News Hour
[ Issue 24 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of the News Hour’s many fans

Bikwil celebrates the News Hour

News Hour

The TV programme The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, which is put to air by the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service, comes in for some praise here from Tony Rogers.

Emphasising 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

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Newsworthy — Tony Rogers


Much 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.

What I 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.

After 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 education.

Jim 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.

For the 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.

MacNeil 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.

So what 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 Margaret Warner.

Emphasising 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”.

No, 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.

Indeed, 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 referendum.

I 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.

But lest 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.

One 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).

Another 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.

If there are any conceivable criticisms to be made of The News Hour, they might be that

(a) it exhibits a “very American” outlook [unavoidable], (b) it is just a “boring” succession of talking heads [but what intelligent heads] and
(c) it is “sycophantic” to its interviewees [the word “well-mannered” would be better, but the passion for truth shows through the restraint, anyway].

Not 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 available.

Take a look, too, at This admiring evaluation is well worth reading, particularly for the detailed background it provides of Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.

I realise 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 impressed.

Just be mindful of the timing, especially on Mondays: Australia gets it a weekday later than the United States does.

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