Jan. 23 (UPI) — “PBS NewsHour” co-founder Jim Lehrer, who anchored for 36 years before retiring in 2011, has died at age 85.
Lehrer died Thursday in his sleep at home, the public television network announced.
“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 “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff. “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 was born in 1934 in Wichita, Kan., the son of a bank clerk, Lois, and a bus station manager, Harry. He attended Victoria College in Texas and studied journalism at the University of Missouri.
He was known for his fairness in reporting and selflessness, which came from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served three years as a infantry officer in the late 1950s, including time in the Pacific. His father and brother enlisted in the Marines before him. Though Lehrer saw no combat, he often said the experience shaped him.
“I am grateful my country forced me to serve my country. Not for my country’s sake, but for my own. In that diverse company, I learned to be responsible for others,” he said in a 2006 commencement speech at Harvard. “I learned to be dependent on others. I learned there was more to life than me, me, me, me.”
His journalism career began as a Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times-Herald reporter. He was assigned to cover John F. Kennedy’s arrival at Dallas’ Love Field on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated.
He shouted out “Did you shoot the president?” as suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was taken to a Dallas police station.
“What the Kennedy assassination did for me was forever keep me aware of the fragility of everything, that, on any given moment, something could happen,” Lehrer said. “When I later became city editor of [The Dallas Times-Herald], I had a rule that every phone that rang in that newsroom got answered because you never knew who was on the other line.”
Lehrer shifted to television news in Dallas, working as executive director of public affairs, on-air host and editor of nightly news program KERA-TV, before joining NewsHour co-founder Robert McNeil on the national stage.
They worked together for two decades, including covering the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, for which they earned an Emmy.
“We began life in October 1975 as ‘The Robert MacNeil Report,'” Lehrer said while reminiscing on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearing. “And months later became ‘The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.’ In those days, we dealt with one story for half an hour.”
The half-hour report would morph into “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” in 1983, an hour-long news program on important stories of the day. In October 1995, when MacNeil retired, the show was renamed “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” with Lehrer as the sole anchor. The show’s name was changed again in 2009 as Lehrer considered retirement to “PBS NewsHour.” Lehrer left the program in June 2011 after some 8,000 broadcasts.
“Jim Lehrer embodies the best, timeless ideals of journalism,” said Mark Hamrick, who was serving as president of the National Press Club when Lehrer was awarded the Fourth Estate Award in 2011. “He is a remarkable example of how one can be both selfless and supremely successful and universally admired.”
Lehrer interviewed leading figures worldwide, including Margaret Thatcher and Yasser Arafat in the 1980s, South Korean President Kim Daejung and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in the 1990s. He also interviewed Jordan’s King Abdullah and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the 2000s.
Domestically, he was known for interviewing President Bill Clinton about accusations regarding his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Lehrer was also known for staying calm in times of crisis as he covered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I’m Jim Lehrer. Terrorists used hijacked airliners to kill Americans on this, Sept. 11, 2001,” he reported. “Another day of infamy for the United States of America.”
Lehrer received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Press Club of St. Louis, in Maryland Heights, Mo., in 2018.
MacNeil described his focus as “laser-like.”
“Jim’s intelligence is so laser-like, no matter what he’s applying it to, that’s how he treats any situation, no matter how we treat a certain news story or what a news story means,” MacNeil said. “I learned a lot from him about his very direct manner of interviewing . . . And not being afraid to say you don’t understand or you don’t know. But also his extraordinary ability to listen. You know the hardest thing to do on TV is to listen.”
In particular, MacNeil pointed out his ability to moderate 12 presidential debates and not lose focus. The first debate he moderated was in 1988 and the last was between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.
“He’s brilliant at that,” MacNeil said. “Nobody does it better than he does. Brilliant. I learned a lot about the fundamental meaning of fairness.”
Lehrer was also a writer outside of his journalism career, as an author of some 20 novels, three memoirs and several screenplays, which drew on his interest in history and politics.
Survivors include his wife, Kate, daughters Amanda, Lucy and Jamie and six grandchildren.