Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor of the PBS NewsHour who began his public television career at KERA, has died. He was 85.
Lehrer was hired by KERA to launch Newsroom, a half-hour weeknight television news program that debuted in 1970. Lehrer served as executive producer and editor.
His pioneering work at KERA led him to Washington, D.C., and the National Public Affairs Center for Television, where he met Robert MacNeil. The two would form a partnership that lasted decades, working together on PBS’ nightly news program.
“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 PBS 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 Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, but moved to Beaumont, Texas, and later San Antonio, where he graduated from high school. After graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism and a stint in the Marine Corps, he joined The Dallas Morning News in 1959 as a reporter.
Lehrer moved on to work for the Dallas Times-Herald, where he covered the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. At the Times-Herald, he was also a political columnist for several years, and later became the city editor.
In the late 1960s, Lehrer transitioned from newspapers to television. He joined KERA-TV, where he worked as the executive director of public affairs and created Newsroom.
Lehrer said public television stood out as far different than what the traditional three television networks were doing.
“I could never have imagined in those days having gone to work for commercial television,” he told the Television Academy Foundation in 2001.
When then KERA manager Bob Wilson asked Lehrer to launch public affairs programming at the station, he didn’t have a lot of experience.
“I had done two television things in my whole life,” he said. “They were kind of a local version of what was then Meet the Press ... I was just a reporter asking people questions.”
Newsroom made an instant splash in Dallas-Fort Worth, generating wide praise for taking on a variety of controversial news topics facing the region, including school desegregation.
Lehrer told Krys Boyd on KERA's Think that daily deadlines disciplined him.
"When 6 o'clock comes we have to have a program ready. I have be able to say 'good evening' and not 'hey sorry we’re not ready yet,'" He said. "When the day ended I could say 'I did this today.'"
Veteran Dallas journalist and host of KERA’s CEO Lee Cullum worked with Lehrer on Newsroom.
“What set him apart was Jim had enormous integrity as a journalist,” Cullum said. “And he had the nerve of a high diver.
She said journalism in Dallas was tough when Lehrer started.
“Those were the days when The Dallas Morning News owned Channel 8, the Dallas Times-Herald owned Channel 4 and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram owned Channel 5,” Cullum said. “It only took three phone calls to kill a story — and certainly, the powers at be didn’t hesitate to make those three phone calls whenever they wanted to keep something off the news.”
She said Lehrer was undaunted.
“Jim on Newsroom went right ahead and did the story which enraged people, and made the show very controversial,” Cullum said. “Because of Jim, D Magazine became possible, Texas Monthly became possible.”
Those stories attracted a lot of attention at a time when television news rarely did, according to former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. He went to journalism school with Lehrer and covered the courts on Newsroom before going into politics.
"We had things on the air sometimes before the newspapers did," Frost said. "Sometimes The Dallas Morning News and the Times-Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram would pick up things that we had covered on the air."
Longtime broadcast and print journalist Bob Ray Sanders worked as a reporter on Newsroom. He also said that Lehrer’s leadership had a lasting impact on news.
“The influence that he had on so many other people’s lives, including those he knew personally, but those beyond the TV screen… he changed broadcast news in Dallas-Fort Worth and then the nation,” Sanders said. “He was not intimidated by power and prestige. He was your regular guy who was there asking powerful people tough questions.”
Lehrer went on to join National Public Affairs Center for Television, NPACT.
In 1975, Lehrer became the Washington correspondent for the Robert MacNeil Report on WNET-TV, the public television station in New York City. He was quickly promoted to co-anchor and the program was renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. The program relaunched as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1983, and eventually evolved into the PBS NewsHour.
In addition to anchoring the evening news, Lehrer moderated presidential and vice presidential debates, interviewed presidents and received some of the most prestigious awards in journalism — including Emmys and a George Foster Peabody Broadcast Award. Lehrer also wrote several books and plays.
Lee Cullum said she will miss Lehrer immensely.
“I will miss his wonderful company, I will miss his lovely notes, I will miss his point of view,” she said. “I will miss all that he brought to the world and to all our lives.“
Lehrer's family said he died at home in his sleep.
Updated 6:38 p.m.