Let’s Watch the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, March 6, 1978!


In 1975, PBS1 hired former NBC correspondent Robert MacNeil to host a nightly half-hour news program in the mold of the other networks at the time. MacNeil and his soon partner Jim Lehrer had previously earned PBS Emmy awards for their continuous coverage of the Watergate hearings, and the MacNeil/Lehrer Report henceforth defined itself by an altruistic series of guidelines and a level of pace and detail liberated from commercial interruption.

Let’s start with that disco-tastic intro. A variation on that theme continued to be used for the program until 2006 and is dearly missed by yours truly.

The news opens with the closure of the Chicago Daily News and an extended monologue on the decline of afternoon newspapers. Personally, I had no idea afternoon papers existed before watching Zodiac, and it’s baffling that even the evening papers survived the 1950s. Lehrer’s contention that reporting as a stepping stool to becoming an author instead of a journalist is a hallmark of an older, cruder era is hilarious in hindsight.

To this effect, former New York Post editor Paul Sann then comes on to burst the hosts’ bubble by telling them that afternoon and evening papers just aren’t worth the trouble.

Cut then to Congressman (and later Senator) Morris Udall throwing shade at the death of responsible journalism at the hands of corporate consolidation– the more things change– but offers a solution:

If we can save the family farm through tax legislation, as we did a couple of years ago, we can save the family newspaper.

Oh, Mo, the 80s are not going to be kind to you.

They then bring in newspaper owner Alvah Chapman, who might actually be Ross Perot. Chapman and Sann agree that media consolidation is scary, but Sann points out that this is nothing new.

Fifteen years from now, when two, three, four guys are gonna tell us everything, is a little terrifying.

Fifteen years later would be 1993, a.k.a. the “eternal September,” in which the internet became a mainstream consumer product. Udall follows up on this with a prediction that’s so wrong that it comes back around to brilliance:

We will always need newspapers. They can do us, as has just been said, things television can’t: the want ads, the fashion, the high school basketball scores, the stock market, the whole range of special information that we need in a diverse society…is this kind of information going to be fed to you by the same people who publish your books and put up your billboards and run your radio stations and television stations? Or are we gonna have this great kind of diversity that we’ve had in the past?

By the standards of today, March 6, 1978 was an impressively slow news day, but that wouldn’t last. In 1983, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report was retooled as an hourlong program with a wide range of stories in each episodes. MacNeil left the show in 1995, at which point it was retitled the NewsHour, and Lehrer left in 2011. The program is currently hosted by Judy Woodruff on weekdays and Hari Srinavasan on weekends.

And that’s going to be it for this series. Thanks to Mary for allowing me to piggypack off her old magazine coverage, but I do not have the time to continue this feature, which necessarily does not lend itself to the same quality of entertainment.