Lehrer teamed with Robert MacNeil in the mid-1970s on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, a nightly PBS newscast in which the two men anchored from different cities — Lehrer in Arlington, VA, and MacNeil in New York. The nightly show underwent some title changes until MacNeil retired in 1995. Lehrer would continue on the program until 2011, when it was known by its current name, PBS NewsHour.
“It is not a journalist’s job to change the world,” Lehrer said in a 2001 interview for the Television Academy Foundation. “A journalist’s job is to see what’s happening in the world and report that to others, who will then change it.”
Anchor Brian Williams announced Lehrer’s death to MSNBC viewers just as Rep. Adam Schiff was taking the podium at the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “A terrific guy with such a quirky intellect and such a love of our trade.”
PBS posted a tribute on its website today that included “The nine tenets that governed his philosophy,” or “Jim Lehrer’s Rules.” They included the assumption that “the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am,” that “there is at least one other side or version to every story,” that separating “opinion and analysis from straight news stories” must be done clearly and carefully, and last but not least: “I am not in the entertainment business.” See them all in chart form below.
For 36 years, Lehrer began his newscasts with a simple phrase, “Good evening, I’m Jim Lehrer.” Nothing more. PBS wrote: “For Jim, being a journalist was never a self-centered endeavor– he always told those who worked with him: ‘It’s not about us.’ … Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity, even as the world of media changed around him.”
Lehrer was born on May 18, 1934, in Wichita, KS. after college and a stint in the Marine Corps, he started his journalism career as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and later the Dallas Times Herald. He moved to TV in the late 1960s, working as an editor and on-air host at Dallas’ KERA-TV.
He was in Dallas covering President Kennedy’s visit the day the 35th President of the United States was assassinated.
From PBS’ obit:
On Nov. 22, 1963, a rainy morning, Jim was asked by an editor to check on one aspect of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dallas: Would the president’s limousine have a plexiglass bubble top attached to shield him and the first lady from rain? In 2014, he told the NewsHour that he approached a secret service agent to ask that question, and that the agent then proceeded to direct the bubble’s removal from the car.
Jim was also at the Dallas police station when Harvey Lee Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, was brought in for questioning.
“I wrote his name down. I still have the notebook. I’m one of those people who asked, hey, did you shoot the president?” Jim recalled.
Because of that day, PBS wrote, quoting MacNeil, when Lehrer became city editor, “he had a rule that every phone that rang in that newsroom got answered, because you never knew who was on the other line.”
Lehrer moved to PBS by the early 1970s, and in October 1975 he became the Washington correspondent for the pubcaster’s nascent Robert MacNeil Report. Within two months, Lehrer was elevated to co-anchor of the program and it was renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. The program would become a staple — and a guidepost — for national TV newscasts for the next several decades.
He first teamed with MacNeil in 1973 for another landmark national news moment: the Watergate hearings. From PBS: “In addition to gavel-to-gavel coverage throughout the day, Jim presented a rebroadcast with analysis late into the night — some 250 hours in all. Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil’s broadcast helped guide viewers through hours of testimony, years before the concept of the 24-hour news cycle.”
Among the numerous accolades Lehrer piled up during his career: Multiple News Emmy and Peabody awards, the National Humanities Medal, Television Hall of Fame, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Medal of Honor and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Here’s a clip from his TV Academy Foundation sit-down of Lehrer recalling how he met MacNeil and their early partnership: