Jim Lehrer, co-host and later host of the nightly PBS NewsHour, has died at the age of 85.
Lehrer died "peacefully in his sleep", according to PBS. He had suffered a heart attack in 1983 and underwent heart valve surgery in April 2008.
For Lehrer, and for his friend and longtime partner Robert MacNeil, broadcast journalism was a service, with public understanding of events and issues its primary goal. Lehrer was also a frequent moderator of presidential debates.
“We both believed the American people were not as stupid as some of the folks publishing and programming for them believed,” Lehrer wrote in his 1992 memoir, A Bus of My Own.
“We were convinced they cared about the significant matters of human events. And we were certain they could and would hang in there more than 35 seconds for information about those subjects if given a chance.”
Tributes poured in from colleagues and viewers, including from Fox News’s Bret Baier, who called Lehrer “an inspiration to a whole generation of political journalists— including this one”. Dan Rather said “few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer”. Jake Tapper of CNN called Lehrer “a wonderful man and a superb journalist”.
Lehrer was the Washington correspondent for the half-hour Robert MacNeil Report, which began on PBS in 1975. MacNeil and Lehrer had already made names for themselves at the then-fledgling network through their work with the National Public Affairs Center for Television and its coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973.
The nightly news broadcast, later retitled the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, became the nation’s first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983 and was then known as the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. After MacNeil bowed out in 1995, it became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The title changed to PBS NewsHour in 2009, two years before Lehrer’s departure.
Lehrer moderated his first presidential debate in 1988 and was a frequent consensus choice for the task in subsequent presidential contests.
“Anybody who would say it’s just another TV show is a liar or a fool,” he once said. “I know how important it is, but it’s not about me. It’s what the candidates say that matters.”
He also anchored PBS coverage of inaugurations and conventions, dismissing criticism from other TV news organisations that the latter had become too scripted to yield much in the way of real news.
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“I think when the major political parties of this country gather together their people and resources in one place to nominate their candidates, that’s important,” he told The Associated Press in 2000. “To me, it’s a non-argument. I don’t see why someone would argue that it wasn’t important.”
Naturally, Lehrer came in for some knocks for being so low-key in the big televised events. After a matchup between George W Bush and Al Gore in 2000, David Letterman cracked: “Last night was probably the first and only that time Jim Lehrer (was) the most exciting person in the room.”
But the real-life Lehrer — who had a tradition of buying a new tie for good luck before each debate — was more colourful than he might have seemed on PBS.
On the side, he was also a novelist and sometime playwright. His debut novel Viva Max! was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov. He did a whole series of novels about the adventures of an Oklahoma politician known as The One-Eyed Mack.
“Hemingway said this, too: If you paid attention as a reporter, then when the time came to write fiction you’d have something to write about,” Lehrer told The Associated Press in 1991.
“And it turned out I did. And I’ve got all these stories stored up after 30 years in the news business. And they’re just flowing out of me.”
He is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters: Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.
Additional reporting by agencies
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