President’s Award: Jim Lehrer

by Allan Dodds Frank

The winner of this year’s Overseas Press Club President’s Award is Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Jim Lehrer has been my friend and colleague since 1973, my business partner in MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, and the first person I go to when I have a serious dilemma to resolve — personal, moral or professional. He is the smartest man I have ever worked with, with a laser–like intelligence that cuts quickly to the heart of any matter, in whatever field. I liken the organization of his mind to a computer’s. Jim can click on an icon for any task — editorial meeting, staff problem, private issue with a family member or friend — and be totally focused. Then he can plunge with equal concentration into another. He brings that discipline to his own news writing, and to his torrential output of novels and plays. His mind teems with fresh ideas, as the ingenious plots of his fiction demonstrate.

Two of his novels have been made into movies. His first, Viva Max, is a delicious satire about a bored Mexican general who marches troops across the border to retake the Alamo. It was bought by Columbia pictures when Jim was City Editor of the Dallas Times Herald. With $40,000 in movie money in the bank, he quit the paper to write full time. But the Dallas public station KERA asked him to come over to consult. Jim went, stayed, and conquered Dallas with a nightly news program that became required viewing for city movers and shakers. That caught the eye of PBS and Jim came to Washington.

The second novel to be filmed was Jim’s The Last Debate, a novel about journalists preparing for a presidential debate. The issue was whether they should frame questions to favor one candidate. The idea is totally alien to Jim’s values, as he has now demonstrated in moderating an unprecedented total of 11 presidential debates — a demonstration of the trust in which he is held. I think of myself as a pretty fair-minded journalist. But I learned from Jim to make his fierce brand of fairness a fundamental goal of our nightly programs.

I also learned from Lehrer how to ask simpler questions. Rather than frame my questions to show how much I knew, I discovered it was better to ask very simple questions — Why? What does that mean? I don’t understand. The more complicated the subject, foreign or domestic, the better Jim is at subtly giving a subject enough rope to hang himself. He makes the interviewee the story, not himself, a radical notion in televisionland.

We first teamed up in Washington in 1973 and soon found ourselves anchoring public television’s non-stop coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. Our coverage ran live all day and was repeated all evening. It greatly increased the PBS audience and financial contributions, and demonstrated that public broadcasting could add something the dominant network news outlets could not — sustained time to let us consider complex issues in depth, with no commercial interruptions. Those values were featured when we began an alternative nightly news program in 1975, and when it expanded into the NewsHour in 1983.

From the beginning, we made foreign news a high priority, as the NewsHour does to this day under Jim’s leadership. For that reason he is watched with close attention by all who care about the face America presents to the world.