Jim Lehrer passed away on Jan. 23, peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85. His influence on journalism will be impossible to measure. I have just a few stories to contribute to the remembrances.
When I first met Jim Lehrer, I was appearing as a guest on his PBS show, which at the time was still called “The Robert MacNeil Report.” I was a senior at Yale, about to graduate with a BA in philosophy and no job prospects in sight.
That half-hour’s topic was whether a liberal arts degree was a good or a bad idea.
Just days before, I had been complaining to my dean — about my dismal future, while all my Econ-major friends had offers — and apparently his next phone call was from a reporter for the show, asking if he knew of any unemployed liberal arts majors.
“Boy, howdy, do I ever,” my dean must have replied.
So there I was, sitting at Jim Lehrer’s table. Whenever it was my turn, I repeated all Yale’s platitudes about how Yale-educated you for life, not for a livelihood.
At the wrap-up, Jim tossed me a question I wasn’t expecting: “That’s all well and good,” he said. “But if you’re still unemployed in a year’s time, will you still feel you made the right choice?”
Thinking faster than I ever knew I could, I came up with an answer: “Ask me that in a year from now.”
A year from that date, I was working for him. That’s how I can report that he was both a great journalist and a great boss.
I had snagged the lowest paying position on Robert MacNeil’s staff in New York: Production Secretary.
Most nights, that meant I typed all the on- and off-camera scripts for Robin, the crew, and the teleprompter, plus the rundown of all the show’s segments and timings.
My encounters with any of the D.C. staff were pretty limited… until the day a fire in the Arlington, Va., studio sent Jim and staff rushing up to do the show from New York.
That is how I got myself a lesson on how to write copy.
It started with me changing Lehrer’s punctuation. He used a lot of those three-dot ellipses that my English teacher detested. Also em-dashes — like the ones on either side of this clause — which I knew were similarly to be avoided in good writing.
So I changed them.
I felt able to do so because I had evolved a relationship with MacNeil where he let me have my way over such things as semicolons, something which the British and British-trained Canadians do all wrong. We use them only where two complete thoughts can be separated if need be; they use them to dot the landscape.
But the next thing I remember is Jim Lehrer, patiently but firmly explaining that I needed to put back all of his punctuation, dashes and all. “I write it that way so that I’ll deliver it the way I want, on the air.” After 12 years of an excellent school system school and four years in the ivy league, that’s when I learned that there isn’t just “writing” — that every piece of writing must be crafted with its particular purpose and audience in mind.
I also remain grateful to this day for Jim’s adamant stand that there are no stupid questions, only questions you wrongly left un-asked. He was never afraid to say, “I don’t understand;” “What does that mean?” or just plain “Why?” If he could do that, I could eventually try the same.
My very favorite memory of Jim is from a show about the new-fangled credit-card readers that manufacturers were going to start putting in stores, to read the new credit cards with magnetic strips.
Jim kept trying to run the sample card they had given him, through the sample machine. He tried and tried, but it never worked. Somehow it just kept jamming. This happened, not during rehearsal, but over and over, live on the air. It must have been a challenge for Lehrer, a former Marine, to keep it clean when he turned to the industry rep and demanded, “Just how is this gosh-darned thing supposed to work?!” I do not recall the answer.
Eventually, I left MacNeil and Lehrer for other pastures.
But I will never forget the distinction between them that one of their reporters let me in on.
“People would kill for Robin,” she explained to me. “But they would die, for Jim.”