Legendary television news anchor and journalist Jim Lehrer passed away this morning at the age of 85.
Lehrer was anchor of the PBS NewsHour for 36 years before retiring in 2011. He and Robert MacNeil founded the program in 1975, out of their 1973 coverage of the Senate Watergate Hearings on PBS.
“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 and managing editor Judy Woodruff said in a statement. “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 also added, “On behalf of all of us at PBS, we are deeply saddened to learn of Jim Lehrer’s passing. 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.”
In addition to his decades leading the NewsHour, he moderated a total of 12 presidential debates, more than any other person in American history, including all of the presidential debates in the 1996 and 2000 elections.
Lehrer interviewed some of the biggest figures of the past 50 years, including Margaret Thatcher and Yasser Arafat in the 1980s, South Korean President Kim Daejung and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, and Jordan’s King Abdullah and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the 2000s.
Lehrer grew up in Texas and reported for the Dallas public television station KERA, the National Public Affairs Center for Television, the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald, before his iconic career at the NewsHour.
Lehrer is survived by his wife Kate; 3 daughters Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and 6 grandchildren.
TVNewser spoke with Lehrer the day he announced his departure from the NewsHour in 2011, telling former co-editor Alex Weprin:
“I am very much at ease about it, and it is very much my decision,” Lehrer told TVNewser. “That is also unusual, [laughs] usually someone else makes the decision when it is time for an anchor person to go.”
The only thing I cared about was that when I did go, I didn’t hear the crash of porcelain over my shoulder, as often times happens in these kinds of things–particularly in television as you know. Some anchor type announces he or she is going to go, and there is all kinds of speculation as to who will take the persons place. In this case, I spent 18 months, almost two years paving the way for this. We changed the name to “PBS NewsHour,” took my name off, developed my team. There is no speculation as to who will take my place, the team will take my place,” he added.
Lehrer says that with the for-profit broadcast networks struggling, the need for solid journalism on the public airwaves becomes that much more important, and he expects the “NewsHour” continue filling that void.
“The need for what we do and how we do it has never been greater,” Lehrer says. “As the commercial world continues to contract, and have its problems, it is not only a natural opportunity for public broadcasting, it is our responsibility to help fill in some of those gaps in serious journalism. From my point of view the future of serious journalism in public broadcasting could not be stronger.”