MacNeil/Lehrer retrospective goes begging for more grit


December 05, 1990|By Michael Hill

THE MACNEIL/LEHRER REPORT" is sending itself a valentine this week on PBS in the form of a special celebrating its 15th anniversary which airs tomorrow night at 7 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67.

There's something a little smarmy about this program. Imagine if CBS did "Dan Rather: A Decade at the Anchor Desk" or ABC did "The Peter Jennings Years." We would be justifiably disgusted at this blatant self-promotion.

But, it's membership drive time, PBS' equivalent of a sweep month, so "15 Years of MacNeil/Lehrer" is not really intended to be an insightful examination of this program, but rather a compendium of moments designed to make its regular viewers feel the appropriate combination of guilty and grateful that will make them phone in their contribution.

So, if you feel charitable toward PBS, perhaps Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer and their cohorts can be forgiven for this breach of journalistic taste. The "reporters" on this are Mark Shields and David Gergen, who also happen to be employees of their subjects, providing weekly commentaries.

Given all these limitations, it's not surprising that this progracomes off like too many of the hours MacNeil and Lehrer produce each weekday -- somewhat smug and self-important, as if somehow they, and they alone, had found their way to a lofty journalistic pedestal.

Hardly! Certainly MacNeil, a one-time NBC and BBC correspondent, and Lehrer, a former newspaperman turned public broadcasting executive, can be given credit for coming up with a half-hour format that used interviews to focus on a single subject, linking various guests via the then-new satellite technology.

That was in 1975. In 1983, it expanded to an hour allowing theto focus on several subjects every night. No mention is made of those "video postcards" that drove local PBS stations nuts when they punctuated the program.

But, in fact, out there in that crass commercial world, ABC started doing "Nightline" in 1979, using the same basic format as "MacNeil/Lehrer" for sure, perhaps even doing it better. And CBS does a great job with those "back of the book" stories every week with "Sunday Morning."

So, when Judy Woodruff, one of "MacNeil/Lehrer's" top correspondents, claims that people in the industry say that she works for the only place where serious work is under way in broadcast news, it comes off as a bit self-serving.

The special begins with a "greatest hits" style look at the storiethe dynamic duo has covered over the years, then goes into a history of the program and its format, including interviews with correspondents and praise-givers such as Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters. It concludes with a look at what great friends and all-around wonderful people Robert and Jim are.

As the special goes through its electronic list of famous faces that have appeared on "MacNeil/Lehrer," what is most apparent is the absence of non-famous ones. Indeed, what you see tends to confirm the critics of "MacNeil/Lehrer," those who say that the program just rounds up the usual suspects to discuss an issue, giving a narrow slice of the political spectrum yet presenting it as if you're getting all sides.

This criticism is made of "Nightline," too, but it seems more egregious that a program on PBS, freed of commercial restraints, could not take a few more risks and go beyond giving us the same faces and opinions we're likely to see and hear on the network Sunday morning news show every week. Look at the much better job National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" does along these lines.

But what's really missing in the view from "MacNeil/Lehrer's" lofty aerie is any sense of the grittiness of journalism, the I'm-going-to-beat-you-to-this-story energy that drives so many reporters. It's the profession's form of capitalism and, while it can be unseemly and at time produces abuses, it is also responsible for the best that journalists have to offer. But it seems a bit too messy to fit into "MacNeil/Lehrer's" above-the-fray approach.

All of which is to say that there could have been a solid, balanced, journalistically responsible examination of "MacNeil/Lehrer" and its imitators on the occasion of the program's 15th anniversary. But when you give the assignment to two of your own employees so that your local stations can raise money, you get a love letter.

In most markets, by the way, this 65-minute special is expanded to 90 minutes by breaks for pledge begging. However, the new, non-telethon fund-raising efforts by MPT are supposed to keep the program close to its actual length.

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