On interesting AmericanStudies takeaways from the longrunning news program’s two pairs of co-hosts.
1) MacNeil and Lehrer: The program that would eventually become NewsHour began, as so many aspects of modern American politics and journalism did, with Watergate. In 1973 Robert MacNeil, a veteran political journalist and moderator at the time of the PBS program Washington’s Week in Review (which remains on the air to this day!), teamed up with the younger journalist Jim Lehrer to cover every second of the Watergate hearings; their coverage won them an Emmy and led to the creation of The Robert MacNeil Report, which soon morphed into The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. That program lasted nearly two decades, and when MacNeil retired in 1995 Lehrer stayed on as the sole host, leading to the new name The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Throughout those decades, and for the subsequent couple as well (until Lehrer’s 2011 departure), the show embodied what I would call classic adversarial political journalism, of the type pioneered by folks like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite—and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that virtually all of those classic adversarial types, throughout the 20th century in America at least, were white men, possessing enough privilege and intrinsic power to speak truth to power in those important ways.
2) Ifill and Woodruff: If that role and the assumptions and narratives behind it have begun to shift in 21st century American journalism, that hasn’t happened accidentally nor easily—it has required active efforts on behalf of journalism, the media for which they work, and their allies and supporters. One key moment in that evolution was the 2013 appointment of Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff as the renamed PBS NewsHour’s co-hosts, making them (at the time and to my knowledge still since) the only all-female anchoring team for a nightly TV news program. Unfortunately their co-hosting only lasted a few years, until Ifill’s tragic passing in 2016, but it was nonetheless hugely groundbreaking and influential. There are lots of factors in that legacy, but I’d say a particularly important one was that the fundamental tone and ethos of the show didn’t change with this transition and team—of course there’s no reason why it would or should, but it’s fair (if unfortunate) to say that narratives of “objectivity” and related journalistic questions had too often been associated specifically with traditional white male anchors and voices. Ifill and Woodruff challenged—and Woodruff continues to challenge in her NewsHour hosting role—every part of those narratives, and American journalism, media, and politics are the better for it.
Last PBS person tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?