Lehrer receives annual Neuharth Award Al Neuharth, founder of the Freedom Forum and USA Today, talked briefly Thursday night about the annual Neuharth Award, given to a national journalist of distinction each year. Jim Lehrer, the 2001 recipient, couldn't be present in Vermillion to accept the award because of ongoing coverage of the nation's war against terrorism. by David Lias The 13th annual Neuharth Lecture, held Thursday night in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre on The University of South Dakota campus, couldn't have been more on the cutting edge of current events.
The lecture's original plans were turned topsy-turvy by, ironically, breaking news.
Executive editor and anchor Jim Lehrer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS was to be honored with the award and to address the Vermillion audience live via satellite from his Washington, DC office.
The only "live" words that people in the theatre heard from Lehrer, however, was his introduction of President Bush as his Thursday night press conference began.
The presentation of the award was delayed about 40 minutes to give people a first-hand look at the breaking news in Washington as it happened.
Bush's press conference was beamed live from Washington on two large television screens on the theatre's stage.
"I'm sure you share with me, after what we saw on the screen earlier, a notion that this has been quite a night, quite a day and quite a month," said Al Neuharth, founder of the Freedom Forum and USA Today, who returns to USD, his alma mater, each fall to present the award to a leading journalist in the nation.
"I was thinking as we were watching President Bush during the press conference and heard Jim Lehrer give the introduction � what a time in which we are living," Neuharth said. "What a great time it is to reassess our own values, what's important in our lives, to embrace the freedoms that we've enjoyed, some of which we've taken for granted, and to think about some of our personal convictions."
Neuharth said his trips to South Dakota in recent years are becoming more and more frequent.
"I find that the reality check that I get, the renewed sense of values and character I get when I get back on the sacred soil of South Dakota, is really a tremendously uplifting thing," he said.
Neuharth describes Lehrer as a champion of the First Amendment.
"I think his work personifies serious journalism and in-depth journalism," he said. "I think you could say honestly, without offending others in broadcast, that he is the antithesis of sound bites and superficial coverage."
The standing room only crowd had to settle for a videotaped presentation made by Lehrer hours earlier Thursday because of the uncertainties Bush's press conference caused for the evening's program.
"The events of that day (September 11) changed the world, and they also changed plans for tonight," he said.
Neuharth said he believed Lehrer is the most distinguished of the award recipients because of the esteem and appreciation he receives from his peers and the subjects of his reports.
"A year ago, he was the only person in broadcasting that Al Gore and George W. Bush trusted to moderate their debate," Neuharth said. "That's why he wasn't able to be here to receive the award last year.
"I hope you will understand, Jim Lehrer, that we here in South Dakota salute you for your professionalism, your exceptional skills as a reporter, author and editor, high ethical standards, and for the fact that you have set much of the standard in this country for how a fair press should perform."
Lehrer expressed his appreciation for the award and also his regret that circumstances required plans to be changed so dramatically.
"I most particularly regret the recent events and horrors of September 11," Lehrer said. "I've been a practitioner of daily journalism for more than 40 years now, and I have a little button that goes off in my brain and my soul when a major news event like this takes place. Almost always it turns into adrenaline which in turn ignites excitement and pleasure in covering the story. That has not happened with this story."
Lehrer noted that he has experienced the same personal sadness and horror that most Americans felt as they watched those events unfold before their eyes.
Neuharth was lauded by Lehrer for the "imagination, guts, and whatever else it took" in developing the world's first national newspaper, USA Today.
Lehrer also noted that the subject of journalism is not necessarily a "happy" subject for him to discuss. The decline of ethical practices in the journalistic industry, he said, has brought the news media to the same level as "Congress, child pornographers and lawyers."
"I wish I could say that in light of the events of September 11, that (perception) has changed, that journalism has been born again and all is well. But I can't do that yet," Lehrer said.
Embarrassment, annoyance and anger are among the
emotions Lehrer said he battles as he watches journalists resort to a wide variety of tactics to bring their version of the news to the public. Although he does not advocate dismissing cable network news, Lehrer said the format of those channels may be influencing the journalistic practices that seem to be overtaking the world of news.
"The significance of this, I have concluded, is not necessarily bad or evil, only enormous," Lehrer said. "The sounds of the news judgments coming from those television sets in all the newsrooms (have replaced) the earlier clackety-clacks and the sounds and news judgments that were coming from the old wire service machines, United Press and Associated Press and International News Service."
Lehrer said the need to fill air time may be leading to sensationalizing news stories such as O.J. Simpson's trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And not everyone is hearing the same news, he said, because the majority of people are not watching cable news throughout the day. However, the focus of the television broadcasts may greatly influence the information other news providers convey to their own audience.
"With the amalgamation and condensation in the journalism business," Lehrer said, "I believe it is more important than ever that each of us in journalism make independent decisions and judgments about what is news and how it should be reported and displayed. It is that difference in judgment that make up a free press."