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Another lifetime ago, I was a senior in high school. I took what would become a transformative class: Great Books, which started me on a course of becoming an avid pursuer of knowledge.
Plato’s Republic was first up. And the one passage that has stood with me all these years was proffered by Socrates, who said, “I know only that I know not” -- good words to live by not just in my daily life but also in my professional, journalistic one.
While the precept was planted in my teens, it had become rooted in my twenties. It was then I got my first journalism job working for the McNeil-Lehrer News Report in New York City. Each morning, I’d take the “A Train” four stops from Greenwich Village to Columbus Circle and go perform my duties as an intern. And while the responsibilities were mundane, the lessons were profound.
Robin McNeil was not a recluse. The anchor involved himself with everyone in the newsroom, including the newbies who had no clout. Besides putting a show on the air each night, he felt an obligation to leave a lasting impression on the field of journalism as well as the people lucky enough to work for him.
One summer day he took his interns to lunch, four of us in all. During the roughly two-hour time period, the youngsters all traded places multiple times so that we could each have a turn sitting next to Robin. And just as I recollected Socrates’ words of wisdom -- so forgive me if there is another variation of the quote -- I will try to do the same with the legendary newsman’s creed.
His general message was that the news should inform and it should appeal to the intellectual side of humankind. It was not the show’s role to entertain. It was not his nature -- much less his job -- to condescend. Instead, it was the responsibility of the program to look carefully into meaningful issues and to try and ensure that viewers learn something new.
Not too long after that, the show expanded from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. It also evolved, recognizing that pictures don’t minimize the news; rather, they help punctuate it. The program learned how to draw in more people without sacrificing its journalistic beliefs.
Passing the Torch
The last time I saw Robin McNeil was in the press room in 1988 at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He had invited me to watch how the then-MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour produced its coverage. The same sense of fairness prevailed then, as it does now, and will continue to do in the future.
In the last decade or so, the show has been led by Robin’s business partner, Jim Lehrer, who is based in Washington, D.C. I, too, had the opportunity to meet Jim, who treated me as respectfully as he did his co-news anchor. Jim has now announced his gradual departure and that a newer generation of those whom both he and Robin have helped groom will assume the lead.
It’s a philosophy of the news that teaches modesty -- that the story has higher value than the people who deliver it. Recently, the National Press Club gave Jim its Fourth Estate Award. In accepting it, he laid out the tenets of what makes journalists and journalism respectable:
- Do nothing I cannot defend;
- Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me;
- Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story;
- Assume the viewer is at least as smart and caring and as good of a person as I am;
- Assume the same about all the people on whom I report;
- Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise;
- Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories ... and clearly label everything;
- Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions;
- No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously, and
- We are not in the entertainment business.
Journalists perform different functions. Some are straight news reporters. Some are analysts and feature writers while others investigate. In any case, it is their job to be fair and to ensure that their audience is fulfilled -- objectives that are more attainable if they follow Jim Lehrer’s principles, or are humble enough to heed the maxims of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates.