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Blubaugh: Jim Lehrer’s death reveals nine rules the media should live by

As celebrity deaths go, the recent passings of Neil Peart, Terry Jones and Jim Lehrer don’t rank anywhere near, say, Juice Wrld, but they certainly registered with me.

Peart, a ridiculously talented drummer and one-third of the band Rush, and Jones, a hilarious performer and writer and one-sixth of the Monty Python troupe, contributed heavily to my musical, comedic, political and philosophical leanings. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “2112” were released within a year of each other and I wore them out on VHS and cassette tape, formats that don’t even exist anymore.

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As for Lehrer, I only paid attention to the respected newsman much later, but he always struck me as someone who did things the right way. Oh, how we could use more of him on TV right now.

Lehrer, 85, was a principled journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Dallas, he covered President Kennedy’s assassination. He was best-known for anchoring "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report” (later rebranded “NewsHour”) for 36 years. He moderated more presidential debates than anyone in history, he covered the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and he received an honorary doctorate from McDaniel College in 2004.

Since his death, many have shared on social media the list of “Jim Lehrer’s Rules.” Everyone in the news business should read and consider them.

1. Do nothing I cannot defend.

2. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

3. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

4. Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.

5. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

6. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

7. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.

8. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should be allowed to attack another anonymously.

9. “I am not in the entertainment business.”

Far too many reporting the news today, especially on cable TV, have forgotten or never learned many of these rules, particularly No. 9.

We are a nation divided and clearly there are numerous issues that cause disagreement between Right and Left. But it’s foolish not to recognize the role played by talking heads who stoke the fire.

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To Fox News viewers, the hosts aren’t just reporting or analyzing the news, they’re justifying every vote for Trump and making fun of those who dare to question anything the president says or does. To viewers of CNN or MSNBC, it’s the opposite. The news show hosts pick apart everything Trump says or days and make it pretty clear they think Trump supporters are morons. Same goes for the numerous partisan websites that have materialized over the past few years. And, of course, some feel similarly about print media. (I disagree, but I get it.)

Divisiveness is good for ratings and online clicks. Objectivity? Playing it straight down the middle? Not so much. I’m going to assume Lehrer’s nine rules aren’t talked about a lot in cable news meetings.

I’m no Jim Lehrer. And I can’t pretend I’ve unfailing followed all nine rules. But I will keep them close and try to heed them, pretty proud of the fact that, without previous knowledge of Lehrer’s list, his top rule — “Do nothing I cannot defend” — has always been mine as well.

The one good thing about death is the resulting attention paid to the person’s life. So, hopefully, others will now be exposed to and influenced by Lehrer. And maybe Rush and the Pythons as well.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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