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Remembering Robert MacNeil, longtime host of PBS 'NewsHour'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Today on FRESH AIR, we're going to remember two notable people who died last week, documentarian and author Eleanor Coppola and veteran TV news reporter and anchor Robert MacNeil. We'll start with Robert MacNeil, who was 93 when he died last Friday.

Robert MacNeil was born in Montreal in 1931, the son of a Royal Canadian Mountie. Though his early ambitions were to be an actor and a playwright, he changed gears while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and became a journalist. During his long and distinguished career, MacNeil was in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up in the '60s, and was there again when it was torn down in the '90s. He was in Dallas working for NBC the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In 1971, he joined PBS, covering the news in a way that offered more depth and less flash than the other U.S. broadcast networks were doing at the time.

He was still a relatively unknown entity, but at the time, so was PBS. With programs like "Sesame Street," "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" and imported British dramas presented under the title "Masterpiece Theater." Eventually, these shows became very popular on public television, and so did McNeil when he was paired with another journalist, Jim Lehrer, to anchor the network's prime-time evening reruns of each day's coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. The other networks rotated live coverage during the day, but PBS considered it a public service in the days before home video recorders to have the hearings available for viewing at night. Here's how Robert MacNeil introduced that very first prime-time program on May 17, 1973, offering context and substance all at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MACNEIL: Good evening from Washington. In a few moments, we're going to bring you the entire proceedings in the first day of the Senate Watergate hearings, hearings to bare the truth about the wide range of illegal, unethical or improper activities established or still merely alleged surrounding the reelection of President Nixon last year. As the hearings progress, we shall see cross-examination of men who were once among the most powerful in the land. As the Select Committee tries to answer the ultimate question - how high do The scandals reach, and was President Nixon himself involved?

BIANCULLI: After Watergate ran its course, Robert McNeil used his newfound celebrity to launch "The Robert MacNeil Report" in 1975, a serious news program looking at a single issue in depth each day. Within a year, he reteamed with his Watergate co-anchor, and the series was renamed "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report." That award-winning program was expanded to an hour and retitled "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1983. MacNeil retired from the show in 1995, and Jim Lehrer went on to anchor the "NewsHour" solo until 2011. In 2020, Jim Lehrer died at the age of 85. The first time Terry Gross spoke with Robert MacNeil was in 1986. She asked him about his early work as a news correspondent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You did foreign correspondent work pretty early on in your career and stuck with that for several years. What were the stories in which you most felt you were really covering history in the making, that you were there for what was to later be recognized as a great moment in history?

MACNEIL: Well, one was the Berlin Wall, clearly. It - I don't think had any doubt - I mean, sometimes you just don't know. And for years later, you don't realize the significance of something. But the Berlin Wall clearly was. I was sent by NBC, and I went to Berlin, and I checked into the Kempinski hotel and went out and had dinner. And then I was feeling tired, so I went to bed. And about 3 in the next morning, the news desk in New York rang up and said, what's this about they're closing the border? East Germans have closed the border to East Germany. Of course, there was a lot of tension over Berlin that summer, so I don't know. I'll go and find out. I got dressed and got a taxi down to the Brandenburg Gate just at dawn on a nice August day, Sunday, and there were the East German guards putting up barbed wire across the Brandenburg Gate and rolling huge cement flowerpots into position as a kind of fence to block the traffic, which was the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall.

And I just knew that was a momentous thing. I mean, there had been all sorts of speculation that summer about something the Soviets or the East Germans might do, and whether it might provoke the West into something that could ultimately lead to war. And this was regarded as a major provocation. And for the next few days, although the West ultimately did nothing, there was a sense in the air that very terrible things could happen, you know? And so that was a moment of history.

And now there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I was whisked off to Washington to help in the Pentagon and the State Department coverage there. And then a few days later, because I had a Canadian passport, they said, why don't you try and go to Cuba? As a result, I ended up there with a bunch of European journalists and one Japanese, and they had visas. I didn't. But we all got locked up in rooms in a hotel and were held there for nine days and observed what we could see of the Cuban Missile Crisis going on at the windows.

GROSS: Yeah. You were basically held under house arrest...

MACNEIL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...In a hotel in Cuba.

MACNEIL: Yeah. With armed guards outside the door and all that.

GROSS: What were you told?

MACNEIL: Nothing.

GROSS: How did you end up...

MACNEIL: You're going to be guests...

GROSS: Did they round you up and take you?

MACNEIL: Yeah. At gunpoint. They said you're coming downtown, and we got into a truck. And then we went into the hotel lobby, and a Cuban army officer said, you're going to be the guests of the Cuban government. And I said, no, no, I'm NBC, and I'm going to pay my own way, and I don't want to be your guest. Thank you. You're going to be the guest of the Cuban government. So we were put in rooms, and they cut off the phones. We were at one end of a corridor and they put two chairs outside, and there were Cuban soldiers with machine guns on their laps outside. And so while all the most fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis were going on, we were on the ninth floor of the Capri Hotel, able to look out over the harbor and see Soviet ships and other things there, look down at the rather antiquated anti-aircraft guns that the Cubans were jumping onto and wheeling around very rapidly every time some American reconnaissance planes flew over.

We didn't know whether it was going to be an American air raid, as there was some talk of or not, but eventually, after a lot of false attempts - once we knew that they weren't going to shoot us or do anything harmful to us, it was just boring and sometimes very amusing.

GROSS: When you first started to work for public television, it was through NPAC, the National Public Affairs Center...

MACNEIL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...For Television, which was basically attacked by the Nixon administration. And that's been revealed in detail through...

MACNEIL: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: ...Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act.

MACNEIL: The great irony was that after nearly being run out of town by the Nixon White House in - Sandy Vanocur and I on the - when we were doing this - the one-year thing called "Impact," which was an attempt to set up a kind of PBS News in Washington, a politically premature attempt, we came back, Sandy left, Jim Lehrer replaced Sandy, which was where I got to know him, and we came back and anchored, Jim and I, the public television continuous coverage of the Watergate hearings, which, of course, led to Nixon's downfall. Not that we had a sense of revenge doing that, but that - those Watergate hearings, because commercial television never covered them in their entirety, and if you remember, public television also, we rebroadcast them at night when everybody could watch.

That brought an enormous audience to public television. It doubled and trebled the memberships of prominent public television stations, because people were so grateful for an opportunity to see these hearings. It also demonstrated to the public television system that journalists in public television could handle the most sensitive story and do it fairly and do interesting commentary on it and pungent analysis and do it in a responsible way. And our desire to do a nightly program grew out of that experience. Now, it is true that when we set up the - what was first called "The Robert MacNeil Report," later "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," in a report. One of my considerations was to demonstrate to the public television system and the constituent stations that we can do journalism that is fair, objective and balanced, and that has been a particular thing of Jim's and mine. I mean, we are really obsessed by that, not out of a desire to pussyfoot or because we're afraid of anybody, but because it's needed in the nation's journalism. And we don't apologize for any of that, and I don't think it's because we're afraid to pull punches.

GROSS: We only have a couple of seconds left, but I'd like to know if it was really hard for you when you gave up smoking. Knowing the kind of pressures and deadlines that you're under, was it really hard to do?

MACNEIL: Like Mark Twain, it's easy. I've done it many times.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, so are you smoking again?

MACNEIL: Not now, but I did it again - as a matter of fact, it was the story of English that got me back to smoking again...

GROSS: Oh, no.

MACNEIL: ...Because I went back many times to Britain, and I always associate that and the pubs, which I like very much, with smoking, standing around and smoking, and I started again when I was over there as recently as this March, and I smoked for another month. And then I thought, this is dumb, so at the end of March 1986, I gave it up again, and I've held so far.

GROSS: Well, good luck.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Robert MacNeil, speaking to Terry Gross in 1986. After a break, a later interview with MacNeil from 1995, when he was stepping down from the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our tribute to journalist, author and TV news anchor Robert MacNeil, who died last Friday at age 93. In 1995, Terry spoke with him again, for an interview timed to the last day he was hosting his long-running PBS news show, which was then celebrating its 20th anniversary. Terry called him up to wish him good luck and ask him about his decision to go. She wanted to know how many times he heard a little voice in his head saying, this is the right time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MACNEIL: Oh, quite a lot. It occurred several times. You know, we had one moment back during the - when the Gulf War was about to happen, and it was early January 1991. It looked as though Bush was about to go to war, and I was feverishly trying to finish my first novel. I was determined I was going to have a novel finished before I was 60 years old. And I was about to be 60 later that January, and my wife and I had arranged to go away to the Caribbean for two weeks, where I could be 60 quietly and finish my novel.

And so we had this meeting, and they started to say, well, you know, looks like we're going to go to war. What are we going to do? And I said, well, whatever you're going to do, just remember that I'm planning to be away. And they all jumped on me, starting with Jim, and said, what kind of a goddamn journalist are you, you know, if you're going to walk away during the biggest story of our time, blah, blah, blah. And one after another, they all made the same point rather strongly. And I said, OK. Yeah. All right.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MACNEIL: So we stayed - I stayed. I didn't have to be 60. And we did the war. And it was obviously the right thing to do, and they were right. But clearly, a subversive little voice in me was saying, you know...

GROSS: Your style on television as a journalist has always been based on fairness and straightforwardness - you know, no prosecutorial posturing, no showoff kind of stuff. Did you feel like your style has changed at all over the years, or that...

MACNEIL: That mine changed?

GROSS: Yeah. Or do you think that you found a style and - found an approach and stuck with it?

MACNEIL: Yeah. I think I found an approach in stuck with it. I said recently at a reception here that when I got back into broadcasting, having been five years at Reuters and never thought I'd be doing anything in broadcasting again, I had early in my career, as you know, done some radio acting and some announcing, but I had no idea I was going to go back into broadcasting when NBC hired me in London. And I was lucky enough to spend several months, a couple of months, with John Chancellor, who was the No. 2 correspondent in London, and I was hired as an editorial assistant, but also to do some broadcasting. And I had to choose a style, and there were many styles to choose from at the time. There was the kind of declaiming style of the news, and then there was the singsong-y style of the news, you know? And then there was the sort of very clipped BBC style. And there was a CBC style that I knew, which was very self-important. This is the CBC, you know? And it was so refreshing to listen to John Chancellor, who, instead of intoning or declaiming or proclaiming or announcing the news like some kind of electronic town crier, simply told it to you conversationally. He was also very funny in a lot of his stuff. And I thought, that is the way I'd like to be. And so I started doing that in my first radio stuff for NBC from London. And then Chancellor got transferred to Moscow, and I got his job as the No. 2 correspondent. And that sort of cemented it. So I chose a style, at least in terms of delivery, deliberately, the most conversational way. And it's interesting that that has now become pretty well the standard in American network television. There's very little bombastic style now. A few people still do it, but the old singsong-y, the declaiming, the movie-tone news style, all those things. All the portentous styles have gone away, largely.

GROSS: You know, your interviewing style on camera has always been, you know, as fair and as dispassionate as possible so that the story is about the views being expressed and not about your views. I mean, you don't try to bait people or anything.

MACNEIL: Yeah. But this - well, there are two parts to that.

GROSS: Yeah.

MACNEIL: Terry, one is that if you're going to be on a program every night - Jim and I, we discussed this way back at the very beginning. We don't have to make big demonstrations to make people aware of our presence. We're there night after night after night. And we are a medium through which viewers, gradually getting to know us better, judge the guests. The purpose of the program is to let people hear what the guests have to say, to help the guests have to say it - help them say it, as well as challenging them so that they clarify and defend what they're saying.

And we are criticized by some people who're saying we're soft interviewers because we're so polite. And they even will accuse us, you know, of deferring to important officials we have on. I don't think we do that at all. I think the pointed, informed question and a persistent attempt to get an answer for it, while couched in polite terms, is every bit as devastating to an individual as the so-called hard, you know, interviewing somebody like Perry Mason with a witness in the dark or F. Lee Bailey interviewing Mark Fuhrman.

GROSS: Have you ever done anything that you consider to be wildly out of character, lose your cool, blow up, say something you regretted, become too emotionally involved?

MACNEIL: Not since we've done this program. I did in the past. Once when I was at NBC, it was election night, 1966. Covering the governors, I was referring to Spiro Agnew, who was running for governor of Maryland. And he - it's hard to remember that now, but he was the liberal candidate, the relatively more liberal candidate of two that year. The other guy was much more of a racist and so on. Anyway, I said that what it might come down to was the votes in Montgomery County, Md., adjacent to Washington, where a lot of people who worked in Washington lived and was rather more liberal in its views. I said, for instance, David Brinkley lives there.

(LAUGHTER)

MACNEIL: And Brinkley swung around in his chair and said, how do you know how I voted? And I said - this is on the air. I said, I didn't know how you voted, David. I just said that that's an area which has rather more liberal voters and you live there. He said, I thought the ballot in this country was meant to be secret, you know, and here you are - and I said, I didn't say that. Anyway, it went back and forth about, and he was partly kidding. And we had a laugh about it later and he apologized very nicely to me afterwards for getting mad at me. But it was kind of dumb for me to have said it. I mean, you want to keep that stuff out of - where somebody lives is no business of the audience. But I was a bit cocksure, I think.

GROSS: That's a funny story.

MACNEIL: A bit over-pleased with myself.

GROSS: Do you worry at all that tomorrow morning, Saturday morning, the first day after you've left "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" that you're going to wake up and say, what have I done? I mean, you're on deadline all the time, right?

MACNEIL: Yeah.

GROSS: And that adrenaline is, like, pumping away.

MACNEIL: Yeah, I know. But you can - what is the word? - divert that adrenaline flow into writing books. I certainly can. And I can get just as excited and driven writing a book as I can putting on a television program. And I'll tell you one neat thing about it.

GROSS: Yeah.

MACNEIL: You would appreciate this because the work you do is very much more yours than most of what we do in television. Television is necessarily a highly collaborative business. It takes many people and many - and much negotiation and compromise with many people contributing ideas and then modifying those ideas to put on a television program like ours. So each day is a series of tiny, little negotiations and compromises. And this is in the best of shops like ours, where we all agree on the philosophy, where we all see eye to eye on the approach, and yet it just requires it. Well, you think you can do this in 13 minutes? I don't know, I suppose so. Maybe if you could give me 12 1/2, I could do it. Let's see here, well, I think we're going to have to cut some. You know, it's a hundred of those every day. And it is a blessed luxury to be sitting down by yourself writing a book when it is just yours.

GROSS: Well, let me say on behalf of many, many people, we will miss you and I wish you very good luck. And thanks for all the years of broadcasts, and I look forward to more books by you.

MACNEIL: Well, thank you. Now I can listen to you more.

GROSS: (Laughter) I knew there was going to be a big advantage.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

MACNEIL: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: News anchor, journalist and author Robert MacNeil speaking to Terry Gross as he was retiring from "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1995. He died last week at age 93.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MACNEIL/LEHRER NEWSHOUR")

MACNEIL: Finally, I'd just like to say to the audience how grateful I am to public television nationally and to all the 300 local stations who carry us for the opportunity you've given me to work in a manner I could be proud of when I went home every night. But that applies equally to our viewers. Without you, no program. There are now some 5 million of you a night, and you express a loyalty to this program of a quality I've never experienced anywhere else. Thank you for understanding what we do. You'll find all the same values there on Monday night and in the years ahead. Thanks, and good night.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON")

BIANCULLI: After a break, we remember filmmaker and author Eleanor Coppola, who famously chronicled her husband Francis Ford Coppola's frenetic filming of his epic war movie "Apocalypse Now." And I'll review HBO's "The Jinx: Part Two," continuing the story of convicted murderer Robert Durst. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.