NewsHour's Jim Lehrer Retires

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Jim Lehrer, longtime anchor of the PBS NewsHour announced Thursday that he will retire effective June 6. Lehrer's sober and thorough presentation of the news set the tone for the NewsHour and made him an effective anchor for many presidential debates. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's David Folkenflik for more.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: For decades, that music has signaled the beginning of the program hosted by Jim Lehrer, the "PBS NewsHour," and today, Lehrer announced that he is stepping down. The news business has changed a lot in the more than three decades that Lehrer has anchored that program, but he has remained a constant, a link to a past era in the news.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from our bureau in New York City.

And, David, first, how would you describe what Jim Lehrer is like on the air?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, Jim Lehrer is avuncular. He's restrained. He's sober, thoughtful, probing, but not - you know, he doesn't punish people for coming on his show. He sees himself more as a blend of a traffic cop and a referee. He's also a guy who maybe many listeners may know better perhaps as being a moderator 11 times for presidential and vice presidential debates.

I talked to him a bit earlier this afternoon, and here's how he said he approached that role.

Mr. JIM LEHRER (Journalist): The best moderators are the moderators who are essentially invisible. A moderator who is there to be seen and heard and to be talked about either, oh, God, what a great question, or, oh, God, what a lousy question, that to me is a failed moderator.

FOLKENFLIK: He also said, you know, he looked in the mirror those mornings and say: This is not about you. This is not about you. I think, in some ways, it's a pretty good distillation of how he approached his role as an anchor, as an old-fashioned news professional.

FOLKENFLIK: David, Jim Lehrer has signaled for several years now that he's been easing out of the host seat. How has he done that, actually?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, a couple of ways are perhaps most visible. You know, after he had surgery a few years ago, he decided to scale back his prominence and visibility. Instead of being the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," which was the successor name to the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," he changed it so that it became the "PBS NewsHour," and he also installed a rotation of anchors.

You have people like Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, and they actually will succeed him as the rotating anchors. He made sure he wasn't the constant sole dominant presence on that show. I think you've seen that in the last couple of years.

SIEGEL: He leaves in June, and he's leaving at a time when there's a lot of turnover among anchors and generally a lot of change in television news. How would you say Jim Lehrer fits into all of that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. You think of something like "CBS News." You'll see Scott Pelley taking over also in June, taking over from Katie Couric after five years there.

Jim Lehrer is a throwback. I talked to him today. I asked him who he saw as his - a role model, he would say somebody like Robert MacNeil, his longtime collaborator, close friend, but he also takes you back to a different era of network news where people there would offer you sort of a sense of what are the stories of the day, a serious tone, a serious approach.

If you were to compare his audience size to broadcast figures, they are smaller, even in CBS, which lags at third, comes in at about 5 million viewers a night. Over on the MacNeil - excuse me - the "PBS NewsHour"...

SIEGEL: "NewsHour."

FOLKENFLIK: Exactly. It's about 1.1 million. Nonetheless, that would actually be the second highest rated cable news show if it were, you know, 7 o'clock across the channels. It beats everything except "Fox News" in that time slot. It also devotes a heck of a lot more time to the news and a more serious approach. So it really is a throwback, and there is a hungry enough niche for that...


FOLKENFLIK: ...there seems to be a place.

SIEGEL: David, did I say that Jim is going to continue to host the Friday news wrap-up with David Brooks and Mark Shields?

FOLKENFLIK: He doesn't commit to doing it every Friday, but he had said he intends to stop by and do that. I think he really enjoys that segment, but also he intends, perhaps, to dip in and do things periodically for the network and particularly for that show.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David.


SIEGEL: NPR's David Folkenflik on the announcement that Jim Lehrer will be stepping down as host of the "PBS NewsHour."

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