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Lehrer, MacNeil receive Cronkite Award

November 24, 2008

Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, the PBS news anchor duo, received the 25th annual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism on Friday. The award is presented annually by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Lehrer and MacNeil first joined forces at PBS to cover the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. Two years later, their newscasts evolved into “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” becoming “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in 1983, the first hour-long national television newscast.

MacNeil said that when he and Lehrer first started their program, PBS ran an advertisement suggesting viewers watch it following Cronkite’s nightly newscast on CBS. “We now feel really honored to have our names legitimately connected to Walter,” MacNeil said.

ASU President Michael Crow presented the awards at a luncheon attended by more than 1,100 journalists, public officials, faculty, students and members of the public at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. The luncheon followed the grand opening of the new Cronkite building in downtown Phoenix the day before.

This year’s ceremony is especially significant for the Cronkite School, said Dean Christopher Callahan. It marked the 25th anniversary of the Cronkite Award and concluded a week of activities celebrating the grand opening of the school’s new state-of-the-art journalism building in downtown Phoenix.

“Today our new home is the most sophisticated, forward-looking, journalism education complex in the nation,” he said.

Callahan presented a short video by Cronkite graduate David Klee that used time-lapse images to show the progress of the building’s construction over time.

“Not only are we dedicating this new facility, but we’re recognizing two individuals who, in their entire lives, epitomized what we want to be, what we want to do and the kind of people we want to produce,” said President Crow when introducing Lehrer and MacNeil.

Walter Cronkite, who was unable to attend the luncheon, sent a letter expressing his congratulations. “I am deeply honored that two great journalists, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, have agreed to accept the 25th Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism,” he said.

The executive producer of The NewsHour, Les Crystal, and NewsHour correspondents Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff congratulated the honorees in a video shown after Crow’s introduction.

“Journalism has seen a lot of ups and downs in the last 25 years, but the NewsHour has stayed true to what Jim and Robin envisioned,” Woodruff said. She joked that when she first joined “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” she sometimes forgot which one was which. “I still have trouble telling them apart,” she said, “but I do know that no one else comes close, except Walter Cronkite.”

After the awards luncheon, Lehrer and MacNeil, along Bob Woodruff of ABC News, discussed the state of the news business before an audience of about 200 at the Cronkite School. Former CNN news anchor Aaron Brown moderated the conversation.

In 1963, Lehrer and MacNeil both covered President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, working for separate news organizations.

MacNeil’s career began in London at the Reuters’ news bureau. He became the London correspondent for NBC News five years later and moved to the Washington bureau in 1963, where he covered the civil rights movement, the White House and Kennedy’s assassination. He later worked for the BBC before moving to PBS in 1971.

Lehrer first began reporting with The Dallas Morning News and later the Dallas Times-Herald, where he was promoted to city editor. He moved to television as the executive director of public affairs and nightly news host at KERA-TV, the PBS affiliate in Dallas.

When Lehrer and MacNeil covered the Watergate hearings in 1973, they began a partnership of in-depth broadcast journalism and went on to win more than 30 awards for journalistic excellence. In 1995, after MacNeil stepped down as an anchor, the newscast was renamed “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

Lehrer and MacNeil are the second joint winners of the Cronkite Award. CBS founder William Paley and former CBS President Frank Stanton received the inaugural award in 1984.

“The Cronkite Award is a kind of Holy Grail for people like us who do television journalism,” Lehrer said after accepting his award. “To be honored in the name of the best — Walter Cronkite — is as good as it gets.”

Previous Cronkite Award recipients include TV journalists Tom Brokaw, Bill Moyers and Jane Pauley; newspaper publishers Al Neuharth, Katharine Graham and Otis Chandler; television executives Ted Turner, Roone Arledge and Don Hewitt; and newspaper journalists Bob Woodward, Helen Thomas and Ben Bradlee.