Jim Lehrer speaks about political journalism to Portlanders, answers Amplifier’s questions at press conference


Jim Lehrer, author and journalist, gave a lecture at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Feb. 3 about “Politics and Principles.” The lecture, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Oregon, was attended by six Amplifier staff members: Elise Brown, Marley Young and Chrisann Kim, juniors; Elisapeta Santoro, senior; and Grace Sleeper, McKenna Clayton, and Sarah Chung, sophomores.

Prior to the lecture, Young and Brown attended a press conference held specifically for students chosen by their adviser to attend. Each school could bring two students to the press conference, and 15 to the lecture, under the WAC’s “Aspiring Journalist” scholarship.

Brown asked Lehrer about what to do during a presidential debate or interview when “you know for a fact that what the person is saying is false.”

“Did y’all in the back hear her?” Lehrer said to the audience. “She asked, ‘How many times have you been in Portland?’” The room erupted into laughter. Lehrer then went on to discuss his response to politicians when they do not answer a question – ask the question again and see if they respond – or when they lie – do not shout at them, but calmly point out the facts in front of you that may disprove them.

Lehrer, in both the lecture and press conference, spoke with experience, intelligence and humor. He would often “digress” into a related story when answering a question, adding a personal and comedic angle to whatever the issue at hand. He connected current issues to a person or persons he had interviewed in the past. For example, when talking about presidential debates, he could refer to his experience moderating 11 of them.

Lehrer developed the Public Broadcasting Service program NewsHour in 1975, and was the show’s anchor up until June 2011. He has interviewed every presidential candidate since the Nixon administration, and written over 20 books, including plays, memoirs and novels. His latest book, published Sep. 13, 2011, is “Tension City,” a book which retells his experiences as a moderator of presidential debates.

One moment of the lecture that received a significant amount of applause was Lehrer’s explanation of the code of conduct he helped write for the NewsHour staff, which is as follows:

  • “Do nothing I cannot defend.
  • “Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  • “Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  • “Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
  • “Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  • “Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  • “Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
  • “Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.
  • “No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  • “And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”