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Jim Lehrer on 'State of Union,' weekend 'NewsHour'

Jim Lehrer, who anchored his first State of the Union address for PBS in 1976, will be at the anchor desk again Tuesday night when President Barack Obama addresses Congress and the nation.

The press has probably never needed the steady hand and solid journalistic instincts of the 76-year-old broadcaster more than it does today as both media and national life undergo wrenching changes. Journalistic mainstays like CNN are changing their games in hopes of finding larger audiences.

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Meanwhile, the angry rhetoric on cable TV encourages and reinforces deepening divides among the electorate. Re-invention is everywhere in the media these days, including PBS, and Lehrer's "NewsHour" is no different.

As fabulous as new digital and social media can be in instantly reaching diverse audiences with news and information, there is a dangerous tendency to let new technology and methods of distribution change the way journalism is done in this country without any kind of meaningful debate about the values that are being cast aside in some cases.

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I talked to Lehrer Monday about the connection between TV and politics on events like Tuesday night's State of the Union. We also talked about a recent survey that found PBS the most trusted source of news in the nation -- and the effort he and the "NewsHour" team are undertaking to bring Saturday and Sunday newscasts to PBS.

Q: What do you see as the goal of TV coverage of an event like State of the Union Tuesday night?

LEHRER: Well, this is one of those few, uniting events we have in the country where everybody on just about every television outlet --or radio or online of any other outlet they want to use -- where everybody in the country has not only the opportunity but the inclination to hear what the President has to say in the State of the Union Address. It is one of the few serious shared experiences that we as citizens have.

So, I take it very seriously along with everybody who watches, because it's not only what the President himself has to say about what he's got in mind. But it is also important what the atmosphere is like. There's always an environment, a set of circumstances, that have set the stage beyond the real stage -- in other words, have set the fact stage. So these things are always very, very important in and of themselves, but mostly they're important because just everybody in the country who cares about the country is listening or watching.

Q: I agree totally with you about the SOTU as a special kind of "unifying" event, and yet maybe as an indication of how divided and angry we have become as a nation, my most recent recollections are of moments like the one that featured a congressman calling the president a liar.

LEHRER: There was also the presidential speech when Justice Alito shook his head [to show disagreement with what the president said]. But I look upon those [moments] as part of that process. Those speeches were given at a divisive time in our country, and that divisiveness came through. And we'll see what happens tomorrow night. Everyone says, 'Well, we're still divided, and yet we're on a comity kick. And we'll see what happens. We'll get some signs of it. I mean, there are some obvious signs, because some of these Democrats and going to sit with Republicans and all of that. So, we'll see some of the obvious stuff. But the event itself -- beyond the words -- will say something, too, that some of us will pick up on.

Q: Jim, this is something else I wanted to talk about, and it involves two things. Last week, the Public Policy Institute came out with the survey that found PBS the most trusted source of news and information. that's, of course, a good thing. But when you pair that with the dismay recently voiced by the PBS ombudsman over the fact that on the weekend of the Tucson shootings, PBS was not covering the events. And that is always the case on weekends ... So, can you talk about the fact that you have one of the last, best news operations doing traditional, fact-based journalism, and Americans say they trust it, and yet you are not available to Americans on weekend for lack of resources or whatever?

LEHRER: At the risk of sounding self-serving, I think there is ample and neutral evidence to prove that there is a need for the kind of journalism we practice now more than ever. As the proliferation of news and opinion and information generally continues in all kinds of ways, there is a growing re-need for people who are trusted to sort through it and help the average person to figure out not what to believe but what exactly happened and what the opinions are about it.

In other words, take the story and wring it out from beginning to end -- from the headlines, to what happened, to what it means, to what people can think about it on two or three different sides. That is an old-fashioned journalism idea, and there is ample evidence that people out there are realizing, 'Hey, there is so much out there, I need some help. Who can I trust to sort through this for me? I don't want to spend all day watching the goddamn cable television or reading blogs or listening to people yell at each other on the radio. But I do want to get a flavor of that. I do want to have a sense of the new voices, in addition to the old traditional voices.'

What we in public broadcasting are set to do is to fill that legitimate need. We're prepared to do it. The stage is set for us to expand in large and dramatic ways.  We don't yet have the resources to do it. We have not done well in making our case. But I think we are going to begin to do that better -- at least, we're trying. And when I see we, I mean the big 'we' and the little 'we.' We need to let people know we are there, and we are prepared to do this. Let us demonstrated to you that we can be trusted, that there is a place where you can go...

I think the golden age of news and public affairs on public media -- on public television in particular -- is about to start. We're in the beginning phases. We are the future for all of those people who are worried about how we get information in a new and loud and crazy information, democratic process. we're it -- and we just have to step up to plate and be there in ways that people will support us.

Q: Jim, is it financially prohibitive for you guys to have at least a bare-bones, weekend operation today?

LEHRER: It's possible. We just don't have the resources right now. During the first Gulf War we did Saturday and Sunday versions of the NewsHour, and we've been prepared to do it ever since. But we don't have the resources right now, and we've got to keep in mind, it's got to be more than just the headlines. The headlines are already available in other places. We've got to take a NewsHour approach on Saturday and Sunday, just like we do Monday through Friday, or it is not working.

Q: Jim, I'm not even talking Saturday and Sunday Broadcasts necessarily, just a news operation that can gear up in case a big story breaks -- having a newsroom staff in place.

LEHRER: Yes, but there is also the matter of expectations. If it's a weekday, well let's say today. There's an explosion at the Moscow Airport and 31 people have died, and you're working right now, but you want to know what the hell happened, who did it, what the deal is, all of that. I don't have time to do it now. But I know that I can find out tonight on the NewsHour. That's an expectation.

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But if that explosion happened on a Sunday, you would not have an expectation to turn on the NewsHour Sunday night because we're not there. So, we have to do two things. We have to create the ability to do it -- and gather the resources for that. And then, we have to create an expectation so people say, 'Hey,these guys are there every day -- not just Monday through Friday.' But that is very doable. The only thing that's keeping it from happening is money.

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Q: How about your future at the NewsHour?

LEHRER: Well, as you know I have  stepped back a little, and I am going to continue to do that. I am very keen on the idea of a team approach to this rather than a big-time anchorperson approach. So, there will come a time and maybe some day after I've been gone for five years, someone will say, "Whatever happened to that guy who talked like he was from Kansas or Texas or some goddamn place? What happened to him? My idea is to drift away. But I'm feeling great. I'm not tired. And I still hear the sirens. And as long as I hear the sirens, I'll still be there to find out where the hell they're going.

Live coverage anchored by Jim Lehrer will begin on PBS at 9 p.m. Tuesday. There will be an menu of new media coverage as well. For details click here.

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