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Jim Lehrer, journalist who co-founded PBS' nightly newscast, dead at 85

"As an anchor of several iterations of the NewsHour, Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity, even as the world of media changed around him."
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Jim Lehrer, the venerable journalist who co-founded the PBS' nightly newscast, died peacefully in his sleep Thursday, the network said.

He was 85.

Lehrer anchored the public television nightly newscast for 36 years before retiring in 2011.

"As an anchor of several iterations of the NewsHour, Jim reported the news with a clear sense of purpose and integrity, even as the world of media changed around him," an obituary published on said.

The obituary said the newsman often reminded colleagues that "it’s not about us." He had nine rules for reporting the news, including: "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story" and "I am not in the entertainment business.”

Lehrer began as a newspaper reporter. He went from covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a young journalist in Dallas to broadcasting reports with Robert MacNeil on the Watergate hearings, which led to the launch of their joint nightly news report.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Lehrer had been sent to Dallas to get confirmation about one detail of Kennedy's visit to the city — would the president's car have a plexiglass bubble to protect him and the first lady from rain? As Lehrer later recounted on the NewsHour, "he approached a Secret Service agent to ask that question, and that the agent then proceeded to direct the bubble’s removal from the car."

Lehrer and MacNeil, who covered the assassination for NBC News, both said the experience greatly affected and informed their careers.

"What I took away and have taken away — and it still overrides everything that I have done in journalism since — what the Kennedy assassination did for me was forever keep me aware of the fragility of everything, that, on any given moment, something could happen," Lehrer said. "I mean, my God, if they could shoot the president."

“And that president,” MacNeil added.

On another day that forever altered the country and the world, Lehrer opened his newscast this way: “I’m Jim Lehrer. Terrorists used hijacked airliners to kill Americans on this, September 11, 2001."

“Another day of infamy for the United States of America," Lehrer said.

He moderated a dozen presidential debates — more than anyone else in U.S. history, according to PBS. His first was in 1988 and his last was in 2012. In both 1996 and 2000, he moderated all of the presidential debates.

He also authored 20 novels, inspired by his journalism career and passion for history and politics, three memoirs and several plays, and was the recipient of countless journalism awards. In 1999, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, and inducted into the Television Hall of Fame alongside MacNeil.

“I’m heartbroken at the loss of someone who was central to my professional life, a mentor to me and someone whose friendship I’ve cherished for decades,” Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, said. “I’ve looked up to him as the standard for fair, probing and thoughtful journalism and I know countless others who feel the same way.”

President Barack Obama answers a question from debate moderate Jim Lehrer during a presidential debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3, 2012.Michael Reynolds / AP file

Lehrer was born in 1934 in in Wichita, Kansas, to a bank clerk and a bus station manager.

He graduated from Victoria College in Texas and then studied journalism at the University of Missouri. Lehrer served three years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and although he didn't see combat, he said the experience influenced him greatly.

“Seldom a day goes by that I don’t know that I am doing something because of something I learned in the Marine Corps,” he said in 2010.

In 1983, Lehrer suffered a major heart attack that led to lifestyle changes, which he detailed in the documentary “My Heart, Your Heart." He changed his diet and took up napping daily, always between 1 and 2 p.m.

He also made a hobby of collecting intercity bus memorabilia. But above all, his family was his first priority.

Lehrer is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters, Jamie, Lucy and Amanda; and six grandchildren.