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

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

His death, at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Alison MacNeil.

Mr. MacNeil spent time at NBC News early in his career and was a reporter for the network in Dallas on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But he came to reject the flashier style of the commercial American networks, and in 1971 he joined the fledgling Public Broadcasting Service.

He brought with him a news sensibility honed at the BBC, where he had worked in the interim, and became a key figure in shaping U.S. public television’s in-depth and evenhanded approach to news coverage.

A pairing with Jim Lehrer in 1973 to cover the Senate Watergate hearings for PBS was unpopular with the operators of many local public stations, who thought the prime-time broadcasts weren’t appropriate evening fare. But the two men’s serious demeanor was a hit with viewers, and the broadcasts won an Emmy Award and eventually launched an enduring collaboration.

In October 1975, some major public stations began carrying the “The Robert MacNeil Report,” a half-hour of Mr. MacNeil’s design that examined a single issue each night and shunned showy production values. Within a year the program was renamed “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” It was expanded again in 1983 to become “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” a multitopic program that was the nation’s first full hour of evening news.

The program offered a stark counterpoint to the ever-frothier newscasts on the commercial networks’ local affiliates and was honored with every major broadcast journalism award.

Intensely private in public, Mr. MacNeil was known to friends as engaging and wickedly funny. He was proud of his no-nonsense style on air, which critics called boring but which he called civilized discourse in the public interest. One memorable example was his hourlong interview in 1985 with Fidel Castro, in which Mr. Castro reluctantly defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in part because he would never “be on the side of the United States.’’

Mr. MacNeil defended his interviewing style and his program’s unsensational approach to weighty topics. “I cannot stand the theatrical, prosecutorial interview, the interview designed to draw attention to the interviewer, full of either mawkish, false sentiment or theatrically belligerent questioning,” he told The New York Times in 1995, when he retired from the daily newscast.

“Every journalist in this country has a stake in the democratic system working, and I think institutions of democracy are worth taking seriously,” he added. “It’s a very old-fashioned, corny view, but Jim and I both feel that strongly, which is one of the reasons our show is the way it is.”

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

While Mr. MacNeil was attending Dalhousie University in Halifax, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. saw him in a school production of “Othello,” and he was hired to act in CBC radio productions and eventually a daily radio soap opera.

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

After graduating, he moved to England to write plays, but quickly turned to journalism to make 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 wide-ranging foreign correspondent, covering wars in Africa and the Cuban missile crisis. (For about a week after that October 1962 episode, he and five other journalists were held under house arrest in a Havana hotel by the Castro government.) He was present at 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 Nov. 22 when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. While his work covering the killing was overshadowed by that of his NBC News colleagues, he may have had his own brush with the drama of that day.

After the shots were fired in Dealey Plaza, Mr. MacNeil made his way to 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 the Dallas police that he had encountered a Secret Service agent at the building. The historian William Manchester concluded in his 1967 book, “The 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 either of the young men I had spoken to was Oswald.”

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

Mr. MacNeil, who had homes in Manhattan and Nova Scotia, became an American citizen in 1997 and was made an officer in the Order of Canada the same year. He reflected on his life as a dual citizen in a 2003 memoir, “Looking 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 theatrical set designer who won a Tony in 2009 for his work on musical “Billy Elliott,” and Cathy MacNeil; two children from his second marriage, Alison and Will MacNeil; and five grandchildren.

After retiring from the daily newscast, Mr. MacNeil continued to work with PBS, including hosting the “America at a Crossroads” series of documentaries in 2007, which examined the nation’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, assumed ownership. Mr. Lehrer died in 2020 at 85.

Mr. MacNeil found himself at the center of controversy in 2011 when, returning to “NewsHour” for a six-part series on autism, he featured 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 did qualify her comments by noting that “public health authorities say there is no scientifically valid evidence that vaccines cause autism.”)

Mr. MacNeil chaired the board of the MacDowell Colony (now known as MacDowell), the retreat for artists, writers and musicians in Peterborough, N.H., from 1993 to 2010. After leaving the “NewsHour,” he returned to his first love, writing. He was 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 a co-author of “The Story of English,” a companion volume to the 1986 BBC-PBS television series that he hosted, and he wrote its 2005 sequel, “Do You Speak American?”

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

“Television has changed journalism, utterly, not just for television, but for print and everybody else,” he said. “It’s changed the whole culture and ethos of journalism. And to have been able hold the line — perhaps Canute-like — against a tide that’s going to engulf us all in the end, for a few years, has been a source of gratification to me.”

Sofia Poznansky contributed reporting

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