Jefferson High School alumnus, journalist, and novelist Jim Lehrer visited his alma mater Wednesday to speak to students from honor societies, leadership groups, and the staff of the school paper, sharing insights from his long career as a writer.
At the San Antonio Independent School District Foundation’s Inspire Awards on Tuesday night, Lehrer received the Service Award for his work. The Jefferson Class of 1952 graduate is best known as the former host of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which continues to air nightly on PBS stations as NewsHour. He also moderated 12 presidential debates and covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for the Dallas Times Herald, an event which Lehrer said “shaped his career.”
As a writer, Lehrer did not limit himself to journalism. He has written novels, plays, and a screenplay. One Jefferson student asked if writing came naturally to him.
“Writing is hard work,” Lehrer said. “What came naturally was the desire to do it.”
The skills and mechanics of writing do not come naturally to anyone, he said. “That’s why we have English classes.” For his own foundation in writing, Lehrer credits his English classes at Jefferson. “I had better teachers here at Jefferson than I had later in college,” Lehrer told the students.
Growing up in Beaumont, Lehrer originally wanted to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately, “the Dodgers were not in on the plan,” Lehrer said. When a teacher remarked that he had a knack for writing, he changed his plan.
”By the time I got to San Antonio,” Lehrer said, “I had it in my head I was a big-time writer.”
He wrote his first news story for the Jefferson Declaration, the school paper. Thus began a career in journalism that has spanned nearly seven decades.
Journalism has changed tremendously over those seven decades, Lehrer told the Rivard Report. “Everything about it has changed except the point of it,” he said.
The goal of good journalism, he said, is still “informing people with what they need to know” so that they can cast informed votes. While technology has allowed that to happen more expediently and has allowed the best reporting to be shared more widely, Lehrer said, it also allows inaccurate or biased information to spread just as quickly, which is what has divided the nation.
Those who deliver the news must be committed to truth and fairness, not objectivity, Lehrer told the students. “Journalism about doing the best job you possibly can to tell the story,” he said, and objectivity sometimes kept the storyteller from getting involved in a story, when involvement was merited. At NewsHour, his golden rule was to report and write every story “as if it was about you.”
Sharing Ernest Hemingway’s advice with the students, Lehrer advised anyone who wanted to write to begin in a newsroom. Clarity and facility with the English language, a living wage, and exposure to real people and significant events is good for any writer, he said, and writing well is an asset in any career.
“I would urge you to take any opportunity to polish your writing,” he said.
Whether in writing or other ambitions, Lehrer advised to the students to take risks and to see failure and disruption as opportunity. “People who don’t take risks with their lives usually end up very unhappy,” he said.
The students asked Lehrer to reflect on his own risks, accomplishments, and regrets. In his personal life, Lehrer has been married to writer Kate Lehrer for 57 years, had two children and six grandchildren, and he told the students he wishes he had spent more “quality time” with them. Professionally, while there is always another award to win or another superlative to attain, he committed himself to the work he loved at age 16. Now at “a lot older than 16” – Lehrer is 83 – he says he’s exactly where he wants to be.