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.