Inspiring rules for journalists by PBS NewsHour's Jim Lehrer (RIP)

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• Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype.

That is a naive type of distorted thinking that a journalist, a human, can have no slant.

• I am not in the entertainment business.

Pure slant. He was in the business of disguising advertising dollars as corporate gifts through talking about the news on a television … an entertainment device.

I’ve had enough of the “fourth estate”. 100 years ago news companies proudly displayed their politics on their masthead. Towns and cities would have several newspapers which you would have to read to get the full story.

Now … we have full on corporate news and corporate news in a jacket with elbows patches.

Jaded, are we?

Jim Lehrer’s career was with a non-profit, the public broadcaster in the USA, ie PBS. Yes, it has corporate sponsors, but I would argue that it’s easier to draw a line between the news department and the advertising department (ie, the business) in a public non-profit org than it would be at a company that is shareholder owned and profit driven.

This is probably my favorite in his entire list.

RIP, Mr. Lehrer.


Yeah, that’s a buried lede, isn’t it? Probably indicative of the time period from which the list comes.

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How depressingly quaint.


Some of these are worthwhile. Several, though, are tricky.

“Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.”

I would argue not everyone is Jim Lehrer. When covering someone like Harvey Weinstein with a long track record of doing bad things and covering them up, you are doing the public a disservice by giving those people the same benefit of the doubt as you would by covering Jim Lehrer.

“Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.”

Be careful about false equivalencies, bothsiderism, and other efforts to obscure the truth at the expense of appearing neutral. Beware of the temptation to balance every bad angle with a good angle – often the correct alternative to a bad angle is a series of worse ones.

“Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.”

Don’t assume, however, that the viewer is as knowledgable as you are. Journalists often avoid uncomfortable facts on the grounds that the public already knows them, so there is no need to repeat them. Challenge that assumption before reporting.

“Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty”

True, but avoid at all costs the opposite – when someone is proven guilty, do not give them the benefit of the doubt. And remember that proof in court is not the same as proof for reporting. Reporters can and should base their judgments on evidence that is not part of a court proceeding, and the large majority of issues which are fair game for journalists are not issues for courts.

“Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.”

True, but be careful when framing this. Giving someone who pollutes water with lead the benefit of airtime to defend themselves without giving time to the victims of lead poisoning a chance to respond isn’t fairness, it’s the opposite.

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Right, like when you have a scoop that Iraq has WMDs or something like that. (I have no idea whether or not Leher did that.)

He most certainly did not.


This last one especially has gotten lost in recent years…

We live in a capitalist society, and things take money to do, even good things that are a positive, like public broadcasting. TV is far more complicated a force in our society than just “it’s an entertainment device.” Plenty of things have been on TV that were not “entertainment” but informative, much like Lehrer’s work (and Walter Cronkite, etc). We’re just so used to everything being driven by corporate profits and being geared toward racking up viewers so they feel the need to “entertain” that we have a hard time imagining that everyone isn’t in the same racket. Lehrer and many of his colleagues at NPR then and now are not “entertainment” in the same way that fox and cnn are.


He was on PBS, you cynical tool. Supported by viewers like you?

Keep Jim Lehrer’s good name outta your dirty mouth.

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You aren’t very old, are you? Back in the days before ABC fucked things up, the news divisions of the networks were loss leaders. No one expected them to generate money. They were there literally as a public service and the networks were proud to have someone like Cronkite to head them. It was a badge of honor to have news reporters that were independent of the network and just did news. Opinion pieces were carefully designated as such. And the news division wasn’t expected to generate money. Then ABC came along and glitzed up the news to generate rating and it was a race to the bottom.


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