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PBS, changing 'NewsHour' to preserve it

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Monday, November 30, 2009

For the first time since Gerald Ford was president, Jim Lehrer will not have his name on next week's PBS newscast.

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He is giving up television's biggest perk, making way for a dual-anchor format with a rotating set of correspondents that will change the look and feel of one of the capital's most enduring journalistic institutions.

"It's a little strange," Lehrer admits in his Shirlington office, wearing a brown "Metro Transit" cardigan in an office festooned with bus depot signs. "Not only am I at ease with it, this was not something forced on me. This grew out of my own thinking. . . . We've been a team operation for a long time. What it does is validate the obvious."

Having been sidelined by a heart valve operation last year, the 75-year-old anchor knows there are whispers that this is an interim step toward his retirement. As Lehrer shares the stage with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown, the renamed "PBS NewsHour" will no longer be synonymous with the bus driver's son from Wichita.

"I am still going to be on the program," he says. "I am still the executive editor of the program. I want this program to go on and on." Asked whether he will take some evenings off, Lehrer hedges: "We're going to play it by ear."

His face is more heavily creased now, his gait slightly slowed, but his passion for news seems undiminished. At the same time, the 20th-century icon has come to recognize that he and his venerable program are in danger of being eclipsed by a fast-changing world.

The format change comes as the "NewsHour" is combining its television and online operations and coping with sharp cutbacks by donors, which has led to the loss of half its producers over the past five years. Lehrer sees this confluence of events as part of a larger threat. "I am very concerned about serious journalism," and for longtime practitioners of the craft, "we damn well better get with it," he says, slapping his chair.

Woodruff, who returned to the "NewsHour" in 2007 after a dozen years as a CNN anchor, is excited by the change. "It's not a gigantic lurch in some strange direction," she says. "It's the same team that's been on the air for years now. Hopefully there's a comfort level there."

Lehrer, of course, sets the tone. In an age when full-throated partisans draw the biggest ratings on cable news, he radiates a detached sense of fairness. It's no accident that Lehrer has been tapped to moderate 11 presidential debates, that his program risks charges of dullness by conducting extensive interviews with newsmakers and polite debates with policymakers. The "NewsHour" has little flash and dash, and that's the way its 1.2 million viewers like it.

Lehrer has been through name changes before. In 1975, he was the Washington correspondent for the fledgling PBS program known as "The Robert MacNeil Report." After New York's WNET decided to make the broadcast a joint production with Washington's WETA, there was talk of a new moniker -- Lehrer actually suggested "Nightline" -- and his anchor mate came up with "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report."

"I thought it was great. My mother thought it was great," Lehrer recalls.

When MacNeil retired in 1995, the program, by now expanded from its original 30 minutes, was christened "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Now it's Lehrer's turn to share the credit.


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