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Jim Lehrer, PBS NewsHour co-founder and anchor of 36 years, left a lasting mark on the world of journalism. But for those who worked with him, his influence was deeply personal.
Jim’s legacy remains an integral part of the work we do every day at the NewsHour and its parent company, WETA. Here are some remembrances from his former colleagues that provide a glimpse into what he meant to us and the program over the years.
Do you want to share your memories of Jim Lehrer? Leave your memories and comments in our form. We’ll share them with Jim’s family and may use some online and on the PBS NewsHour.
As the first substitute anchor on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1977, I learned a lot from just watching Jim. And while he had a lot to teach me, it was always by example, never a critical word. One of my lingering memories was when Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison and my producer, Jacqui Farmer, and I had immediately made reservations to fly to South Africa the next day. But when Jim was called and told of my plans by Les Crystal, the executive producer, I got a call shortly thereafter from Les who said Jim said the only way he would agree to the trip was if I could guarantee an interview with Mandela. Well…without thinking twice, I said, “You got it.” And, of course, honoring my word to Jim was all important. So guess what? I got it. And despite the dozens of journalists from all over the world who had descended on his little house in Soweto, ee got one of the only two half hours with him. NO WAY I COULD LET JIM LEHRER DOWN. That and so much more, as his colleague and friend. Long Live!
I thank my lucky stars every day for coming of age as a journalist under Jim’s leadership. His integrity and commitment to fairness and truth (even when it’s hard to find) are evident in the rules he wrote for himself and expected of his staff. As a former Marine, he ran a tight ship and respected the chain of command; but he always made each one of us, no matter how junior or geographically far we were from NewsHour’s studios, to feel part of an extended family. A spoof newscast he recorded for my dad’s 80th birthday meant the world to my father. He was so proud that I got to work for Jim Lehrer. I am too. Onward.
I worked with Jim Lehrer for some 35 years. He was the most decent man I have ever known! And that’s saying a lot in this profession! I have always suspected that Kate and their three daughters had a most positive effect/influence on Jim! This was especially true when it came to promoting women in all the iterations of the NewsHour and MacNeil/Lehrer from the early Report days and onward!
He was a disciplined writer, a great teacher and a wonderful mentor!
Having started at the program in 1978 as his “secretary” and the program’s production secretary, I learned early on the importance of clarity and succinctness and, most of all, anything and everything that had to do with buses! I was most fortunate in spending my “news” career with this wonderful man! He will be missed especially by those of us who worked with him all those years!
Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil meet with colleagues Judy Woodruff and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
Jim hired me more than 40 years ago as a reporter for the tiny Washington staff of The Robert MacNeil Report. He has been my mentor and good friend ever since. I learned just about everything I know about the rights and wrongs of journalism from him.
He and Robin MacNeil created a cause for us to rally around as the rest of the journalism world seemed to be heading in a dangerous direction. They had an unfailing compass about the profession and how it should be practiced. And, we followed their lead, always excited to come to work each day and never once embarrassed by where we worked. It is a rare gift and a great legacy.
Jim was also an unfailing friend in so many ways, personally and professionally. I will feel his presence and his guidance for all of my life.
I worked in the New York office for Robin so I didn’t know Jim as well as I would have liked, but of course I had huge admiration and respect for him … and a healthy amount of fear (ex-Marine!) So it was with some trepidation that I called him late one weekday afternoon 20+ years ago, from a flea market where I was shooting. I had come across a mint condition bus company sign and was torn between wanting to let him know about a potential addition to his collection vs. not wanting to disturb him so close to air time. I decided to leave a message with his secretary Roma, including the seller’s contact information, that she could relay after the show. But as soon as I mentioned “bus sign,” Roma said “hold for Mr. Lehrer,” and suddenly Jim himself was on the line grilling me about the sign. Unable to provide much detail other than “it’s very big,” I passed the phone to the dealer, and it didn’t take long for them to establish that Jim already owned one just like it. And when I took the phone to say goodbye, Jim couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious – even if was so close to air time!
Viewers saw Jim define “gravitas” each night, and colleagues generally experienced the serious side of Jim each day as we were dealing with the crush of news. But, there was also a hugely joyous side to Jim that showed his big heart and inspired us to work even harder. When I left network producing to join the NewsHour 20 years ago, it was because Jim had the great foresight to birth a Media Unit to “report and analyze the issues that drive news coverage.”
Along with media correspondent Terence Smith and our team, we did that for many years across the country — and with good impact. Jim was also a supporter of the arts, and of course a well-published author, and so he wanted his program to always provide that salve for the soul, even in the busiest of news cycles. Along with arts correspondent Jeff Brown, and with the support of our management, we continue that legacy to this day. Again, Jim had the vision that the arts should have a home on this program and we should offer viewers a different lens through which to view the world.
I felt as though I had the best peak into Jim’s love of all things political, arts and journalism generally when I rummaged through old folders and photos in his basement office one day for a piece. He loved to look back, yes, but he also always had one step into the future. Thank you for that, Jim.
So much has been said about Jim’s journalistic influence on us –- all true! He kept us thinking, he kept us on our toes in terms of the kind of reporting we did and the questions we asked. But there were other sides to him: his laugh, which I keep hearing in my head, his sense of humor, the books and plays he wrote, his floor-to-ceiling display of bus memorabilia…he even owned a bus! He showed us the life inside journalism. But he also showed us that there was a full life, with room for family and enjoyment and, always, whatever the focus, dedication.
Producer Patti Parson works with Jim Lehrer during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo courtesy Patti Parson
Jim could be funny and generous. And he could be tough and intimidating too. If you screwed up or missed something that he thought was important, he’d let you know it because he had such high standards for what made air and wanted to make sure it was a program you could be proud of. There were times when I didn’t agree with a call he made, and times when he didn’t agree with my take or approach. But Jim would come by later on to apologize privately if he thought he had gone too far, and to encourage me to still push for a story or guest or idea I believed in. I didn’t always win. But I always thought that was an important attribute he brought as the managing editor of the program — ensuring the producers would reach higher for stories they were pursuing.
I met Jim Lehrer at a breakfast event for WHRO, the public broadcasting station for Hampton Roads, on the morning before I started working at that station in 2005. The room was packed with supporters and they absolutely hung on Jim’s words. He was informative, entertaining, and beloved. When I joined the staff of WETA in 2012, I heard wonderful stories about Jim from my colleagues in production and at PBSNewHour. It was always a delight to see him return, and I am honored to be affiliated with PBS NewsHour and WETA today. We sure could use more Jim Lehrers in journalism today, but his legacy continues at WETA and on PBS. I hope many wonderful memories of Jim bring comfort to all who worked with him and loved him.
One of my favorite memories of Jim was at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Walter Isaacson awarded Jim the Aspen Lifetime Achievement Award. During Walter’s presentation, he asked Jim to tell the audience about one of Jim’s first jobs announcing the local bus schedules. Jim did more than just describe the job, he gave an impressive and hilarious rendition of his bus calling expertise. The Aspen audience gave him a standing ovation. It was a privilege to be in the audience.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I remember Jim Lehrer on my television set every evening for the The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour…the old intro music indicated to me that it was time to be quiet so my parents could watch the news. I’ll admit, it wasn’t my favorite time of day as a kid, but as an adult I am so glad that my parents exposed me to the high quality tv and public affairs programming that Jim Lehrer offered his audiences. I never had the opportunity to meet Jim, but am proud that my work at WETA allows me to support and promote his legacy.
Jim Lehrer on the set of the NewsHour.
I bumped into Jim Lehrer for the first time just a few months ago at Best Buns bakery, yet I felt like I had know him my whole life. His voice was a constant presence in my household growing up, and his easy partnership with Robin MacNeil on MacNeil-Lehrer as we called it, encouraged all of us to be measured in our response to the ups and downs of the news cycle. I told Mr. Lehrer it was an honor to meet him after all this time. He was just as gracious as I expected him to be, telling me to “keep up the great work” at WETA and NewsHour. My thoughts are with his family.
For decades, Jim Lehrer’s reasoned voice told us the stories of our time in his straight-forward style of journalism. Turns out, that is exactly the kind of measured reporting our nation has needed to find common ground and to overcome division. I watched him long before having the good fortune of working here. This place he forged misses him very much, but hopefully, we all carry a piece of his legacy forward with every deadline we meet and every story we share. Thank you for everything, Jim.
Jim Lehrer sits beside Gwen Ifill during an editorial meeting in his office, which was decorated with bus memorabilia. Photo by Daniel Sagalyn
I watched The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour every night with my father while I was growing up. One day my sixth-grade teacher asked me, “Do you watch MacNeil/Lehrer?” I was amazed at her deductive powers! It was an honor to share that brief story with Jim a few months ago when he came into the office – and his fist pump was just as gratifying. I feel grateful to have had exposure to such high-quality journalism starting at a young age and to now work alongside wonderful colleagues who continue that legacy every day at NewsHour. My deep sympathies to his family and colleagues who have lost a beloved mentor and friend and, as Debbie says above, will find comfort in many good memories and an appreciation of his indelible mark on American journalism.
I run NewsHour Extra, NewsHour’s classroom resource website. Teachers come up to me all of the time in schools and at education conferences to say how much Jim Lehrer meant to them growing up and how much he factored into their decision to become a teacher. I know because I was one of those teachers. I taught middle and high school social studies for 13 years before coming to the NewsHour. Lehrer’s insightful and empathic approach to journalism inspired me to think critically and care about what’s going on in the world and to pass these values on to my students.
Extra is currently working on a new website for students on the history of journalism, so I’ve gotten to go through a ton of old footage of Lehrer and Robert MacNeil covering the Watergate hearings. Lehrer’s nuanced, discerning reporting gives me pause and forces me to think a little deeper every time I hear it. In one clip, Lehrer talks about the “little guys” — the men who followed along and did what they were told — “the spear carriers for the generals,” he calls them. Lehrer’s clear to say how they, too, deserve their comeuppance, if the case calls for it, but that it can’t just be them, and not those at the top. That’s as close to political poetry as I’ll ever hear it.
When I was in college, one of my professors would go on and on about a little-known news program on PBS called the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. He raved about it being true journalism at its best, and urged his students to watch it. Who knew I would be working on that program just a few years later. I learned so much about the do’s and don’ts of journalism –and life — from Jim Lehrer. For me, Jim was more than a consummate journalist. He was a great friend and mentor. I came to know his wonderful wife, Kate, and their three beautiful daughters. Jim was an especially kind and caring person. I could talk with him about anything and he always offered sage advice when necessary. He often inquired about my family and was genuinely concerned. It is my honor to have known such a man as Jim Lehrer. I will miss him, but he will live on in all of our hearts and minds.
For the first few years of our existence, the digital (or online or web or internet) team at the NewsHour worked squirreled away in a corner office of the MacNeil/Lehrer offices across the “creek” from the studio. We were making up what it meant to be a website for a nightly broadcast and we were pretty sure no one was watching too closely.
But Jim was.
One day we were summoned across the creek to the office, with its bus memorabilia and gravitas. It was terrifying. We trooped in there, I was somewhere in my mid- to late-20s and in charge. Jim had a message that was crystal clear — those kids from online and the NewsHour were one and the same and it was about time we all behaved that way.
It was a heady and frightening change. Instead of sitting around the big table in the online room and making things up, we now had to live up to the standards Jim and the broadcast team were so famed for.
Jim expected us to keep up and it was a thrilling and daunting challenge. He understood that audiences were getting their news in new ways and we had to serve those folks, even as we continued to make a quality broadcast program. He got us started and made sure the idea that “it was good enough to put online” was not a NewsHour standard. His instance that we always strive to do better served as my journalism graduate program and I brought his teachings out here to Montana to train hundreds of young journalists. I hope I live up to the teach I had, because I cannot convey how much he taught me.
I worked in New York and Jim, of course, was in Washington, so I didn’t get to see him in person a lot, but here are some fond memories.
THE PHONE CALL: In 1983 about six weeks after the NewsHour debuted, I was in my office and the phone rang. “Mike, I apologize for not calling sooner. Just want to let you know that was a great piece you and Webb did in Beirut.” It was Jim. A story that Jim Webb and I had done about the U.S. Marines in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war had aired the previous week. I thanked him, and started to say goodbye figuring he was busy and would want to get off the phone. But he stayed on and we continued to talk much longer. A call much appreciated.
JIM’S LEAD-INS: During my thirteen years at MacNeil/Lehrer I drafted countless lead-ins for Robin, Charlayne, Judy and others and rarely had a significant change, but Jim … Jim was a whole different matter. I would draft a lead-in and invariably he would translate it into his own special Kansas/Texas Lehrer-speak. And every time I heard his translation I smiled. Who else but Jim could have written this intro? “We lead tonight with a story about John Ripley of Topeka Kansas. He has nothing to do with the deficit, Oliver North, arms control, Mikhail Gorbachev, or similar matters. His interests are history and song slides and this is New Year’s Eve.” On paper, on the air and in person, Jim was one of a kind.
I’ve been gone from the NewsHour for over three decades and some memories of Jim are fresher than others. One of the most meaningful occurred only a few years ago, long after I left the program. Joe Quinlan organized a gathering of NewsHour alumni in New York, which included Jim and Robin. All of us had been in the trenches together at one point or another over the years, with one clear goal in mind—to produce a great news program.
It was a powerful experience that we all shared. While immersed in the daily grind of putting the show together, there wasn’t much time for reflection. We reported the news, went home, and returned the next day to do it all over again. And we did it for years. By the time we gathered in New York, however, there had been lots of time for reflection. Spontaneously, one after the other, we opened up about what Jim and Robin meant to us, what we meant to each other, and the importance of the show in our lives.
We realized that working together had made us better professionals and, to some extent, better people. The gathering represented an experience we will never forget, which is one of the reasons the bond that connects us remains so strong. I think Jim would be extremely proud of the fact that he, along with Robin, not only profoundly influenced the history and practice of journalism but made significant contributions to the lives of people he worked with and mentored.
It doesn’t get much better than that. Today, I’m reminded of my time with Jim, Robin and my NewsHour colleagues almost every day. I have a framed cartoon that depicts one woman talking to another, with this caption: “I’m watching MacNeil, my sister is watching Lehrer.”
This might be wishful thinking, but I like to think that Jim is now watching over all of us. And if he is, I can see him smiling.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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