A man PBS calls “a giant in journalism known for his tenacity and dedication to simply delivering the news” died peacefully in his sleep at home on Thursday (1/23), at the age of 85.
Within hours, former colleagues, peers, TV journalists and Americans were reacting to the loss of NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer.
In a story posted at 1pm Eastern on the PBS NewsHour website, the newscast — today anchored by Judy Woodruff, saluted Lehrer for being a journalist without “a self-centered endeavor.”
PBS continued, “He always told those who worked with him: ‘It’s not about us.’ Night after night, Jim led by example that being yourself — journalist, writer, family man, citizen — can be a high calling.”
For 36 years, Jim began the nightly newscast formerly known as the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, co-hosted by Bob MacNeil, with a simple phrase: “Good Evening, I’m Jim Lehrer.” PBS continued, “Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity– even as the world of media changed around him.”
Jim was born in 1934 in Wichita, the son of a bank clerk and a bus station manager. He attended Victoria College in Texas and then studied journalism at the University of Missouri.
Lehrer served three years as an infantry officer in the late 1950s, including time in the Pacific, as a U.S. Marine. He saw no combat, but spoke often of how the experience shaped him. “Seldom a day goes by, that I don’t know that I am doing something because of something I learned in the Marine Corps,” he said at a 2010 parade the Corps put on, in his honor.
In 1960, Jim married his lifelong partner, Kate Staples. He also began his journalism career in earnest that year. He reported for both the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald from 1959 to 1966, covering local politics. He became the Times-Herald’s city editor in 1968.
On Nov. 22, 1963, a rainy morning, Lehrer 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.
Lehrer 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?” Lehrer recalled in 2014.
Lehrer’s television career was also launched in Dallas, at KERA-TV. His move to the national stage with PBS came when he became a correspondent for what was then called the National Public Affairs Center for Television, or NPAT. It was there he first joined MacNeil to cover another watershed moment — the Watergate hearings, in 1973.
Lehrer took a co-anchor slot with MacNeil at PBS in early 1976. As RBR+TVBR reported in May 2011, he would step down after 36 years in the NewsHour role on June 6, 2011, ending the longest run of a national anchorman.
“I have been laboring in the glories of daily journalism for 52 years – 36 of them here at the NewsHour and its earlier incarnations – and there comes a time to step aside from the daily process, and that time has arrived,” Lehrer said in a press statement.
The late Gwen Ifill, along with Woodruff, Jeffrey Brown, Ray Suarez, and Margaret Warner continued as rotating hosts after Lehrer’s departure. Today, it is Woodruff who is the main anchor.
“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, also the managing editor of the 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.”
PBS President Paula Kerger added, “From co-creating the groundbreaking MacNeil/Lehrer Report to skillfully moderating many presidential debates, Jim exemplified excellence in journalism throughout his extraordinary career. A true giant in news and public affairs, he leaves behind an incredible legacy that serves as an inspiration to us all. He will be missed.”