Jim Lehrer, Longtime PBS News Anchor and Fixture at Presidential Debates, Dies at 85

January 23, 2020 by Dan McCue
FILE - This Oct. 1, 2012 file photo shows moderator Jim Lehrer outside Magness Arena, site of a presidential debate on the campus of the University of Denver in Denver. PBS announced that PBS NewsHour's Jim Lehrer died Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, at home. He was 85. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

WASHINGTON – Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor of PBS NewsHour and moderator of 12 presidential debates — more than anyone in broadcast history — died on Thursday at his home in Washington, D.C.

His death was announced by PBS, for which he served as the news anchor for 36 years. He was 85.

“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, the NewsHour’s current 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,” she said.

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, the flagship public media station for Washington, D.C., which assumed ownership of NewsHour in July 2014, added, “We at WETA are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our longtime friend and colleague Jim Lehrer, one of America’s most distinguished journalists and a true champion of excellence in reporting.

“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.”

Lehrer, who co-founded NewsHour with Robert MacNeil in 1975, anchored the show for almost four decades before retiring in 2011.

After simply being called NewHour for the first eight years of its existence, the program was renamed the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1983, and kept that name until 1995, when MacNeil retired.

The renamed NewsHour With Jim Lehrer continued until 2009, when Lehrer reduced his appearances to two and then to one a week until his own retirement.

Lehrer moderated 12 presidential debates, including all of the presidential debates in 1996 and 2000.

“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” Lehrer told The American Journalism Review in 2001. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

In its remembrance, PBS recalled Lehrer as a journalist for whom the profession was not a self-centered endeavor. He always told those who worked with him, “It’s not about us.”

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.”

“We are deeply saddened to learn of Jim Lehrer’s passing,” PBS President Paula Kerger said in a written statement. “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 work on television, Lehrer wrote 20 novels, three memoirs, and several plays and earned dozens of journalism awards and honorary degrees.

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.

Prior to his long career at the NewsHour, Lehrer worked at the Dallas public television station KERA, the National Public Affairs Center for Television, the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald.

Lehrer attended Victoria College in Texas and later studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He served three years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

He is survived by his wife Kate; three daughters Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.

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