Robert MacNeil, Earnest News Anchor for PBS, Dies at 93

Robert MacNeil, the Canadian-born journalist who broadcast sober evening newscasts for more than two decades on PBS as co-anchor of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” later developed as “The MacNeil /Lehrer NewsHour,” died early Friday in Manhattan. . He was 93 years old.

His death, which occurred at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Alison MacNeil.

Mr. MacNeil worked for NBC News early in his career and was a reporter for the network in Dallas on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But he came to reject the flashier style of American commercial networks, and in 1971 he joined the newly formed Public Broadcasting Service.

He brought with him a keen news sensibility to the BBC, where he had worked on an interim basis, and became a key figure in developing American public television’s in-depth, even-handed approach to news coverage. the information.

A partnership with Jim Lehrer in 1973 to cover the Senate Watergate hearings for PBS was unpopular with operators of many local public stations, who believed that prime-time broadcasts were not appropriate in the evenings. But the two men’s serious demeanor was a hit with viewers, and the shows won an Emmy Award and ultimately launched a lasting collaboration.

In October 1975, some major public networks began broadcasting the “Robert MacNeil Report,” a half-hour designed by Mr. MacNeil that examined a single issue each evening and avoided ostentatious productions. Within a year, the program was renamed the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. It was expanded again in 1983 to become “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour”, a multi-topic program that was the nation’s first full hour of evening news.

The program provided a striking counterpoint to the increasingly frothy newscasts broadcast on local affiliates of the commercial networks and was recognized with every major broadcast journalism award.

Intensely private in public, Mr. MacNeil was known among his friends as endearing and incredibly funny. He took pride in his pragmatic on-air style, which critics called boring but which he described as civilized discourse in the public interest. A memorable example is his hour-long 1985 interview with Fidel Castro, in which Mr. Castro reluctantly defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in part because he “would never side with the States -United “.

Mr. MacNeil defended his interview style and his program’s low-sensational approach to important topics. “I can’t stand the theatrical prosecutor interview, the interview designed to draw attention to the interviewer, full of cutesy and false sentiments or theatrically bellicose questioning,” he told the New York Times in 1995, when he retired from daily television news.

“Every journalist in this country has a stake in making the democratic system work, and I think democratic institutions deserve to be taken seriously,” he added. “It’s a very old-fashioned and cheesy view, but Jim and I both feel strongly about it, which is one of the reasons our show is the way it is.”

Robert Breckenridge Ware MacNeil, known as Robin, was born on January 19, 1931 in Montreal and grew up in the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father, Robert AS MacNeil, served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, commanding convoy escort ships, and then joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. His mother Margaret (Oxner) MacNeil had to raise her children alone for several years while her husband was at war.

While Mr. MacNeil was studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, a CBC producer spotted him in a school production of “Othello” and he was hired to act in CBC radio productions and eventually in a daily radio soap opera.

He soon dropped out of college to try his hand at theater full-time, but decided he was better suited to becoming a playwright and returned to school, this time at Carleton University in Ottawa. While still a student, he worked as a national radio host for the CBC, then for the new CBC television service, where he also hosted a children’s show.

After graduating, he moved to England to write plays, but soon turned to journalism to earn money. He told The Times in 1995: “I had one of those golden careers; it just floated.

In 1960, after five years at the Reuters news agency in London, Mr. MacNeil joined NBC News, eventually replacing John Chancellor as a high-profile foreign correspondent, covering the wars in Africa and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (For about a week after this October 1962 episode, he and five other journalists were under house arrest in a Havana hotel by the Castro government.) He witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall and later covered its dismantling in 1989.

Mr. MacNeil was assigned to cover Washington in 1963 and was on his first presidential trip on November 22 when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Although his work covering the murder was overshadowed by that of his colleagues at NBC News, he may have had his own experience of that day’s drama.

After the shots were fired in Dealey Plaza, Mr. MacNeil headed toward the nearest building, the Texas School Book Depository – the building from which the fatal shots had been fired. There, he asked a man who was leaving and another in the lobby where the nearest telephone was. Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, later told Dallas police that he met with a Secret Service agent in the building. Historian William Manchester concluded in his 1967 book, “Death of a President,” that the man in the suit, crew cut and press badge was in fact Mr. MacNeil.

In his autobiography, “The Right Place at the Right Time” (1982), Mr. MacNeil wrote that “it was possible, but I had no way of confirming that any of the young men to whom I had spoken was Oswald.”

In 1965, Mr. MacNeil became co-anchor, with Ray Scherer, of NBC’s half-hour weekend news show, “The Scherer-MacNeil Report.” But two years later he returned to London, reporting for the BBC’s “Panorama”, before joining PBS in 1971.

Mr. MacNeil, who had residences in Manhattan and Nova Scotia, became an American citizen in 1997 and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada that same year. He reflected on his life as a dual citizen in a 2003 memoir, “Searching for My Country: Finding Myself in America.”

His wife, Donna MacNeil, died in 2015. His first marriage, to Rosemarie Coopland, ended in divorce, as did his second marriage to Jane Doherty.

He is survived by two children from his first marriage, Ian MacNeil, a theater set designer who won a Tony in 2009 for his work on the musical “Billy Elliott,” and Cathy MacNeil; two children from his second marriage, Alison and Will MacNeil; and five grandchildren.

After retiring from daily television news, Mr. MacNeil continued to work with PBS, including hosting the show “America at the Crossroads.” documentary series in 2007, which examined the country’s challenges in the post-9/11 world. With Mr. Lehrer, his close friend, he remained a partner in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produced their newscast until 2014, when WETA, the Washington, D.C. public media station where the “NewsHour” is based , took possession of it. Mr. Lehrer died in 2020 at age 85.

Mr. MacNeil found himself at the center of controversy in 2011 when, returning to “NewsHour” for a six-part series on autism, he told the story of his grandson Nick. He was criticized for allowing his daughter Alison to question whether her son’s autism was linked to vaccines. (He qualified his comments by noting that “public health authorities say there is no scientifically sound evidence that vaccines cause autism.”)

Mr. MacNeil chaired the board of directors of the MacDowell Colony (now known as MacDowell), the retreat for artists, writers and musicians in Peterborough, New Hampshire, from 1993 to 2010. After leaving the “NewsHour” , he returned to his first love, writing. He is the author of “The People Machine” (1968), about the relationship between television and politics; three memoirs; and four novels: “Burden of Desire” (1992), “The Voyage” (1995), “Breaking News” (1998) and “Portrait of Julia” (2013).

He was co-author of “The Story of English,” a companion volume to the 1986 BBC-PBS television series he hosted, and he wrote its 2005 sequel, “Do You Speak American?”

Mr. MacNeil remains proud of his early evening newscast. In interviews for the Archives of American Television in 2000 and 2001, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered.

“Television has completely changed journalism, not just for television, but for print and for everyone,” he said. “It changed the whole culture and philosophy of journalism. And to have been able to hold the course, perhaps in the manner of Canute, against a tide which will eventually swallow us all, for a few years, has been a source of satisfaction for me.

Sofia Poznansky contributed reporting

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News Source : www.nytimes.com


With a penchant for words, Eleon Smith began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class.After interning at the New York Times, Smith landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim.Though writing is his passion, Eleon also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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