National Humanities Medal
Americans old enough to remember the Nixon administration became acquainted with journalist Jim Lehrer during the Watergate scandal. His face, his voice are inextricably linked to the dark days of Watergate because it was he, along with colleague Robin McNeil, who monitored the hearings day after day, solemnly reporting live on the ever-mounting evidence and ultimately on the resignation of a president.
Watergate-and the nation's hunger for news of the hearings-tilled the soil for the role Lehrer would later play on what is perhaps best known as PBS's McNeil/Lehrer Report, then a half-hour week nightly news show that provided in-depth analyses of the issues of the day. Today, Americans still seek out Lehrer on what is now The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for insights and information on the issues of the time that are unavailable on traditional news programs.
Known for his journalistic integrity and thorough knowledge of the issues, Lehrer has won numerous awards for his journalistic contributions, including several Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Broadcast Awards, the Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit, and the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Medal of Honor. In addition, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991.
As a teenager, Lehrer decided he wanted to be both a journalist and a creative writer. After graduating from the University of Missouri and serving three years in the Marine Corps, Lehrer pursued his journalism career, working as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, and later working as a reporter and editor for the Dallas Times-Herald.
In the late sixties he left print journalism, but his transition to public broadcasting was not immediate. Lehrer had written a novel, Viva Max, which was made into a film. "I left the newspaper business to write novels full time," he says, but KERA-TV, the public television station in Dallas, offered him a job as a public affairs consultant. There, Lehrer wrote a proposal for an experimental news program, to be called Newsroom. "We got the Ford Foundation to fund it, so I was suddenly back to working and I was suddenly in television," Lehrer says.
In 1972, Lehrer took a job with PBS, where he first began working with Robin McNeil, with whom he would later co-anchor the McNeil/Lehrer Report.
In 1974, Lehrer and McNeil covered the Watergate hearings and, a year later, the Robin McNeil Report-with Lehrer as the Washington correspondent-was born. Six months later, PBS picked it up, changed the name to the McNeil/Lehrer Report, and the show went national. The program gained national acclaim, winning more than thirty awards for journalistic excellence. In 1983, it expanded from thirty minutes to an hour, and renamed the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. With McNeil's departure in 1995, the show was again renamed, this time The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a title that is likely to be around for a while if Lehrer has anything to say about it.
"I plan to always do the NewsHour. I have the best job there is in journalism right now. There is nobody who has the freedom to practice journalism the way that I am able to in a medium that has so much potential impact," he says.
Throughout the many years of his journalism career, Lehrer has continued to write creatively. Among his many creative writing accomplishments are eleven books and several plays. His books include Purple Dots, The Last Debate, two memoirs-A Bus of My Own and We Were Dreamers-and a series of mysteries. Lehrer's plays include Chili Queen, Church Key Charlie Blue, and, most recently, The Will and Bart Show, which was produced in 1992 at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.
But it is in-depth, informative journalism that Lehrer is best known for and it continues to pave the path for the country to follow. He is a partner in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which has produced programs for public, commercial and cable television. Lehrer has hosted two of these. My Heart, Your Heart, a one-hour program on heart disease, received the American Heart Association's Howard Blakeslee Award and a national News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Cultural, Historical or Informational Programming. The Heart of the Dragon, a series co-hosted by Lehrer and MacNeil, won critical acclaim for its exploration of contemporary and ancient China.
Perhaps Lehrer's greatest reward for his many years of journalistic service is his satisfaction with his own life. "I can't imagine having done anything else with my life other than having been a journalist," he says. "I have been present for every major news event that's happened for the last forty years. Because of my job, I have been forced to stay up on what's going on in the country and in the world and, in the process, I have met and interviewed every conceivable kind of person there is. It has been glorious."
By Marlis C. McCollum