Jim Lehrer, journalist who co-founded 'PBS NewsHour,' dead at 85

"As an anchor of several iterations of the 'NewsHour,' Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity, even as the world of media changed around him."
/ Source: NBC News

Jim Lehrer, a journalist who co-founded PBS' nightly newscast, died on Thursday. He was 85.

Lehrer anchored the public television nightly newscast for 36 years before retiring in 2011. PBS confirmed his death.

"As an anchor of several iterations of the 'NewsHour,' Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity, even as the world of media changed around him," said an obituary published on PBS.org.

The obituary said the newsman often reminded colleagues "It’s not about us." He had nine rules for reporting the news including: "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story" and "I am not in the entertainment business.”

Lehrer began as a newspaper reporter. He went from covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a young journalist in Dallas to broadcast reports with Robert MacNeil on the Watergate hearings, which led to the launch of their joint nightly news report.

On that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, Lehrer was sent to Dallas to get confirmation about one detail of Kennedy's visit to the city — would the president's car have a plexiglass bubble to protect him and the first lady from rain? As he later recounted on the "NewsHour," "he approached a Secret Service agent to ask that question, and that the agent then proceeded to direct the bubble’s removal from the car."

Lehrer and MacNeil, who had covered the assassination for NBC News, both said the experience greatly affected and informed their careers.

"What I took away and have taken away — and it still overrides everything that I have done in journalism since — what the Kennedy assassination did for me was forever keep me aware of the fragility of everything, that, on any given moment, something could happen," Lehrer said. "I mean, my God, if they could shoot the president."

“And that president,” MacNeil added.

He moderated a dozen presidential debates — more than anyone else in U.S. history, according to PBS.

He also authored 20 novels, three memoirs and several plays, and was the recipient of countless journalism awards. In 1999, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, and inducted into the Television Hall of Fame alongside MacNeil.

“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." “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.”

Lehrer was born in 1934 in in Wichita, Kansas, to a bank clerk and a bus station manager.

He graduated from Victoria College in Texas and then studied journalism at the University of Missouri. Lehrer served three years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and although he didn't see combat, he said the experienced influenced him greatly.

“Seldom a day goes by that I don’t know that I am doing something because of something I learned in the Marine Corps,” he said in 2010.

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