Journalist Jim Lehrer’s passing marked by long-standing legacy

After a 36-year career in broadcast journalism and many years of work at MU, PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer died in his home on Jan. 23.

Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor for PBS NewsHour, died in his home in Washington on Jan. 23. Lehrer was born in small-town Wichita, Kansas in 1934, according to a Columbia Missourian article. His parents ran a bus line.

Lehrer graduated from the MU School of Journalism in 1956 and went on to serve in the U.S. Marines for three years. He then took various journalistic jobs in Dallas, Texas, beginning at The Dallas Morning News.

Lehrer’s career transitioned to broadcast when he partnered with Robert MacNeil to establish The Robert MacNeil Report in 1975. The program was later renamed as the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and transitioned to The NewsHour, its current name, when MacNeil retired.

Lehrer served as a broadcast journalist for 36 years, retiring in 2011.

“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,” Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor, said in a statement posted on the PBS NewsHour website. “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.”

KOMU-TV News Director Randy Reeves stated “trust is the number one word” that comes to mind when he thinks of Lehrer.

“He was very straightforward, and he earned the trust that the audience had in him,” Reeves said. “That just plays out over the years. He was the person that people turned to when they really needed to know something, when they needed to find it without any perceived bias.”

Reeves feels that students can learn a lot from Lehrer, given his diverse background as a journalist.

“That's the kind of thing that an awful lot of students can relate to because it's hard for you guys to judge at this point ⁠— do I want to be a TV reporter? Do I want to be a radio reporter? Do I want to just work for a website? Do I want to work for a newspaper?” Reeves said. “What his life and career proved is that what you wanna be is a journalist, and if you can get those basics down and just truly excel in them, you can do that anywhere.”

During his career as a journalist, Lehrer covered stories such as the 1973 Watergate hearings, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 11 presidential debates and much more. He moderated his first presidential debate in 1988, according to PBS NewsHour.

Lehrer was inducted into the MU Homecoming Hall of Fame on Oct. 11, 2019.

Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Mizzou Alumni Association, said that he was surprised to hear of Lehrer’s passing after seeing him in October. McCubbin described Lehrer’s acceptance speech as “very energetic,” stating that he was “so excited to be here that weekend.”

“What I remember most about Mr. Lehrer is how much he cherished his time here — how proud he was to be a Mizzou grad,” McCubbin said. “[He] was a very busy individual with a lot of things he did throughout his career, but whether it was at the School of Journalism or Mizzou as a whole, he would always come back for various opportunities.”

In a Jan. 23 tweet, McCubbin called Lehrer a “giant of a man. Helluva a Tiger.”

“Jim held incredibly high standards for journalism and was very vocal about those,” David Kurpius, MU School of Journalism dean, said.

Kurpius got to know Lehrer when he began his career as the dean four and a half years ago and now says he views Lehrer as a “phenomenal human being.”

“He understood the behind-the-scenes workings of journalism and the need for more women and people of color [and] people who come from rural areas, people from lower socio-economic status backgrounds,” Kurpius said. “He understood the value of that in a newsroom and what it brought to a newsroom.”

Kurpius recalls countless meetings and discussions with Lehrer, in which the late MU alumnus never failed to provide input and help ensure that MU stayed on track with its journalistic standards and ideals.

“He [cared about] the changing nature of the industry and saw both issues on the horizon as well as promise,” Kurpius said.

To MU, Lehrer is, in a word, invaluable.

“I think what we can learn most of all [from Lehrer] is that earning the public’s trust is a vital thing, probably now more than ever,” Reeves said. “And his career, his ability to cover presidents on both sides of the aisle and the world in general, keeping bias out of the picture, shows what the power to be a trustworthy source truly is.”

Edited by Alex Fulton | afulton@themaneater.com

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