Jim Lehrer, the legendary journalist who helped set a high bar for TV journalism via his long-running program on PBS, died on Thursday at his home, according to the network. He was 85 years old.
Lehrer was a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News who moved to TV reporting for the local public TV station, KERA. He soon found himself working as a national correspondent for the National Public Affairs Center for Television, then the biggest producer of public-affairs programming for PBS stations. When the Watergate hearings captured national attention in 1973, Lehrer and another journalist he was teamed with, Robert MacNeil, began spending hours and hours on camera, telling American viewers the ins and outs of the extraordinary situation, in which the Nixon administration sought to cover up its involvement in a break-in at Democratic National Committee. The duo held forth over the course of 250 hours, in both daytime and night. There was no such thing at the time as wall-to-wall coverage on any sort of cable-news network.
Lehrer and MacNeil would go on to found in October of 1975 “The Robert MacNeil Report,” a half-hour report on a single topic. Within months, it was retitled “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” In 1983, the show expanded to 60 minutes and became known as “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” Lehrer would become the sole name anchor twelve years later, after his partner retired, and the program was called “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” Since that time, the program has become an institution, and is now anchored by Judy Woodruff.
“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,” said Woodruff., anchor and managing editor of what is now known as “PBS NewsHour.” “I’ve looked up to him as the standard for fair, probing and thoughtful journalism and I know countless others who feel the same way.”
Lehrer moderated 12 president debates — including all of the debates in 1996 and 2000, more than any other journalist in U.S. history. His first was in 1988, and his last in 2012. He is survived by his wife Kate; daughters Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.
Various generations of journalists paid tribute to him on Thursday.
“One of the best debate moderators & an inspiration to a whole generation of political journalists— including this one,” said Bret Baier, an anchor at Fox News Channel, via comments posted on Twitter. ‘In the trenches of electronic journalism over the decades, I met a lot of people. Few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer. He was a gentlemen, and a helluva journalist. He will be missed,” said Dan Rather, the former ‘CBS Evening News” anchor.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, also mourned Lehrer’s loss. “Our nation has lost a champion for truth and transparency,” she said. “As one of the founders of PBS NewsHour, as well as its longtime host, Jim Lehrer worked to keep America’s leaders accountable to the people.”
Lehrer was known for dispensing a brand of coverage that relied on a cool demeanor and a just-the-facts presentation, and avoided some of the flashing chyrons and gossipy questions that have become accepted as de rigueur in modern newscasting. One of his tenets held that journalists should “assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.”
Lehrer was born in 1934 in Wichita, Kansas. His parents were Lois, a bank clerk, and Harry, a bus station manager. After attending Victoria College in Texas,, he would move to learn about journalism at the University of Missouri. He served three years as a Marines infantry officer in the late 1950s, and spent part of his tour in the Pacific.
He is also the author of 20 novels, three memoirs, and several plays. One book, “Viva Max,” was eventually developed ito a film starring Peter Ustinov and Jonathan Winters. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton – who he questioned on TV about allegations he had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky – and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame with MacNeil, his former on-air partner.
“Through his extraordinary insight, integrity, balance and discipline, Jim earned the trust of the American people, and his important legacy lives on at PBS NewsHour,” said Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, the Washington, D.C. PBS station that produces the program in 2020.