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.

Illustration by Philip Burke

The rampant civility of the presidential and vice-presidential debates is enough to make me wanna give somebody a mouthful of bloody Chiclets. That somebody is debate moderator Jim Lehrer.

I know my anger is misplaced. That the debates sputtered rather than sizzled wasn't Lehrer's fault. He may have pitched softballs, but that's what the ground rules of the occasion required. And Lehrer can't be blamed for the fact that Dole and Clinton satisfied themselves by slapping singles when they could have swung for the fences.

Still, my irritation is not entirely misplaced. The Dole and Clinton campaigns, having blessedly dumped the usual panel of preening journalists, selected Lehrer as sole moderator for a reason. He has become our national icon of broadcasting probity, and they knew that he would bring the sort of solemnity to the occasion that would minimize the risk of things getting interesting.

There's a kind of dignity in Lehrer's plodding reluctance to opine, in his hangdog humility, in his desire to serve as moderator rather than interrogator. There's also a reward. From his role as the sole moderator in all three presidential and vice-presidential debates, it is suddenly clear that we finally have a successor to Walter Cronkite in the semiofficial role of America's first TV father. Lehrer (age 62) obliquely acknowledged this milestone when he won the debate assignment. "I see my selection as a tribute to our NewsHour way of doing things," he said.

Cronkite retired almost two decades ago, but the chair has remained empty until now. Who's the alternative? Of the three commercial anchors, Peter Jennings is Canadian, and has that randy gaze that makes men hide their wives; Tom Brokaw looks too boyish, and has a speech impediment; and Dan Rather is famously nuts. Bernard Shaw's got the gravitas and a great magisterial voice, but there's still something too cheesy about the CNN mise-en-scène. Ted Koppel is too in-your-face. The retirement last year of Robert MacNeil (another Canadian) gave Lehrer full ownership of the PBS NewsHour, and his debate-moderator gig--which made him the one man in America who can lay down the rules to presidents--sealed the deal.

Lehrer's apotheosis has been two decades in the making. It began in the early '70s, when he abandoned Dallas newspapering for a job at the local public-television station. He moved on to PBS, and, during the Watergate summer of 1973, partnered with MacNeil to parlay PBS' weakness (a lack of resources to dig for stories) into strength. Presaging the télévision vérité of C-SPAN, Jim and Robin covered the hearings gavel-to-gavel from an Olympian distance, mostly letting the story and participants speak for themselves. An Emmy followed, as did their evening show that now goes by the name of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

More talk show than news program, the NewsHour likewise lets people and things mostly speak for themselves. Each week, dozens of government officials, foreign leaders, experts, journalists, and voluble wonks descend upon the NewsHour's suburban Washington studios for mild chat with the anchors about genocide and tax policy and abortion and air-traffic safety and other topics of the day. Lehrer isn't always as flat as he was required to be in the debates, but there is the same vacant and impassive style, and there are (for my taste), too many of the same easily answered--or evaded--questions. Off-camera, Lehrer is a jovial skeptic. Yet, even though he knows that most politicians, CEOs, and activists who appear on his show are accomplished liars, he offers little in the way of interruption or contradiction. Like the Lehrer-led debates, the NewsHour is a low-scoring game of singles, passed balls, and sacrifice flies.

Many people claim to find the NewsHour stimulating, but I suspect that what they really find it is soothing. Friction and strife are the post and beam of genuine journalism, but Lehrer's product is comfort: first, for his viewers, whom he shields from the passion and fury of the news. The NewsHour's mini-documentaries don't shy away from distressing scenes of war and misery, but the panel discussions that follow generally still the racing heart. Comfort also is extended to NewsHour's guests--and I do mean "guests." "He looks at you with those big brown eyes," confides one talking head who has appeared on NewsHour, "and you know you're going to be safe."

As on other talk shows, NewsHour guests are pre-interviewed. (When the '50s game shows engaged in this sort of coaching, it was considered a scandal.) And like other talk-show hosts, Lehrer reserves the right to hammer guests with unexpected questions. But he rarely does. No wonder, then, that the exchanges between Lehrer and the Cabinet secretaries and senators and law professors and reporters seem so articulate and poised; that the guests are eager to return to the show; that Lehrer was a guest at one of Al Gore's pretentious "metaphor salon" dinner parties in 1994.

Lehrer is unabashed about this socializing with pols and power, and it has turned him into one of them. (He runs the NewsHour as if it were a Senate office and he, the senator, says one veteran of the show.) But Lehrer is not corrupt. When his friends appear on his show, they get treated no better than some war criminal with whom he is not acquainted. Or rather, the war criminal gets treated no worse than his friends. Alexander Cockburn once imagined this MacNeil/Lehrer segue: "And now, for another view of Hitler ..."

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.