Robert MacNeil, a Canadian-born broadcast journalist who built what is now “PBS NewsHour” and served for two decades as its urbane, evenhanded co-anchor, died Friday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 93.

Obit-Robert MacNeil

Robert MacNeil, the journalist who created the evenhanded, no-frills PBS newscast now known as “PBS NewsHour” in the 1970s and co-anchored the show for two decades with Jim Lehrer, died on Friday. He was 93.  Associated Press, file

His daughter Alison MacNeil confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

MacNeil, known as Robin, and Jim Lehrer, a former Texas newspaperman, formed one of television journalism’s most successful and enduring partnerships in 1975, when they launched what became “The PBS NewsHour.” As the news world transformed around them with the arrival of 24-hour cable news and combative political talk shows, they maintained a reputation for sober, straightforward reporting and analysis.

The duo met in 1973 while anchoring public television’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. Teaming up again two years later, they decided to offer a sophisticated supplement to the network nightly news, focusing on a single issue each night that they addressed in interviews with experts.

“We decided to do a program for the curious, and the informed, and the interested,” MacNeil later told the Toronto Star. “And it worked.”

Known early on as “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” the show anticipated network programs such as ABC’s “Nightline” and expanded from a 30-minute time slot to become the country’s first national, hourlong nightly news broadcast in 1983.


Although it was accused at times of being boring and elitist, the program developed a loyal audience, with about 5 million viewers tuning in each night by the time MacNeil retired as executive editor and co-anchor in 1995.

“In Mr. MacNeil and Mr. Lehrer, ‘The NewsHour’ has the only two major anchors on television who actually practice journalism,” New York Times media critic John Corry wrote in 1983. “They ask questions and then listen to the answers. Network anchors just read the news.”

In addition to Lehrer, who remained as the sole anchor after MacNeil’s retirement and who died in 2020, “NewsHour” has featured journalists including Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Elizabeth Farnsworth, Gwen Ifill, Roger Mudd and Judy Woodruff.

MacNeil had a distinctive and reassuring baritone, with a cultivated accent that complemented Lehrer’s folksier delivery. He saw himself as a writer trapped in a broadcaster’s body – he and Lehrer were both novelists in addition to newscasters – and said he turned to journalism in financial desperation while struggling to make a living as a playwright in London.

He began writing for Reuters in 1955 and five years later joined NBC News as a foreign correspondent, covering fighting in the Belgian Congo, the Algerian war of independence and the construction of the Berlin Wall. After moving to the network’s Washington bureau, he was assigned to cover President John F. Kennedy’s November 1963 visit to Dallas, where he was sitting at the front of a press bus when shots rang out.

MacNeil ran off the bus, followed police officers up a grassy knoll and searched for a phone to call his editor. Sprinting toward the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald was later found to have shot Kennedy, he came face to face with a “young guy in shirt sleeves” who suggested that MacNeil “ask inside” for a phone.


“I didn’t register his face because I was obsessed with finding a phone,” MacNeil told the Canadian Press in 2013. “Much later,” he added, “it occurred to me that I was going in just about the time Oswald had been going out.”

A decade later – while moderating “Washington Week in Review,” his first job at PBS – he started covering the Watergate hearings with Lehrer, with whom he bonded over shared literary interests. They spent more than 300 hours together in front of the camera, anchoring live coverage of the Senate hearings that helped lead to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

MacNeil and Lehrer received an Emmy Award for their Watergate coverage and soon formed “The Robert MacNeil Report,” initially broadcast by WNET in New York, with Lehrer serving as Washington correspondent. After a few months, the show was distributed nationally by PBS and renamed “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” with the two men as co-anchors.

The duo formed a production company in 1981, making “NewsHour” the only major nightly news show to be independently produced and owned by its anchors.

With their focus on informing rather than entertaining, “NewsHour” anchors joked that the show’s motto was, “We dare to be boring.” The program left coverage of sensational stories such as the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial to the major networks, gravitating instead toward foreign conflicts, trade negotiations, nuclear arms deals and the like.

MacNeil interviewed foreign leaders including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was exiled in France when he urged Iranians to overthrow the Shah, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who two decades earlier had placed the young foreign correspondent under house arrest in Havana during the Cuban missile crisis.


Backed by corporate sponsors such as PepsiCo and AT&T, the show endured despite being eclipsed in the ratings by the major network programs and facing a budget shortfall that contributed to MacNeil’s decision to retire on its 20-year anniversary.

“I think we helped create a place for a civil discourse and respect for complexity in a medium which often respects neither – you could even argue increasingly respects neither,” he told the Times in 1995, shortly before stepping down. “Those aren’t small things.”

The oldest of three sons, Robert Breckenridge Ware MacNeil was born in Montreal on Jan. 19, 1931, and grew up in the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and commanded convoy escort ships during World War II, leaving his mother at home to raise Robin and his two brothers.

“The words of her own stories, and of the stories she read me, were the first words I drank in,” MacNeil wrote in a 1989 memoir, “Wordstruck.” Partly from his mother, he inherited a love of language that inspired PBS documentaries such as “The Story of English” (1986), an Emmy-winning nine-part series, and “Do You Speak American?” (2005), both of which he hosted and co-wrote.

MacNeil was steered toward a naval career by his father but, after graduating from high school in Ottawa, failed part of the naval college entrance exam. “When that happened, the bottom dropped out of both my world and my father’s,” he later told People magazine.

He turned toward theater at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. producer recruited him for radio acting after seeing an “Othello” production that featured MacNeil as Cassio. MacNeil played a farmhand on a radio soap, quit school, worked as an all-night DJ and left for the United States, where he failed to find success in the New York theater scene.


Deciding that writing would be his creative outlet, he returned to school, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1955 from Carleton College (now a university) in Ottawa. His plays were rejected by the Royal Court Theatre and BBC’s Radio Drama Co. in London before he began working as a journalist.

MacNeil did some early broadcasting work for Britain’s Independent Television and Canada’s CBC Television. But in a farewell tribute for “NewsHour,” he recalled that his on-air career got off to an inauspicious start: “The very first television interview I ever did, which was live in Canada, I forgot the names of both the people I was interviewing and had to say so to them.”

He found his rhythm at NBC, where he co-anchored a weekend show called “The Scherer-MacNeil Report” before leaving in 1967 for the BBC. MacNeil joined its news program “Panorama” and then moved to Washington, where he credited Lehrer with helping him loosen up his interviewing style, teaching him to ask questions such as “Why?” and “Could you say that again?”

MacNeil’s marriages to Rosemarie Copland and Jane Doherty ended in divorce. In 1984, he married Donna Nappi Richards, who died in 2015.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Cathy and Ian MacNeil, a Tony-winning set designer; two children from his second marriage, Alison and William MacNeil; a brother; and five grandchildren.

In 1997, MacNeil became a U.S. citizen and, while maintaining dual citizenship, was named an officer in the Order of Canada. He also accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton on behalf of the MacDowell Colony, an artist residency program in New Hampshire that he led for 17 years as chairman.

MacNeil maintained an enduring interest in the arts, and while he occasionally returned to PBS after his retirement – including as the presenter of “America at a Crossroads” (2007), a documentary miniseries about the war on terrorism – he spent much of his time writing.

His debut novel, “Burden of Desire” (1992), centered on the catastrophic 1917 collision of two freighters in the Halifax harbor, resulting in an explosion that knocked his real-life uncle off the toilet. Like his follow-up, “The Voyage” (1995), the book was occasionally steamy, jolting some readers accustomed to his buttoned-up interviewing style.

“I think people were surprised that anybody with my persona was writing about matters that exist below the belt,” he told the Times. But in broadcast news, he added, “like in a lot of professions, you use only a band of your personality in public.”

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