Jim Lehrer Dead at 85

Jim Lehrer in 2013. A fixture on public television for decades as an anchor, he also moderated a dozen presidential debates and wrote novels and plays.
Credit…Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Jim Lehrer, the retired PBS anchorman who for 36 years gave public television viewers a substantive alternative to network evening news programs with in-depth reporting, interviews and analysis of world and national affairs, died on Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 85.

PBS announced his death.

While best known for his anchor work, which he shared for two decades with his colleague Robert MacNeil, Mr. Lehrer moderated a dozen presidential debates and was the author of more than a score of novels, which often drew on his reporting experiences. He also wrote four plays and three memoirs.

A low-key, courtly Texan who worked on Dallas newspapers in the 1960s and began his PBS career in the 1970s, Mr. Lehrer saw himself as “a print/word person at heart” and his program as a kind of newspaper for television, with high regard for balanced and objective reporting. He was an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.

“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” Mr. Lehrer told The American Journalism Review in 2001. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

Mr. Lehrer co-anchored a single-topic, half-hour PBS news program with Mr. MacNeil from its inception in 1975 to 1983, when it was expanded into the multitopic “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” It ran until Mr. MacNeil retired in 1995. The renamed “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” continued until 2009, when he reduced his appearances to two and then to one a week until his own retirement in 2011.

Critics called Mr. Lehrer’s reporting, and his collaborations with Mr. MacNeil, solid journalism, committed to fair, unbiased and far more detailed reporting than the CBS, NBC or ABC nightly news programs. To put news in perspective, the two anchors interviewed world and national leaders, and experts on politics, law, business, arts and sciences, and other fields.

It was not unusual to see presidents, prime ministers, congressional and corporate leaders and other luminaries interviewed on “MacNeil/Lehrer.” Early subjects included the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Presidents Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Mr. Lehrer also interviewed nearly all of America’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates from 1976 on.

With Mr. Lehrer reporting from Washington and Mr. MacNeil from New York, the program sought to represent all sides of a controversy by eliciting comments from rivals for public attention. But the anchors deliberately drew no sweeping conclusions of their own about disputed matters, allowing viewers to decide for themselves what to believe.

The approach had its drawbacks. An extended presentation of authoritative voices offering conflicting viewpoints left some viewers dissatisfied, if not confused. Many found the technique elitist and dull, and even some critics called it boring — or, worse, a willful refusal by Mr. Lehrer and Mr. MacNeil to make hard judgments about adversarial issues affecting the public interest.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Robert D. McFadden