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Newsman showcased fairness, balance

Frequently I have used this space to protest what I perceive as a growing divide and increasing lack of balance in news reporting by the national media today.

Sadly, consumers of news lost one of the great ones in journalism last week — one who always could be counted on to report with fairness and absolute balance. These days, he was one of the few.

Jim Lehrer, longtime host of the nightly “PBS NewsHour,” died Thursday at the age of 85.

A consummate newsman, Lehrer often was known, and at times even poked fun of, for his solemn and serious nature — quite a contrast from anchors and commentators on today’s 24-hour news stations. Today, hosts on Fox News, CNN and other channels routinely make themselves part of the story, sometimes by what they say, the facial expressions or body language they exhibit, or even the way they dress.

Jim Lehrer, on the contrary, made it his business to just report the news and stay out of the way.

Lehrer also became known for moderating more presidential debates (11) between 1988 and 2012 than anyone else. Again, he never became part of the debate.

In fact, in 2011 he told The Associated Press that his goal was to probe the candidates’ thinking and avoid such “gotcha” questions. He felt his best debate performance was in 2004, with George W. Bush and John Kerry — not because of anything he did, but because the candidates were able to state their positions clearly.

“I didn’t get in the way,” said Lehrer, whose book “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates” told stories of his experiences. “Nobody was talking about what I did as a moderator. I didn’t become part of the story.”

Tom Brokaw, former longtime anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” in 2012 echoed Lehrer’s assessment.

“Jim’s reputation is unassailable. He reeks integrity,” Brokaw told POLITICO. “He knows that his role there is to make this about the two candidates, not about him.”

In the same POLITICO article, Charlie Black, who worked on the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John McCain campaigns, said, “I do not think you can do better than Jim Lehrer to moderate a debate. … Jim handles the job the way it needs to be done. He asks the tough questions that keep the candidates debating, he keeps them on the issues.”

In journalism school decades ago, I recall my Reporting I instructor lecturing about the importance of impartiality in reporting. I remember listening with wide eyes among a classroom full of other young journalist wannabes, as our professor told us not to have opinions on things we report, and how we had no choice but to tuck any glimmer of an opinion aside, should it start to creep into a story. I also remember him telling us that, should a source or reader ever ask for our opinion, that our response should be that we don’t have an opinion on the story. And most of all, he told us never, never should readers be able to interpret a reporter’s opinion from reading a story appearing on a news page.

Years later, an editor drove home that point to me again, this time using Jim Lehrer as a specific example of the best way to maintain impartiality.

Lehrer, you see, felt it was so important to stay out of the political swamp that for years he didn’t even use his right to vote.

Did Lehrer have an opinion on political issues of the day? I’m pretty certain he did. But he kept those opinions to himself, refusing to cast an election ballot in an effort to stay above board and prove he wasn’t taking sides. He moderated the presidential debates and reported the news by staying out of the way.

What more could anyone ask in a newsman?

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