A critique of Jim Lehrer and the PBS NewsHour

Rhiannon from over at Intransitve alerted me to the fact that Jim Lehrer, long-time cohost with Robert McNeil of the McNeil-Lehrer Report that debuted on PBS in 1975 and became the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour in 1983, died yesterday at the age of 85. After McNeil retired in 1995, the show became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and then in 2009 it became what it is now The PBS NewsHour.

I was not a fan of the show, something that put me at odds with many of my liberal friends who saw it as providing a sober and balanced presentation of the news and were shocked when I said I disliked it. My criticism was that McNeil and Lehrer were perfect examples of the western media propaganda model that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described so beautifully in their classic work Manufacturing Consent. The institutional filters worked so well in their cases that it produced people like them, undoubtedly serious and conscientious. You could tell that they sincerely believed in what they were saying. McNeil and Lehrer were not craven hacks like Wolf Blitzer that populate many of today’s news shows. They were honest and would not stoop to some of the examples of willful dishonesty that their peers indulged in. In today’s media climate, they were an anomaly.

But the news ‘balance’ they strove for was between two closely related positions that excluded any discomfiting voices that challenged the status quo in any serious way. In other words it served the usual propaganda function of limiting the range of ‘acceptable’ opinions, the way that the New York Times does. It would never have struck them that were voices and opinions well outside that narrow spectrum that needed to be heard. Such voices were ‘extremists’ who could occasionally be pointed to but largely ignored or condescended to because they were not ‘serious’.

Back in 2005 Alexander Cockburn wrote a savage critique of the soporific style of the show and how it served a narrow agenda. He said that his piece provoked a “surprising number of letters from outraged PBS viewers, wailing about my lack of respect. It was as though I had publicly kicked a respected greybeard.” He writes that the 1975 show debuted at a post-Watergate time when there was a dangerous clarity in the air. This could not stand and the show sought to stifle that sentiment.

The ‘MacNeil/Lehrer Report’ started in October 1975, in the aftermath of Watergate. It was a show dedicated to the proposition that there are two sides to every question, a valuable corrective in a period when the American people had finally decided that there were absolutely and definitely not two sides to every question. Nixon was a crook who had rightly been driven from office; corporations were often headed by crooks who carried hot money around in suitcases; federal officials were crooks who broke the law on the say-so of the president.

It was a dangerous moment, for a citizenry suddenly imbued with the notion that there is not only a thesis and antithesis, but also a synthesis, is a citizenry, capable of all manner of harm to the harmonious motions of the status quo. Thus came the ‘MacNeil/ Lehrer Report,’ sponsored by public-television funds and by the most powerful corporate forces in America, in the form of Exxon, ‘AT&T and the Bell System,’ and other upstanding bodies. Back to Sunday school went the excited viewers, to be instructed that reality, as conveyed to them by television, is not an exciting affair of crooked businessmen and lying politicians but a serious continuum in which parties may disagree but in which all involved are struggling manfully and disinterestedly for the public weal. The narcotizing, humorless properties of the ‘MacNeil/Lehrer Report,’ familiar to anyone who has felt fatigue creep over him at 7:40 Eastern time, are crucial to the show. Tedium is of the essence, since the all-but- conscious design of the program is to project vacuous dithering (‘And now, for another view of Hitler …’) into the mind of the viewers, until they are properly convinced that there is not one answer to ‘the problem,’ but two or even three, and that since two answers are no better than none, they might as well not bother with the problem at all.

The show praised above all others for content derives its attention entirely from form: the unvarying illustration that if one man can be found to argue that cannibalism is bad, another can be found to argue that it is not.

Actually, this is an overstatement. ‘MacNeil/ Lehrer’ hates such violent extremes, and, by careful selection of the show’s participants, the show tries to make sure that the viewer will not be perturbed by any views overly critical of the political and business establishment.

Trudging back through the ‘MacNeil/ Lehrer’ scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

The PBS NewsHour is still running with other hosts. I have not watched it for a while. Perhaps it is better now.


  1. lanir says

    I watch it occasionally to catch up on what’s going on. Sometimes it’s actually pretty interesting. But there are also times where I feel like they stick to a comfort zone that’s significantly more narrow in some dimensions than my own when they’re discussing a topic. I feel like this is part of what Mano is referring to.

    I don’t feel like there are many alternatives to this unfortunately. I’m aware of The Young Turks and The Intercept if I want news that pushes boundaries I’m comfortable with but which PBS Newshour is not. But both of these are primarily producing political stories and content related to topics that have been overly politicized. Is PBS Newshour a good source for non-political ideas?* I’m not certain. Probably for most topics? But anything where authorities report something (think police shooting), a large group is protesting something, some act is given a charged label such as “terrorism”, and all the similar little things that should be immediate flags to engage critical thinking in other mainstream media? Yeah… Those should still kick off a round of critical thinking. PBS Newshour doesn’t deliberately misrepresent anything but they may be more vulnerable to falling for some of the above than you are.

    On the positive side, while they may not be as critical as I might be of some things, when they do notice something they don’t get flaky about it. Unlike some news outlets they don’t let Trump lie his arse off and describe it as “the facts the president outlined could not be independently verified” or anything like that. They don’t just say he’s lying generally, but they do unambiguously (and quickly) say he’s wrong or appears to have made up something. I think they’ve found a very solid way to report on the spread of misinformation without actually spreading the same misinformation themselves.

    * If someone knows a good general news outlet that’s better at sorting out falsehoods and conveniently self-serving messaging I’d be interested in hearing about it.

  2. springa73 says

    Problem is, every news outlet has to choose a range of acceptable points of view. It seems pointless to me to single out one particular news show for doing what everybody does.

  3. lanir says


    They do all have some filtering going on and a filter always ends up being a personal bias sometimes. The goal of finding a decent source of news is to reduce the need for additional viewpoints so one can look in two or three places and walk away with a fair idea of what is going on.

    Reuters and AP news complicates that to some extent as well but you work with what you have.

  4. consciousness razor says

    The PBS NewsHour is still running with other hosts. I have not watched it for a while. Perhaps it is better now.

    It must be. It’s one thing if we’re talking about the late 70s or something. But I’ve watched it quite a bit since about 2000 or so (not much before that), and most of the criticism here seems hyperbolic at best.
    Sure, they do have David Brooks on regularly (paired with a moderate liberal like Mark Shields). He says his typical stupid bullshit, as in his columns, and there’s no denying that. Fortunately, he doesn’t cast a shadow on the rest of the program, and I wouldn’t make too big a fuss about that 5 minutes out of a solid hour of news. Honestly, yelling at the TV for that 5 minutes is a bit cathartic sometimes. I watch very little television, so I may as well do it then.
    They’re also not revolutionaries, certainly. If that’s what you think all of journalism ought to be, you’d be disappointed by them. One thing I like about it (along with the refreshing absence of commercial breaks) is that they’re not in any obvious way trying to cater to any particular audience … and not trying to be flashy or entertaining, not really doing a whole lot other than disseminating relevant/important information about current events.
    Revolutionaries or not, I think they’ve consistently delivered the best TV coverage (by a wide margin) of social movements or protest groups like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and others like LGBTQ groups, pro-choice groups, environmentalists, socialists, atheists — you name it, they cover, as long as it’s not the sort of wall-to-wall bullshit you see on other news programs. Maybe none of that is enough for you. (What is?) But it’s definitely not true that people like that were being ignored or undermined or cast into outer darkness or whatever, so that the show could just present bland centrism vs. bland centrism, as seems to be the claim here.

  5. says

    @Consciousness Razor, (well, actually I guess for everybody, but I’m taking off from CR’s points)

    The thing is that I think you’re right that among mainstream media outlets, The News Hour does a better job of reporting what, say, Occupy Wall Street actually believes and advocates. But they never seem to have anyone from those movements actually on the show. So they do some decent job presenting what some movement says/ believes/ wants, and then they have Shields & Gigot and later Shields & Brooks on to say what that means and whether it would be good or bad to implement any of that.

    The News Hour doesn’t take sides, but their guests take sides and none of them actually advocate moving forward with any significant reform, much less revolution. I haven’t watched in a while, but I imagine that now that prominent Dem candidates for the Presidency are advocating a wealth tax that they might be willing to have on a guest who says that wealth taxes aren’t **entirely** a bad idea, assuming that they’re implemented in a careful, measured way that doesn’t upset any wealth persons. The only thing that I’ve ever seen any guest advocate that I thought would make a significant, real difference was a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.

    And, again, it’s actually quite useful to know what the status-quo people in power are thinking. If they labeled their discussion segments, “The Voice of the Status Quo” but changed nothing else about the show, that would be a HUGE improvement. It’s about the honesty, and about accurately presenting to the media audience that there are many acceptable and respectable opinions out there that aren’t being represented.

    I don’t think I’ve seen the show more than 5 or 6 times since I moved to Canada, so it’s hard for me to say anything about the last decade, but from 1990 -- 2012 I watched relatively often (less at the beginning and end of that period) and the only person I really respected in all that time was Gwen Ifill.

    I’d be happy to know that things have changed in the last decade, but I do think that the News Hour has significant failings. It’s better than many media programs, but there are reasons other than just jokes why I consider Bee’s and Oliver’s long-form reports better than much of what I saw on the News Hour.

    I will always consider the biggest sin of most media outlets to be that of dishonest framing. TNH presents a lot of important facts that you don’t always hear in other places, but if the only opinions about those facts you ever hear are the Shields/Brooks opinions, then you’re being misled anyway.

    I was a fan of TNH. I always thought they provided some valuable reporting. But there are good and important critiques of TNH as they operated after I was old enough to watch (much less the function they served in the aftermath of Watergate), and I don’t regret at all my current news strategy of getting a large portion of my US political news from outside-the-US sources.

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