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Death of Robert MacNeil: Creator and first anchor of PBS’s ‘NewsHour’ evening newscast, dies at 93

NEW YORK — Robert MacNeil, who created PBS’s straightforward, impartial newscast “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” in the 1970s and co-anchored the program with his late partner, Jim Lehrer, for two decades, died Friday. He was 93 years old.

MacNeil died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to his daughter, Alison MacNeil.

MacNeil first gained prominence for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the public broadcasting service and began his half-hour “Robert MacNeil Report” on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as Washington correspondent.

The broadcast became the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report” and then in 1983 was expanded to one hour and renamed the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” The nation’s first one-hour evening newscast, winner of multiple Emmy and Peabody awards, remains on the air today with Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz as anchors.

It was MacNeil and Lehrer’s disenchantment with the style and content of rival news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC that led to the show’s creation.

“We don’t need to SELL the news,” MacNeil told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “The networks exaggerate the news to make it seem vital, important. What’s missing (in 22 minutes) is context, sometimes balance and a thoughtfulness.” of questions that arise from certain events.”

Channel Thirteen, The Robert MacNeil Report, a news program that provided in-depth coverage of a different topic each night.

Photo by: NY Daily News via Getty Images

MacNeil left his anchor duties at “NewsHour” after two decades in 1995 to write full-time. Lehrer took over the newscast alone and remained there until 2009. Lehrer died in 2020.

“It was a way of doing something that seemed journalistically necessary and yet was different from what commercial network news (programs) did,” he said.

MacNeil wrote several books, including two memoirs, “The Right Place at the Right Time” and the best-selling “Wordstruck,” and the novels “Burden of Desire” and “The Voyage.”

“Writing is much more personal. It’s not collaborative like television should be,” MacNeil told The Associated Press in 1995. “But when you’re sitting there writing a novel, it’s just you: This is what I think, this is what I want. do. And it’s me.”

Another language book he co-wrote, “Do You Speak American?”, was adapted into a PBS documentary in 2005.

In 2007, he hosted “America at a Crossroads,” a six-night PBS program exploring the challenges facing the United States in a post-9/11 world.

Six years before the 9/11 attacks, speaking of sensationalism and frivolity in the news business, he had said: “If something really serious were to happen to the nation – a stock market crash like the one in 1929, . ..the equivalent of Pearl Harbor- Wouldn’t the news become very serious again? Wouldn’t people run away from print and excitement?

“Of course I did. You’d have to know what was going on.”

That’s how it was… for a while.

Born in Montreal in 1931, MacNeil was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from Ottawa’s Carleton University in 1955 before moving to London, where he began his journalism career at Reuters. He moved into television news in 1960 and accepted a job at NBC in London as a foreign correspondent.

In 1963, MacNeil was transferred to NBC’s Washington bureau, where he reported on civil rights and the White House. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and spent most of 1964 following the presidential campaign between Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and Republican Barry Goldwater.

In 1965, MacNeil became the New York anchor of the first half-hour weekend network news broadcast, “The Scherer-MacNeil Report” on NBC. While in New York, he also anchored local newscasts and several NBC news documentaries, including “The Big Ear” and “The Right to Bear Arms.”

MacNeil returned to London in 1967 as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp. series “Panorama.” While at the BBC, he covered American stories such as the clash between anti-war protesters and Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the funerals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Robert Kennedy and President Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1971, MacNeil left the BBC to become chief correspondent for PBS, where he teamed with Lehrer to co-anchor public television’s Emmy-winning coverage of the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings.


Associated Press writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.

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