is said and written in Australia that is critical of the United States
(its splendid gun culture, for instance), but having long since renounced
negativism, Bikwil is not the place for expounding such censorious
views. Rest assured, then, that on the subject of things American I intend
here to say something quite complimentary.
want to applaud is the TV programme The News Hour with
Jim Lehrer, which is put to air by the Public
Broadcasting Service (PBS). It is televised in Australia
on the SBS channel every weekday at 5 pm.
many decades of exclusively commercial broadcasting in America, the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (of which PBS is the chief
manifestation) was set up by Congress during the Johnson administration.
Its charter is to create a forum for national discussion and supplemental
Lehrer joined forces with Robert MacNeil in 1973 to anchor public
television's unprecedented, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate
Watergate hearings, which earned the team an Emmy Award. Thus began the
most enduring and respected journalistic partnership in U.S. television
history. The week-nightly MacNeil/Lehrer Report (originally called
The Robert MacNeil Report, with Jim Lehrer) had its debut in 1975
in New York. With the name change came national distribution by PBS.
next seven years, each half-hour show focused on a single issue. The
MacNeil/Lehrer Report set a standard for TV journalism and won more
than 30 major awards. In 1983 the two men took the risk of transforming
the show into The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. It became America’s
first and only hour-long nightly broadcast of national news.
and Lehrer share a history in journalism that includes covering the birth
of the Berlin Wall, the death of John F. Kennedy (both were with the
President's motorcade that day), the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, and
every major story since. More remarkably, perhaps, both are successful
creative men of letters. Their published work comprises many romans à
clef, mysteries, personal recollections and novels. In 1995 MacNeil, who
is now nearing 70, retired to write books full-time, leaving Jim Lehrer to
manage and anchor the programme alone.
exactly is The News Hour, in Australian terms? It’s not a news
broadcast, though there is always a brief summary of the day’s news. Nor
does it provide investigative reporting in the Four Corners manner.
Is it a current affairs show? Well . . . yes — a bit like the better parts
of the Channel 9 Sunday programme, I suppose. Or ABC Radio National
(e.g. Background Briefing). It achieves this chiefly by dint of its
in-depth interviews and panel discussions, conducted by regulars like Jim
Lehrer, Elizabeth Farnsworth, Kwame Holman, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez and
content instead of image, these debates are notable for their
non-sensational and even-handed style, a tone not often achieved in
Australian current affairs programmes, which never seem to allow an
individual participant to have a full say without interruption. A “respect
for complexity”, as Robert MacNeil once put it. Particularly effective is
the educative slant to everything The News Hour deals with. How
often we hear the jargon-busting suggestion by a moderator, “Explain that
for the viewers”.
there’s no dumbing down here. The Kosovo crisis, for instance, was
handled by The News Hour admirably, with knowledgeable and sober
analyses. I learned more about the historical perspective from The News
Hour than anywhere on Oz TV. I was impressed too by its informed
scrutiny of the 1999 Denver school massacre and its implications. The
recent Israeli-Palestinian flare-up was also handled with clarity and
fairness. Likewise the remarkable, bitterly contested 2000 U.S.
Presidential Election. (Jim Lehrer, incidentally, was chosen as the
moderator for the three Presidential Debates.) And the day the Presidency
changed hands, the coverage of “the Clinton Legacy” was just magnificent,
with no fewer than nine commentators interviewed.
when it comes to purely American topics, it is always useful to hear the
American pros and cons, instead of the oversimplified summary we often get
here in Oz. Not that the problem is confined to the Australian media:
witness the reporting in Britain of the results of our Republic
particularly enjoy Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot in each
Friday programme. Both are very experienced political analysts, in print
as well as on TV — earnest but witty.
you get the impression that it is entirely a show about war and politics,
I want to touch upon several other extended parts of The News Hour.
These include its Essays, which are thoughts on various issues by
contributors such as Anne Taylor Fleming, Roger Rosenblatt, Clarence Page
and Richard Rodriguez. And at the relevant time of the year we get
interviews with Pulitzer prize winners. All reminiscent of the best of
England’s Melvyn Bragg, but more concise.
feature I miss is the now suspended series of David Gergen Dialogues with
newsworthy authors (e.g. with Oz-born historian/educator Jill Ker Conway,
or with emotional intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman, or with Simon
Winchester, much in the limelight not so long ago for his biography of the
friendship of James Murray and William Chester Minor).
segment sadly now discontinued was that of Robert Pinsky, the then current
Poet Laureate of America. Sometimes he read his own verse, sometimes
someone else’s. Fortunately, he still makes the occasional appearance.
are any conceivable criticisms to be made of The News Hour, they
might be that
exhibits a “very American” outlook [unavoidable],
(b) it is
just a “boring” succession of talking heads [but what intelligent heads]
(c) it is
“sycophantic” to its interviewees [the word “well-mannered” would be
better, but the passion for truth shows through the restraint, anyway].
surprisingly, The News Hour its has its own
Web site. This includes the
news of the day, plus the text of selected Dialogues and Essays.
Transcripts of some of the Shields and Gigot discussions are also
look, too, at
http://www.emmys.org/hof/macneil-lehrer.html. This admiring evaluation
is well worth reading, particularly for the detailed background it
provides of Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.
that many Aussies are still at work at 5 pm, but take my advice and every
so often set the VCR for The News Hour. You can’t fail to be
mindful of the timing, especially on Mondays: Australia gets it a weekday
later than the United States does.