PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer criticized rival network CBS for practicing “careless, sloppy and unprofessional” journalism following a disputed report on President Bush’s National Guard service.
Lehrer’s comments came at Monday night’s Kalb Report at the National Press Club, just hours after CBS News anchor Dan Rather apologized for showing documents supposedly indicating that Bush received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard. On the “CBS Evening News,” Rather told his audience that he could not confirm the documents’ authenticity. Lehrer said journalists’ credibility would suffer as a result of the controversy.
“We’re all going to get hurt by this,” he said.
Lehrer, who joined PBS in 1972, now serves as the executive editor and anchor of the network’s news program. He reaffirmed “old-fashioned” values of journalism as moderator Marvin Kalb probed him about media coverage decisions, journalistic credibility and other trends in the media.
“I really do believe that journalism is first and foremost an information vehicle,” Lehrer said.
Lehrer also expressed concern over the media developing a partisan quality during the months preceding the upcoming presidential election.
“It troubles me very much, personally,” Lehrer said. “I really don’t think that is healthy.”
He promoted a model of journalism that delivers the news without judgment and clearly separates analysis from the facts.
“My function is to ask people questions in such a way that the people who are watching can yell, ‘Liar!’ It is not to end debate,” Lehrer said. “I really do believe that the audience is smarter than I am.”
The PBS veteran said the most recent controversy surrounding CBS highlights the declining reputation of the press in recent years.
“We’re down there below the congressmen and the lawyers,” he said.
Lehrer said he disapproved of the shifting trends of news coverage demonstrated by other major commercial networks. In particular, he was critical of the limited coverage of the presidential conventions offered by ABC, CBS and NBC. PBS was the lone network to run extensive coverage of both conventions, airing up to four times more footage than the others, he said.
“Do not try to tell me it wasn’t important enough journalistically,” Lehrer said. “It is one of the most critical times in our country’s history.”
An audience of nearly 200 GW students, professional journalists and activists gathered at The National Press Club to hear the broadcast, which aired on both television and radio. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation recently awarded the program a grant and will underwrite four of Kalb’s discussions during the academic year.
After Lehrer’s conversation with Kalb, a 30-year journalism veteran, audience members submitted questions. GW students were among the most vocal members, voicing concerns about the impact of corporate ownership and political bias on media coverage.
Sophomore Zeke Williams asked why the media has not probed Bush’s credibility as extensively as President Clinton’s extramarital affairs.
“It’s a different situation, because Clinton’s actions were taken during his presidency,” Lehrer said.
GW faculty member Lisa Corrigan asked Lehrer if the media’s coverage of the war with Iraq is designed to appeal to feelings of patriotism. Lehrer said he did not believe the press is influenced by such an agenda.
“If it’s a patriotic story, so be it. If it’s an unpatriotic story, so be it. Just report the story,” he said.
Kalb concluded the broadcast portion of “The Kalb Report” by asking Lehrer to dispense advice to young people seeking journalism careers.
“Journalism is the single best way to make a living,” Lehrer said. “I can’t imagine a more important and more satisfying career.”