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Interview: Brian Lehrer of WNYC Public Radio

Brian Lehrer | Journalist | Stated Magazine interview



By Scott Chappell

Brian Lehrer is a radio talk show host on WNYC radio, which has the largest public radio audience in the country. If you live in or around New York City and are the intellectually curious type who keeps NPR playing in the background, then Brian’s is a familiar voice. And although he likes to have fun with his Peobody Award-winning The Brian Lehrer Show,—he just hosted a politics-themed singles event with reporter Anna Sale in Brooklyn—he primarily tackles some of the most serious social and political issues of our time. His “End of War” series, based on a listener poll tied to interviews, will come to a close on June 13th. During the series, he has interviewed renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser, former President Jimmy Carter, The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, The Nation war correspondent Chris Hedges, author Barbara Ehrenreich, among others.

Lehrer’s awards and accolades are too numerous to recount here, but he is the quintessential journalist’s journalist, widely respected by those who take the discipline seriously. “You are it. You are the man,” swoons Thomas Friedman. “I listen to Brian Lehrer… Wow, I love that guy. I love that show,” says Jon Stewart. And with slightly less enthusiasm, “Usually a pretty fair and smart guy,” concedes Bill O’Reilly.

Lehrer joined us for an exchange by email.







stated: How early in life did your interest in journalism begin?

BRIAN LEHRER: I didn’t have journalists or news-obsessed people in my family growing up. My parents did pay attention to the news and talked to my brother and me about some things they thought were right and wrong, but public affairs was not a centerpiece of conversation. They must have given me enough grounding, though, that as a teenager, when my friends were only listening to music on the radio, I was doing that plus checking out news and talk. I was curious about things and people outside my own experience.

stated: What is your take on the publishing model of large online publications such as The Huffington Post and how does this degenerative aspect of free content effect publishing and broadcasting?

BRIAN LEHRER: President Obama made a great joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner congratulating Arianna Huffington because The Huffington Post *links to* some of the hardest-hitting journalism there is. Ha!

Truth is, I feel two ways about HuffPo. On the one hand, I’m impressed by how they managed to have a real impact on public discourse when other liberal sites were having trouble breaking through as an alternative aggregator to the conservative Drudge Report. On the other hand, they are not shy about being vultures when it’s in their interest.

stated: Your recent interview with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), seemed to reveal that you were at odds with “The heart of the conservative argument.” How does one maintain objectivity when conflicts within your perception and what is being stated are revealed?

BRIAN LEHRER: In general, my job is to be fair but not dead. Usually, the more polemic or purely ideological a guest is, the more I’m likely to give them a hard time. The premise of Brooks’ book that “freedom” is defined by a system that gives corporations and wealthy individuals all the structural advantages and that that is the most moral way to help the poor and middle class is worthy of a challenging interview. But I strive to challenge in a way that respects the listeners’ ability to decide things for themselves. I am a person with opinions, but the program is not a platform for my opinions, unlike the polarized talk shows.

Another example from the same week as Brooks, involving someone with very different politics, was when I surprised Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who says he is for a tolerant and moderate Islam, by asking if he would perform gay marriages for people in his congregation who ask him to do so. Tolerant Islam? Let’s just say he was still “evolving.”


stated: What are some examples of front page news stories that you have chosen not to cover, and why?

BRIAN LEHRER: There are many top stories we ignore every day. My show’s mission is mostly to have conversations about the issues raised by the news. Not all big stories raise new issues or lend themselves to illuminating conversations or to people sharing their different experiences and points of view.

stated: How do you strike a balance between entertaining and thought-provoking stories? Between divisive issues, such as gay marriage, and substantive issues, like the recently passed Commercial Drone Law, which you recently covered?

BRIAN LEHRER: We are very substantive most of the time. Even when we’re having fun, there is usually a point to it. That can be an issue-oriented point or it can be more of a community-building point, like when everyone is just talking or laughing about things in their lives. Sometimes we play “Advice Roulette” in which listeners ask other randomly chosen listeners for advice on anything even though they are not experts. We have fun with that, but it also illuminates what’s on the minds of people in the BL community.

stated: Your “End of War” poll, which asks, “Is war inevitable? Will humans ever stop fighting wars, once and for all? Why or why not?”, is coming to a close this month with a live event.

In the 90’s, there was an event that toured college campuses entitled “The World Game” that was developed by Buckminster Fuller.

Discussions among the participants—often numbering in the hundreds—and at colleges and corporations around the world, typically started with the perspective that human nature and competition would lead to war.

However, in the workshops which were often relatively homogenous groups, the outcomes were peaceful and after the 3+ hour workshop, major progress had been made in creating a planet of greater balance and peace. So it seemed to imply that cultural perspectives and miscommunications are what actually lead to conflict, not human nature. In other words, there was an advantage to being able to communicate using a common cultural filter.

What do you think has the strongest influence on world peace? Cultural differences, human nature, imbalance of resource distribution, or something else?

BRIAN LEHRER: I agree with Mr. Fuller that the world can be made to work for everyone, or at least we can strive to approach that ideal much more than we humans do. I think that belief has been a central motivation for my interest in doing talk shows. As for ending war, it would have to become a dominant human value. Our series was inspired by the book The End of War by John Horgan. His take is that culture is more important than sociobiology or anything else we would call “human nature.” People evolved to be altruistic for survival as well as competitive. Some societies resolve conflicts peacefully that others fight over. Such differences argue against the idea that human nature dooms us to eternal war. Horgan says if human culture has managed to go from acceptable to unacceptable on slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism, violent conflict to solve the problems of large groups (war) can also be made an anachronism. I’m still forming my own opinions about this, but these days Horgan is making me think a lot. The place I would start is to make sure there is universal education for girls and see where we are in 50 years.


stated: In what media is the best journalism happening today?

BRIAN LEHRER: I don’t see it in terms of this medium or that. Old media like The New York Times is still vital for well-funded investigative professional journalism. But citizen journalism and hyper-local blogs are also empowering individuals and communities in ways that would have been impossible before the digital era. And media don’t divide up so easily that way anymore in many cases. My show, for example, is available on live radio, live streaming on computers and phones, or later on demand. Our content includes Facebook and Twitter feeds and a website with photos, videos, maps and others. So what media are we? Any and all. The old boundaries don’t apply.

stated: As you recently discussed on your show, it looks like the central theme of Mitt Romney’s campaign will be “freedom.” For Obama, it’s shaping up to be “fairness.” If you were to assign a new word or phrase to each campaign that more accurately reflects their actual platforms, what would that word or phrase be?

BRIAN LEHRER: I’ll pass on reducing these complex guys to single words or phrases. But a key for me with politicians is to measure how much I think they are in it to perform a public service versus how much for personal achievement.

stated: John Stewart held his “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Stephen Colbert set up his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Inc., enabling him to receive unlimited corporate campaign contributions and to satirize the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Both of them seem to be entertaining political careers, and Stewart has said some very flattering things about you. Do you have any political aspirations? Would you like to announce them here, now?!

BRIAN LEHRER: Ha! A couple of people wrote in my name for mayor a few elections ago. I don’t know who they were, but my parents claim it was not them. But my heart and soul are in what I do. No political aspirations here.

stated: Any thoughts on how entertainers like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are having an impact on politics?

BRIAN LEHRER: I am huge fans of both Stewart and Colbert and think they achieve through entertainment a kind of clear-eyed truth-telling that most news organizations fail to provide through their cautious earnestness.

Thank you for the thought-provoking, original questions!


Visit Brian Lehrer at:

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