PBS announced his death.
While best known for his anchor work, which he shared for two decades with his colleague Robert MacNeil, Mr. Lehrer moderated a dozen presidential debates and was the author of more than a score of novels, which often drew on his reporting experiences. He also wrote four plays and three memoirs.
A low-key, courtly Texan who worked on Dallas newspapers in the 1960s and began his PBS career in the 1970s, Mr. Lehrer saw himself as “a print/word person at heart” and his program as a kind of newspaper for television, with high regard for balanced and objective reporting. He was an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.
Mr. Lehrer co-anchored a single-topic, half-hour PBS news program with Mr. MacNeil from its inception in 1975 to 1983, when it was expanded into the multitopic “MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour.” It ran until Mr. MacNeil retired in 1995. The renamed “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” continued until 2009, when he reduced his appearances to two and then to one a week until his own retirement in 2011.
Critics called Mr. Lehrer’s reporting, and his collaborations with Mr. MacNeil, solid journalism, committed to fair, unbiased and far more detailed reporting than the CBS, NBC or ABC nightly news programs. To put news in perspective, the two anchors interviewed world and national leaders, and experts on politics, law, business, arts and sciences, and other fields.
In 1986, Mr. Lehrer hosted the documentary “My Heart, Your Heart,” which was based on his experience of double-bypass surgery and recovery in 1983. The program, on PBS, won an Emmy and an award from the American Heart Association. He also hosted “The Heart of the Dragon,” a 12-part series on modern China, also shown in 1986.
Known mainly to PBS viewers, Mr. Lehrer became one of television’s most familiar faces by moderating presidential debates, starting in 1988 with the first between Vice President George H.W. Bush and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, and continuing in every presidential campaign through 2012, sometimes including two or three debates in a year.
James Charles Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kan., on May 19, 1934, to Harry Lehrer, who ran a small bus line and was a bus station manager, and Lois (Chapman) Lehrer, a teacher. Jim attended schools in Wichita and Beaumont, Tex., and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, where he edited a student newspaper.
He earned an associate degree from Victoria College in Texas in 1954 and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1956. Like his father and his older brother Fred, he joined the Marine Corps. He was an infantry officer on Okinawa, edited a camp newspaper at the Parris Island Marine training center in South Carolina and was discharged as a captain in 1959.
In 1960, he married Kate Staples, a novelist. She survives him, along with three daughters, Jamie, Lucy and Amanda, and six grandchildren.
From 1959 to 1961, Mr. Lehrer was a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, but he quit after the paper declined to publish his articles on right-wing activities in a civil defense organization. He joined the rival Dallas Times Herald, where over nine years he was a reporter, columnist and city editor.
He also began writing fiction. His first novel, “Viva Max!” (1966), about a Mexican general who triggers an international incident by trying to recapture the Alamo, was made into a film comedy starring Peter Ustinov and Jonathan Winters.
“His apprenticeship came at a time when every reporter, it seemed, had an unfinished novel in his desk — but Lehrer actually finished his,” Texas Monthly said in a 1995 profile.
But it was as a newsman that Mr. Lehrer was best remembered.