How the endlessly civil anchor became PBS' answer to Walter Cronkite.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 19 1996 3:30 AM

The New Walter Cronkite

Jim Lehrer officially inherits the mantle.

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Since Cockburn cracked wise in 1982, the news business--especially the TV news business--has grown more aggressive and competitive. The networks and syndicates have expanded news magazine coverage, political talk shows have multiplied like bacteria, the Sunday shows have grown more slick, and three 24-hour news channels now clog cable television. Admirably (to many) resisting this commercial tide, the NewsHour seems even more civil and staid. A 1994 Roper Poll concluded that the NewsHour is perceived by the public as "the most credible" newscast in the country. Maybe so. But credibility apparently isn't everything. About 1.2 million homes tune in the NewsHour each night, while a combined total of 20.4 million homes watch the evening news on CBS, ABC, and NBC.

The Cronkite crown, though, is not awarded on the basis of ratings. "Credibility" is a vital factor, and Jim Lehrer does, indeed, have it. It's an odd factor, though: Do people believe that Brokaw, Rather and Jennings--reading scripts written by others from their TelePrompTers--are making things up? No, it's something more amorphous, like, "Who do you want to hear it from the next time a plane crashes or a world leader is assassinated?" Hell, even I might choose Jim Lehrer.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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