The main explanation: Jim Lehrer.
Jim, who died Thursday, and the highly respected Robert MacNeil, known to us as Robin, were expanding their half-hour show on PBS to what would be the nation’s first hour-long broadcast evening news program. In a conversation, Jim’s eyes had burned with excitement as he talked about the great journalism we’d do: It would be serious, respectful, fearless, tough and fair. It would be about the news, not about the journalist. News people are famous for egos; we were to leave them at the door.
Everything Jim said those summer days came to be, and more. The “NewsHour” has grown and flourished for more than three-and-a-half decades.
No journalist has had a more enduring impact in that time than Jim: moderator of presidential debates, a steady, probing presence through national and international crises, and prolific author.
His courage and professionalism were evident before he came to Washington. With a pregnant wife, Kate, and their infant daughter in the early 1960s, a young Jim Lehrer resigned from Dallas’s largest newspaper when its editors wouldn’t run his exposé of a right-wing group. For all of his unsurpassed success in television, Jim always thought of himself as a print reporter.
It’s the “PBS NewsHour” that is the Lehrer legacy. From Day One, he and Robin demanded excellence, to strive for perfection even when it wasn’t achievable.
He could be exacting, even intimidating; on occasion, there were flashes of temper. What we were doing mattered; Jim believed that the public’s right to know is the essence of a free society, that we were fortunate to have that solemn responsibility.
It wasn’t a boot camp led by this proud former Marine, however. With Jim and Robin and founding executive producer Les Crystal, it was collegial, collaborative and fun. We often laughed at some of Washington’s absurdities, not infrequently at ourselves.
He was a great tease. When a magazine mistakenly listed me as 10 years older than I was, he paraded it around the office to make sure everyone knew of my advanced age. When I left the “NewsHour” for a spell to work for a cable-news channel, he always inquired about life at the “Home Shopping Network.”
No one was more supportive; if any of us had personal or family problems, Jim was there. He told a young colleague with cancer, “Your job is to let me know anything I can do.” Another, a single woman, was going through the difficult process of adoption. The one person engaged and encouraging throughout was the boss.
Jim, that product of the Midwest in an earlier generation, was also a feminist. With an equally talented writer, Kate, at his side, and three strong, remarkable daughters, he believed in promoting women.
When I arrived at the “NewsHour,” the top correspondent was Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Linda Winslow succeeded Les as executive producer. After Jim retired, Gwen Ifill and I became the first female anchor team of a network news program. Jim had hired us both; we wouldn’t have had that opportunity without him.
Today the executive producer is Sara Just, and we have the highest proportion of women in top positions of any national news organization. Of course, along with Robin, Jim’s great partner was Sharon Rockefeller, the president and chief executive of WETA; ever since the MacNeil-Lehrer coverage of the Watergate hearings, those two worked their magic at public broadcasting.
Today with careless chatter about “fake news,” and some disdain or distrust of straight news, Jim Lehrer should serve as a model. Millions of Americans knew what he reported could be trusted. He has not worked full-time at the “NewsHour” for almost a decade, but his presence is here every day. His death leaves a terrible void. But we celebrate the good fortune to have worked for and learned from an extraordinary newsman and person. We know the Lehrer legacy will be here for many, many years.
His persuasiveness in that summer of 1983 changed and enriched my life. Jim Lehrer was my close friend, my professional inspiration and a hero for our time.