Rediscover: Robert MacNeil

Robert MacNeil, the Canadian-born journalist and author "who delivered sober evening newscasts for more than two decades on PBS" as co-anchor with Jim Lehrer (who died in 2020) of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, later expanded as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, died April 12 at age 93, the New York Times reported.

MacNeil attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. producer saw him in a school production of Othello and hired him to act in CBC radio productions and eventually a daily radio soap opera. MacNeil dropped out of college to pursue stage acting full time, but decided that he was better suited to be a playwright. He returned to school at Carleton University in Ottawa, while working 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.

MacNeil spent time at NBC News early in his career before joining the fledgling Public Broadcasting Service in 1971. "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," the Times wrote, adding that "a pairing with 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."

MacNeil 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 other books include The People Machine (1968), The Right Place at the Right Time (1982), and four novels--Burden of Desire (1992), The Voyage (1995), Breaking News (1998), and Portrait of Julia (2013).

He was a co-author, with Robert McCrum, of The Story of English, a companion volume to the 1986 BBC-PBS television series he hosted; and he wrote its 2005 sequel, Do You Speak American?

He also 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. During MacDowell's centennial celebration in 2007, MacNeil told Jeffrey Brown: "The real importance of art is that it is the greatest expression of the American ideal of freedom. Artists are intellectually and creatively freer than anybody."

Looking for My Country: Finding Myself in America and Do You Speak American? are available from Harper Paperbacks.

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