Robert MacNeil: Too Much ‘Hyperventilating’ Over Tabloid Stories In TV News

By Alissa Krinsky Comment

Where Are They Now? A TVNewser Series

Robert MacNeil.jpgAs we continue TVNewser’s ongoing series “Where Are They Now?”, we talk with former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil. Next week: former NBC News correspondent Norma Quarles.

He was in Dallas when JFK was shot. Berlin when the Wall went up. And in Cuba during the Missile Crisis. “I had the luck — or accident — of such extraordinary assignments,” Robert MacNeil tells TVNewser, reflecting on a journalism career that has spanned more than half a century.

A career that almost didn’t happen. After college, MacNeil set off for England to be a playwright. But “the plays didn’t sell”, he says, and he ended up taking a temporary gig with the newly-launched Independent Television News (ITN) before spending five years with Reuters in London.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

MacNeil, 78, got a big break in 1960 after he left Reuters and began freelancing. NBC’s London bureau asked him to cover for a vacationing reporter, John Chancellor. The bureau then hired MacNeil as an editorial assistant, and when Chancellor accepted a posting in Moscow, offered Chancellor’s London correspondent job to MacNeil.

(Photo by Don Perdue)

The network brought MacNeil stateside in 1963. That November, he was assigned to cover a presidential visit to Dallas. In a lifetime of reporting, MacNeil says covering the Kennedy assassination “was certainly the biggest story” of all. “And it was as traumatizing to the reporters who covered it as it was to the nation, and the world, for that matter.”

He stayed with NBC for seven years — during which time he co-anchored the first half-hour Saturday network newscast — then returned to London to work at the BBC program Panorama. MacNeil later joined PBS, where, in 1973, he co-anchored the network’s Watergate coverage with Jim Lehrer. The two teamed again when The MacNeil/Lehrer Report [eventually renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour] debuted in 1975.

MacNeil Lehrer.jpgThe show’s time slot followed the network evening newscasts, and MacNeil remembers it as “quite original, kind of a supplement or complement to network news” that attracted a “following”. The show “demonstrated that there was an audience for a more in-depth look at the news.”

After a twenty year run, MacNeil retired from the show in October of 1995. He’s proud of the program today — now The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — and its avoidance of what he calls the “adoption of tabloid values” by news outlets “hyperventilating over a particular story.” He finds the ongoing heavy coverage of Michael Jackson‘s death, for example, “absurd.”

In contrast, he says, “the steady, quiet NewsHour continues to hold the loyalty of its audience.”

And MacNeil continues as a partner in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces the NewsHour as well as ongoing special programming for PBS. In addition to serving as chair of New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artists’ colony, he’s also working on his tenth book — a novel — and he travels the world as a lecturer on Lindblad Expeditions cruises. Next month, along with Tom Brokaw, MacNeil will participate in a Newseum program on the Berlin Wall.

A native Canadian who became a U.S. citizen in 1997, MacNeil is the father of four and grandfather of five. He lives with his wife in New York and maintains a home in Nova Scotia. When he looks back on his professional life, he jokes about having “failed as a playwright” and speaks fondly of the journalism career that made him a witness to — and chronicler of — history. “I loved it, a lot of it. I feel I made a modest contribution. And I had a great time doing it.”