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Jim Lehrer, Longtime PBS Anchor, Dies At 85

Jim Lehrer joined PBS in the 1970s and went on to moderate 12 presidential debates and write some 20 novels, three memoirs and several plays.
PBS via AP
Jim Lehrer joined PBS in the 1970s and went on to moderate 12 presidential debates and write some 20 novels, three memoirs and several plays.

Jim Lehrer, the veteran journalist and writer known for his steady, low-key presence in the often noisy world of TV news, died Thursday. He co-founded PBS' NewsHour and won numerous honors — including Peabody and Emmy awards and a National Humanities Medal — in a career that spanned some 50 years.

Lehrer, who was 85, died at his home in Washington. His death was announced by PBS, where for years, Lehrer and his lifelong friend Robert MacNeil co-anchored The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which later became The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and eventually PBS NewsHour.

"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, NewsHour anchor and managing editor. "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."

After serving in the Marines, Lehrer began his journalism career as a reporter, columnist and editor for Dallas newspapers. He worked at public TV station KERA before joining PBS in the 1970s.

Lehrer chronicled such pivotal, weighty events as President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings. He interviewed prominent global figures including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kan., and raised in Texas. His mother was a bank clerk, and his father was a bus station manager. Lehrer's office at PBS was legendary for its collection of bus station memorabilia.

Once dubbed "the dean of moderators" by CNN's Bernard Shaw, Lehrer moderated a dozen presidential debates, an experience he "compared to walking down the blade of a knife" in his book Tension City. Lehrer was criticized by some for not challenging candidates enough, but that wasn't his style. He once told NPR that "the best moderators are the moderators who are essentially invisible."

But Lehrer was anything but invisible. He wrote some 20 novels, three memoirs and several plays. Just last month, he was on CNN talking about President Trump's impeachment.

ABC anchor Peter Jennings once said Lehrer was an "impeccably fair man who listens." According to an appreciation on the PBS website, Lehrer and MacNeil shared an approach to journalism that shaped public media reporting.

"The nine tenets that governed his philosophy included the assumption that 'the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am,' that 'there is at least one other side or version to every story,' that separating 'opinion and analysis from straight news stories' must be done clearly and carefully, and last but not least: 'I am not in the entertainment business.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.