Entertainment

Jim Lehrer, longtime PBS anchor and journalist, dead at 85

Jim Lehrer, co-host and later host of the nightly PBS NewsHour that for decades offered a thoughtful take on current events, has died, PBS said Thursday. He was 85.

Tributes pour in from notable figures, wide range of journalists

Longtime PBS anchor and journalist Jim Lehrer, host of PBS NewsHour, died Thursday at the age of 85, PBS has announced. (PBS/The Associated Press)

Jim Lehrer, co-host and later host of the nightly PBS NewsHour that for decades offered a thoughtful take on current events, has died, PBS said Thursday. He was 85.

Lehrer died "peacefully in his sleep," according to PBS. He had suffered a heart attack in 1983, and more recently had undergone heart valve surgery in April 2008.

For Lehrer, and for his friend and longtime partner Robert MacNeil, broadcast journalism was a service, with public understanding of events and issues its primary goal. Lehrer was also a frequent moderator of presidential debates.

"We both believed the American people were not as stupid as some of the folks publishing and programming for them believed," Lehrer wrote in his 1992 memoir, A Bus of My Own.

"We were convinced they cared about the significant matters of human events. ... And we were certain they could and would hang in there for more than 35 seconds for information about those subjects if given a chance."

Tributes poured in from colleagues and watchers alike, including from Fox News' Bret Baier, who called Lehrer "an inspiration to a whole generation of political journalists — including this one." Dan Rather said "few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer." And Jake Tapper of CNN called Lehrer "a wonderful man and a superb journalist." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him a "champion for truth and transparency."

The half-hour Robert MacNeil Report began on PBS in 1975 with Lehrer as Washington correspondent. The two had already made names for themselves at the then-fledgling network through their work with the National Public Affairs Center for Television and its coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973.

The nightly news broadcast, later retitled MacNeil-Lehrer Report, became the nation's first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983 and was then known as MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. After MacNeil bowed out in 1995, it became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

This 1973 image released by PBS shows co-anchors Jim Lehrer, left, and Robert MacNeil reporting on the Watergate hearings. PBS announced Thursday that Lehrer died at home. He was 85. (PBS via AP) (PBS/Associated Press)

"I'm heartbroken at the loss of someone who was central to my professional life, a mentor to me and someone whose friendship I've cherished for decades," Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, said in a statement.

Moderator of presidential debates

Politics, international relations, economics, science, even developments in the arts were all given lengthy, detailed coverage in their show.

"When we expanded to the hour, it changed from being a supplement to an alternative," Lehrer said in 1990.

"Now we take the position that if you're looking for a place to go every 24 hours and find out what's happened and get some in-depth treatment, we're the place."

Lehrer moderated his first presidential debate in 1988 and was a frequent consensus choice for the task in subsequent presidential contests.

Lehrer was a frequent moderator of presidential debates, with about a dozen under his belt. (Chip Somodevilla/The Associated Press)

"Anybody who would say it's just another TV show is a liar or a fool," he once said. "I know how important it is, but it's not about me. It's what the candidates say that matters."

He also anchored PBS coverage of inaugurations and conventions, dismissing criticism from other TV news organizations that the latter had become too scripted to yield much in the way of real news.

"I think when the major political parties of this country gather together their people and resources in one place to nominate their candidates, that's important," he told The Associated Press in 2000.

"To me, it's a non-argument. I don't see why someone would argue that it wasn't important."

Naturally, Lehrer came in for some knocks for being so low-key in the big televised events. After a matchup between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, David Letterman cracked, "Last night was probably the first and only that time Jim Lehrer [was] the most exciting person in the room."

'I've got all these stories stored up'

But the real-life Lehrer — who had a tradition of buying a new tie for good luck before each debate — was more colourful than he might have seemed on PBS.

On the side, he was also a novelist and sometime playwright. His debut novel Viva Max! was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov. He did a whole series of novels about the adventures of an Oklahoma politician known as The One-Eyed Mack.

"Hemingway said this, too: If you paid attention as a reporter, then when the time came to write fiction you'd have something to write about," Lehrer told The Associated Press in 1991.

"And it turned out I did. And I've got all these stories stored up after 30 years in the news business. And they're just flowing out of me."

As Lehrer turned 75 in spring 2009, PBS announced that the show would be retitled as PBS NewsHour later in the year, with Lehrer pairing up on anchor duties with other show regulars.

He said he approved of the changes, telling The New York Times that having a pair of anchors would "shake things up a bit," even as all sectors of the news business struggled to meet changing reader and viewer demands.

Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, the son of parents who ran a bus line. In addition to titling his memoir A Bus of My Own, he collected bus memorabilia — from station signs to a real 1946 Flxible Clipper bus.

After graduation from college in 1956, he served three years in the Marines, later calling the experience so valuable that he thought all young people should take part in national service.

"I had no close calls, no rendezvous with danger, no skirted destinies with death," he wrote.

"What I had was a chance to discover and test myself, physically and emotionally and spiritually, in important, lasting ways."

He went to work from 1959 to 1970 at The Dallas Morning News and the now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald. Lehrer jumped to television for a Dallas nightly newscast.

Lehrer wrote that it was ironic that the Watergate hearings helped establish the importance of public TV, since former U.S. president Richard Nixon hated public broadcasting. He also recalled that the lengthy hearings gave him the chance to practice his new craft, and MacNeil, already a veteran, gave him valuable pointers on how to speak on camera clearly and conversationally.

He is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters: Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.

Lehrer stands on stage ahead of a 2012 presidential debate in Denver for which he served as moderator. (AFP via Getty Images)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.