May 20, 2024


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Robert McNeil, anchor of PBS's “NewsHour” evening news, dies at 93

Robert McNeil, anchor of PBS's “NewsHour” evening news, dies at 93


Robert MacNeil, who created the balanced, no-frills PBS 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, Allison MacNeil.

MacNeil first gained fame for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the Public Broadcasting Service, and began the half-hour “Robert MacNeill Report” on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as a Washington correspondent.

Jim McNeil first gained fame for his coverage of the Senate hearings into the Watergate scandal for PBS. AP

The broadcast became the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report” and then, in 1983, was expanded to an hour and renamed the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”

The country's first one-hour evening news broadcast, winner of multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards, remains on the air today with Jeff Bennett and Amna Nawaz as anchors.

It was MacNeil and Lehrer's disillusionment with the style and content of competing news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC that led to the creation of the program.

“We don't need to sell news,” MacNeil told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “Networks amplify news to make it seem vital and important. What's missing (in 22 Minutes) is context, and sometimes balance, and consideration of the questions raised by particular events.”

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

When MacNeil visited the program in October 2005 to celebrate its 30th anniversary, he recalled how the newscast began in the days before cable television.

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“It was a way to do something that seemed to be needed journalistically but was different from what the commercial network news (programs) were doing,” he said.

Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame members (from left to right) Fred Silverman, Carl Reiner, Ethel Winant, Lorne Michaels, Jim Lehrer, Robert McNeil and Fred Rogers in 1999. Reuters

MacNeil is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling memoirs “The Right Place at the Right Time” and “Wordstruck,” and the novels “The Burden of Desire” and “The Journey.”

“Writing is much more personal. It's not collaborative in the way television should be,” MacNeil told the Associated Press in 1995. But when you sit down to write a novel, you're like, 'This is what I think, this is what I want to do.' And this is who I am.”

MacNeil also created the 1986 Emmy Award-winning series “The Story of English”, in collaboration with the production company MacNeil-Lehrer, and co-authored the companion book of the same name.

Another book about the language he co-wrote, Do You Speak American?, was made into a PBS documentary in 2005.

In 2007, he served as host of “America at the Crossroads,” a six-night television program exploring the challenges facing the United States in the post-9/11 world.

MacNeil left his duties at the NewsHour after two decades in 1995 to write full-time. Jim Lehrer took over the newscast alone, remaining there until 2009. AP

Six years before the September 11 attacks, he said, discussing the sensationalism and absurdity of the news business: “If something really serious happened to the nation — a stock market crash like 1929, … the equivalent of Pearl Harbor — it wouldn’t happen.” Is the news getting too serious again? Won't people escape the 'print' and the titillation?”

“Of course you would. You should know what was happening.”

That was the case – for a while.

Born in Montreal in 1931, MacNeil grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1955 before moving to London where he began his journalistic career with Reuters.

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He moved to television news in 1960, working as a foreign correspondent for NBC in London.

In 1963, McNeil 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 network news broadcast, NBC's “Sherer-McNeil Report.”

While in New York, he also anchored local newscasts and several news documentaries for NBC, including “The Big Ear” and “The Right to Bear Arms.”

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