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Robert MacNeil, creator and first anchor of PBS 'NewsHour,' dies at 93

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Robert MacNeil, creator and first anchor of PBS 'NewsHour,' dies at 93

This Feb. 1978 photo shows Robert MacNeil, executive editor of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.”

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This Feb. 1978 photo shows Robert MacNeil, executive editor of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.”

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NEW YORK — Robert MacNeil, who created the even-handed, no-frills PBS newscast “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” in the 1970s and co-anchored the show for with his late partner, Jim Lehrer, for two decades, died on Friday. He was 93.

MacNeil died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to his daughter, Alison MacNeil.

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MacNeil first gained prominence for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the public broadcasting service and began his half-hour “Robert MacNeil Report” on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as Washington correspondent.

The broadcast became the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report” and then, in 1983, was expanded to an hour and renamed the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” The nation’s first one-hour evening news broadcast, and recipient of several Emmy and Peabody awards, it remains on the air today with Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz as anchors.

It was MacNeil’s and Lehrer’s disenchantment with the style and content of rival news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC that led to the program’s creation.

“We don’t need to SELL the news,” MacNeil told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “The networks hype the news to make it seem vital, important. What’s missing (in 22 minutes) is context, sometimes balance, and a consideration of questions that are raised by certain events.”

MacNeil left anchoring duties at “NewsHour” after two decades in 1995 to write full time. Lehrer took over the newscast alone, and he remained there until 2009. Lehrer died in 2020.

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When MacNeil visited the show in October 2005 to commemorate its 30th anniversary, he reminisced about how their newscast started in the days before cable television.

“It was a way to do something that seemed to be needed journalistically and yet was different from what the commercial network news (programs) were doing,” he said.

MacNeil wrote several books, including two memoirs “The Right Place at the Right Time” and the best seller “Wordstruck,” and the novels “Burden of Desire” and “The Voyage.”

“Writing is much more personal. It is not collaborative in the way that television must be,” MacNeil told The Associated Press in 1995. “But when you’re sitting down writing a novel, it’s just you: Here’s what I think, here’s what I want to do. And it’s me.”

MacNeil also created the Emmy-winning 1986 series “The Story of English,” with the MacNeil-Lehrer production company, and was co-author of the companion book of the same name.

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Another book on language that he co-wrote, “Do You Speak American?,” was adapted into a PBS documentary in 2005.

In 2007, he served as host of “America at a Crossroads,” a six-night PBS package exploring challenges confronting the United States in a post-9/11 world.

Six years before the 9/11 attacks, discussing sensationalism and frivolity in the news business, he had said: “If something really serious did happen to the nation — a stock market crash like 1929, … the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor — wouldn’t the news get very serious again? Wouldn’t people run from `Hard Copy’ and titillation?”

“Of course you would. You’d have to know what was going on.”

That was the case — for a while.

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Born in Montreal in 1931, MacNeil was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1955 before moving to London where he began his journalism career with Reuters. He switched to TV news in 1960, taking a job with NBC in London as a foreign correspondent.

In 1963, MacNeil was transferred to NBC’s Washington bureau, where he reported on Civil Rights and the White House. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and spent most of 1964 following the presidential campaign between Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and Republican Barry Goldwater.

In 1965, MacNeil became the New York anchor of the first half-hour weekend network news broadcast, “The Scherer-MacNeil Report” on NBC. While in New York, he also anchored local newscasts and several NBC news documentaries, including “The Big Ear” and “The Right to Bear Arms.”

MacNeil returned to London in 1967 as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Panorama” series. While with the BBC, be covered such U.S. stories as the clash between anti-war demonstrators and the Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the funerals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert Kennedy and President Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1971, MacNeil left the BBC to become a senior correspondent for PBS, where he teamed up with Lehrer to co-anchor public television’s Emmy-winning coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973.

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J. Kenji López-Alt talks food, science, and Winnie the Pooh onsies : Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!

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J. Kenji López-Alt talks food, science, and Winnie the Pooh onsies : Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!
This week, we’re live in Seattle with food genius J. Kenji López-Alt to talk about food, science, food-science, and the magic of Winnie the Pooh onsies. Plus, panelists Shantira Jackson, Luke Burbank, and Jessi Klein pass the blame around.WWDTM+ listeners! For contractual reasons, there will not be a sponsor-free version of this episode. We apologize. But we will have a sponsor-free program available to you as always next weekend. We appreciate your support!
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What’s better for the climate: A paper book, or an e-reader?

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What’s better for the climate: A paper book, or an e-reader?

In the face of human-caused climate change, paperbacks and e-readers each have pros and cons.

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The summer reading season is here.

Some people will opt for paperbacks because they’re easy to borrow and share. Others will go for e-readers, or audiobooks streamed on a phone.

But which is the more environmentally sustainable option? Reading’s carbon footprint is not large compared to other things people do, like travel, and it isn’t something most people consider when choosing how to read a book. But for those looking for small changes in their lives to reduce their impact on the climate, it might be worth exploring how the ways we choose to read books affect the planet.

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A complicated question to answer

Whether it’s better to read books in print or on a device is complicated, because of the complex interplay of the resources involved across the entire lifecycle of a published work: how books and devices are shipped, what energy they use to run, if they can be recycled.

Digital reading is on the rise — especially audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, they now capture about the same share of the total US book market as e-books — roughly 15%. But print is still by far the most popular format.

“Publishers are interested in preserving the business that they’ve created over hundreds of years,” said Publishers Weekly executive editor Andrew Albanese, explaining why the industry is focusing most of its efforts on improving the sustainability of paperback and hardcover books, rather than digital formats. “They are looking to run those print book businesses as efficiently as possible, as cleanly as possible, as green as possible.”

On the one side: traditional book publishing

Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint.

According to 2023 data from the literary industry research group WordsRated, when it comes to pulp and paper, print book publishing is the world’s third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, and 32 million trees are felled each year in the United States to make paper for books. Then there’s the printing and shipping — to say nothing of the many books that are destroyed because they remain unsold.

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Although it’s standard practice in the industry, publishers don’t want to destroy books. So instead, many are donating unsold copies, switching to on-demand printing, or, like Chronicle Books, are reducing their initial print runs to see how well the titles sell before they print more.

“We felt that it was better to have a higher cost and have less waste,” said Chronicle Books president, Tyrrell Mahoney.

Chronicle Books, like many other publishers, is also trying to use more sustainable paper.

“We have this great partner in India who has now figured out how to use cotton-based up-cycled materials to print as paper,” Mahoney said.

Publishers are also rethinking book design. It might be a surprise, but certain fonts can be more climate-friendly by using less ink and less paper.

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A side-by-side comparison of one of Harper Collins' new sustainable fonts (right) and a regular font (left.)

Harper Collins has introduced sustainable fonts that use less ink.

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“So far, these subtle, imperceptible tweaks have saved more than 200 million pages across 227 titles since September,” said Harper Collins’ senior director of design Lucy Albanese. NPR could not independently verify these page savings.

On the other: digital publishing

All well and good. But digital reading seems to have a considerable eco-advantage over print because it is paperless, so it saves trees, pulping and shipping. Moreover, tech companies that make e-readers such as Amazon, which sells the market-leading Kindle e-reader, offer recycling programs for old devices.

“By choosing e-books as an alternative to print, Kindle readers helped save an estimated 2.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions over a two year period,” said Corey Badcock, head of Kindle product and marketing. NPR could not independently verify these emissions reductions.

But digital devices also come with a substantial carbon footprint, predominantly at the manufacturing stage. Their cases are made with fossil-fuel-derived plastics and the minerals in their batteries require resource-heavy mining.

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The short answer to which is better: it depends

“It’s not cut and dried,” said Mike Berners-Lee, a professor of sustainability at Lancaster Environment Centre in the United Kingdom, of the comparative climate friendliness of digital versus print reading.

Berners-Lee, the author of The Carbon Footprint of Everything, said the average e-reader has a carbon footprint of around 80 pounds.

“This means that I’ve got to read about 36 small paperback books-worth on it before you break even,” he said.

Figuring out whether to take a digital device or a paperback to the beach ultimately depends on how voraciously you read.

“If you buy an e-reader and you read loads and loads of books on it, then it’s the lowest carbon thing to do,” Berners-Lee said. “But if I buy it, read a couple of books, and decided that I prefer paperback books, then it’s the worst of all worlds.”

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Yet Berners-Lee said that reading is still, relatively speaking, a pretty sustainable activity — regardless of whether you read using an e-reader, phone or old-fashioned paperback.

Both audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento mixed the audio version.

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