Jim Lehrer, the PBS NewsHour anchor who co-founded the program in 1975, died Thursday at his home. He was 85.
Lehrer covered the Senate Watergate hearings for PBS in 1973 before creating The Robert MacNeil Report with Robert MacNeil. The show was renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report the next year. Lehrer went on to be an anchor for the program for 36 years before retiring in 2011.
As an anchor of the flagship news program, Lehrer interviewed world leaders 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.
“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 Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of NewsHour, in a news release. “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.”
Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA in Washington, D.C., said Lehrer was one of America’s most distinguished journalists, calling him a true champion of excellence in reporting. NewsHour is owned by a WETA subsidiary.
“Jim set the gold standard for broadcast journalism in our nation and devoted his life to a vital public service ― keeping Americans informed and thereby strengthening our civil society,” Rockefeller said. “Through his extraordinary insight, integrity, balance and discipline, Jim earned the trust of the American people, and his important legacy lives on at PBS NewsHour.”
PBS President Paula Kerger said Lehrer and MacNeil were skillful at moderating presidential debates and reporting on the world’s most pressing topics. “A true giant in news and public affairs, he leaves behind an incredible legacy that serves as an inspiration to us all,” Kerger said. “He will be missed.”
Lehrer moderated 12 presidential debates, more than any other person in U.S. history, including all of the debates in the 1996 and 2000 election years.
Lehrer began his career as a reporter with The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald, where he covered the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His start on television came with KERA-TV in Dallas. He also worked for NBC News and the National Public Affairs Center for Public Television.
Lehrer attended Victoria College in Texas and studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He served three years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Lehrer was a novelist, memoirist and playwright outside of journalism. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, alongside MacNeil, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters, Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.