

But Winslow says it's often Lehrer who brings up a subject that staffers think "The NewsHour" "wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole."

These "lighter" subjects are no less serious. Even MTV can inspire an intellectual conversation on how the video channel has shaped American music and pop culture. And there's no way the show would tackle any subject and give it a mere three minutes of airtime.

"Livelier doesn't mean reducing people to sound bites," Warner says. She compares the difference between watching "The NewsHour" and watching regular television to "the difference between going to the opera and listening to tunes on the radio."

Of course, "long" and "serious" can also mean, let's admit it, boring. Even Bowser says the discussions can border on the tedious. And if you're zoning out in the middle of a talk on campaign finance reform, you've got quite a wait before the show switches subjects.

Lehrer is proud of not being in the entertainment business, but "boring," he says, is in the eye of the beholder. "If you're vitally interested in Macedonia, 90 minutes on Macedonia is not boring," he says. "If you're vitally interested in the patients' bill of rights, 30 minutes on the patients' bill of rights is not boring." But these weighty subjects, says Lehrer, shouldn't be administered like medicine. "I think we have an obligation, if we think something is important enough to devote 20 or 30 minutes to it, then we should explain in the process of our reporting why it's important."

"We have our bad days," says Ifill. She agrees with Lehrer's assessment, though. If "some people find it tedious, well, someone else finds it fascinating. We'll take that risk."

Personally, I kept glancing at my watch throughout that "Sopranos" piece, wondering when this was possibly going to end. Just as I was about to criticize it the next day at work, my boss, Rem Rieder, mentions "this great segment" the show aired on "The Sopranos." He went so far as to say he loved it.

Hmmm. It seems one person's itchy-finger-on-the-remote is another's don't-talk-to-me-I'm-watching-"The NewsHour," isn't it?

The day after Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died from heatstroke, Terence Smith talked with retired pro football player Bob Golic and Dr. Art Kellermann, of the Emory University School of Medicine, about the condition and the dangers of practicing in the heat. Smith had a little more than eight minutes to delve into the issue, which had been outlined by a two-minute, 25-second backgrounder by correspondent Kwame Holman.

"Time is a luxury here, where it was a tyrant before," Smith says, comparing life at "The NewsHour" to network TV. He signed on in 1998 to head up the new media unit for the program after 13 years with CBS News, the last eight as senior correspondent for "CBS News Sunday Morning." In commercial TV, a staffer might argue to get two minutes, instead of one minute, 45 seconds, he says. Numbers that small are unheard of here. It's this "luxury" that attracts quite a few of "The NewsHour's" employees and sets the show apart from other news programs. After all, it's not exactly fair to compare the networks' broadcasts of 30 minutes, minus eight for commercials, to 55 minutes, minus maybe one-and-a-half for underwriter acknowledgments. Gee, wonder which one takes a more in-depth look at the news?

But there are many hours of news programming on TV, especially with 24-hour cable channels, and yet little mimics what this small band (about 100) of public television folks are doing. Some point to ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel and "CBS News Sunday Morning" as having the same general approach, and staffers say some pieces on the TV newsmagazines, most notably "60 Minutes," are similar to "NewsHour" work.

"It is the only serious discussion of the day's news that I see on television," says Edward M. Fouhy, executive editor of Stateline.org, who was a network executive, bureau chief and reporter in his 27-year television career.

With the fight for a greater share of a smaller TV news audience, it's hard to imagine anyone following public television's footsteps, but Lehrer and others say maybe they should give it a shot. "I am stunned, frankly, that one of the cable news networks, with all the airtime they have to fill, has not taken one hour aside and said, 'OK, we're going to do something like what "The NewsHour" does,' " Lehrer says.

The show does, interestingly, draw bigger numbers than the cable channels. For March 2001, "The NewsHour" averaged 1.4 million viewers a night. Over the previous 15 months, the show attracted about 8 million viewers a week. (And there are the listeners: Eleven NPR member radio stations air the audio of the program.) For the 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. time period in March, the audience for the three cable news networks combined didn't reach the level of "The NewsHour's." The Fox News Channel drew 520,000 viewers; CNN had 421,000; and MSNBC garnered 245,000, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The network evening newscasts' numbers, however, tower over these figures. Also for March 2001, 10.5 million viewers on average tuned in daily for "NBC Nightly News," 9.5 million chose ABC's "World News Tonight," and 9 million watched "CBS Evening News." Would a slow-moving program like "The NewsHour" have any hope of coming close to those numbers if it aired on a network? There's no way of knowing, and opinions differ.

"It has its audience," says Don Fitzpatrick, president of the TV consulting firm Don Fitzpatrick and Associates. "Its audience is quite small. It's quite well-educated, and I think quite addicted to the product. But the format of the program is so slow, but also giving extremely higher-detailed learned facts, that it just doesn't appeal to mainstream Americans."

It may not entice 8 million viewers nightly, but Lehrer believes his show, aired on a network, with all its resources for daily promotion, would double or triple the audience. The Sun's David Zurawik would have to agree. With the constant promotion of the nightly news and decisions about what should air at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., "there's this whole sort of industry that leads people to Tom Brokaw," Zurawik says. That doesn't happen with Lehrer. "On some stations, he's coming out of kids' programming."

PBS shows are appointment programs. One-and-a-half million people are making the appointment. But for an advertiser, that might not be enough. Says Fouhy: "Commercial television is increasingly driven by devotion to audience demographics on behalf of their advertisers." Ratings and money go hand in hand. "Happily 'The NewsHour' is immune to that."

Staffers don't pay attention to ratings numbers, but money is a big concern. In May, "The NewsHour" keenly felt the effects of a faltering economy: One of its two underwriters, Citigroup, decided to stop sponsorship. At the end of August, when Citigroup's contract ran out, it left a $5 million hole in the program's approximate $24 million annual budget. As of mid-September, that hole had not been filled.

Losing underwriters is nothing new in public TV. When AT&T pulled out in 1993, "The NewsHour" found Archer Daniels Midland and New York Life. PepsiCo was sponsoring the program by then, too, but soon stopped. When New York Life decided not to renew its contract in 1998, Citigroup, specifically its units Travelers Insurance and Salomon Smith Barney, signed on. The rest of the program's funding comes from public television stations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Since 1994, the annual budget has remained flat.

This time around, though, the economy makes would-be funders a bit more tentative. Citigroup had been expected to renew its three-year contract, but faced with instituting its own layoffs, the company couldn't justify the expense.

"This is a difficult time," says Executive Producer Crystal, "but the program has had a wonderful track record of finding corporate underwriters." The show has had to do some tightening, he says, but it hasn't made cutbacks. "I'm confident that we'll be able to find someone before we have to do something drastic."

At the same time, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces the program with WETA/26 in Washington and in association with Thirteen/WNET in New York, stopped actively searching for funding for a half-hour nightly news program it hoped to create with the New York Times, called "National Edition." "We've tried very hard to raise the money for it," MacNeil says. "No great sugar daddy came forward... I think the chances are looking very slim now." (See Free Press)

Those two monetary letdowns aren't encouraging for this type of news. Has lining up funders for shows like "The NewsHour," never an easy task, become increasingly difficult? "It is certainly not as easy as it was 10 years ago, and more, 20 years ago," around the time the show went to an hour, MacNeil says. These days, he says, there are many more outlets searching for funding and ad dollars.

Knowing an underwriter is about to vanish makes for "a tense situation," says producer Terry Rubin. "Personally, I'm not panicking... But it's in your mind."

He's also a touch upset. "It's frustrating, because you work for what you think is a prestigious show..that it's still tough to get funding for it," Rubin says. "It's weird to work for a show like this and to not be able to get money. It's ridiculous."

Like women who take pride in their sales-rack savvy, "NewsHour" staffers love the fact that they do more with less. "It's been sort of fun to see what we can do with not as much money and people" as the networks have, Bowser says. "And we do all right." Farnsworth goes so far as to say the audience might not notice if the show doesn't get a new underwriter right away. (That's one-fifth of the total budget.) "Because frankly, we can function so cheaply," she says.

By the same token, staffers could probably make more money working for a network. Why don't they do it? Senior producer Kathleen McCleery, head of the backgrounder unit, says if someone offered her a lot more to work somewhere else, her husband would say, "Yes, take it." But she's happy where she is. "I have great respect for the people who produce this program," she says. "I think they're smart. Their heart is in the right place. I'm proud of what we put on the air."

There are other advantages in a place that's like a family, says McCleery, who joined the program in '95. "We don't work a lot of weekends... This is not an organization that says, 'You are flying to the West Coast tomorrow. Pack your bags.' " You're more likely to be asked if that's something you'd like to do.

Loyalty to the program is high. Peggy Robinson, senior producer for politics, education and legal affairs, has been there 23 years. "The two guys [MacNeil and Lehrer] had a vision back in the '70s of what they wanted to do, and they have remained remarkably true to it," Robinson says. "And it's a vision that those of us who have been here a long time..we all bought into it."

Minus a three-year hiatus, Winslow has been with the program since the beginning; Crystal joined in 1983. CNN's Woodruff says that "it was a very, very difficult decision" for her to leave after a decade. "The group at 'The NewsHour' will always be like my family."

AJR Contributing Editor Haynes Johnson, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, became a regular pundit on the show in 1994. "I'm extremely proud to be associated with them," he says, calling "The NewsHour" an "oasis" in TV news. Johnson says he is stopped in airports, even recently in Beijing, by people who recognize him from the program. (Besides being carried by 309 PBS stations, it is available in Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa.) "I get enormously more reaction from this" than from any of his other TV appearances, he says.

Others have similar stories of audience reaction to an old-faithful news show. "Every once in a while, somebody will recognize me," says Bowser. " 'Oh, Miss Bowser,' " she says they'll say, " 'we like your program so much, please keep doing this.'.. And I don't know if it's because we've put them to sleep or if it's because they really like what we do."

We'll go with the latter.

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