Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Missed This - Another Sad Passing

Edwin Newman, Journalist, Dies at 91

Jerry Mosey/Associated Press

Edwin Newman, the genteelly rumpled, genially grumpy NBC newsman who was equally famous as a stalwart defender of the honor of English, has died in Oxford, England. He was 91.

He died of pneumonia on Aug. 13, but the announcement was delayed until Wednesday so that the family could spend time grieving privately, his lawyer, Rupert Mead, said. He said Mr. Newman and his wife had moved to England in 2007 to live closer to their daughter.

Mr. Newman, recognizable for his balding head and fierce dark eyebrows, was known to three decades of postwar television viewers for his erudition, droll wit and seemingly limitless penchant for puns. (There was, for example, the one about the man who blotted his wet shoes with newspapers, explaining, “These are The Times that dry men’s soles.”) He began his association with NBC in the early 1950s and was variously a correspondent, anchor and critic there before retiring in 1984.

An anchor on the “Today” show in the early 1960s and a familiar presence on the program for many years afterward, Mr. Newman also appeared regularly on “Meet the Press.” He won seven New York Emmy Awards for his work in the 1960s and ’70s with NBC’s local affiliate, WNBC-TV, on which he was a drama critic and the host of the interview program “Speaking Freely.”

He also moderated two presidential debates — the first Ford-Carter debate in 1976 and the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984 — and covered some of the signal events of the 20th century, from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Newman’s best-known books, both published by Bobbs-Merrill, are “Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?” (1974) and “A Civil Tongue” (1976). In them he declared what he called “a protective interest in the English language,” which, he warned, was falling prey to windiness, witlessness, ungrammaticality, obfuscation and other depredations.

But Mr. Newman “was never preachy or pedantic,” Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of the NBC “Nightly News,” said in a statement.

“To those of us watching at home,” Mr. Williams added, “he made us feel like we had a very smart, classy friend in the broadcast news business.”

Mr. Newman was fond of saying that he had “a spotless record of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” as he told Newsweek in 1961. There was the time in 1952, for instance, that he left London for Morocco, only to learn on arriving that King George VI of England had just died.

But in fact Mr. Newman helped cover numerous historic events, among them the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace and Ronald Reagan. He announced the death of President John F. Kennedy on NBC radio.

He also narrated many well-received NBC television documentaries, including “Japan: East Is West” (1961) and “Politics: The Outer Fringe” (1966), about extremism.

His role as a moderator for presidential debates seemed only fitting, for it was the dense thicket of political discourse, Mr. Newman often said, that helped spur him to become a public guardian of grammar and usage.

Among the sins that set Mr. Newman’s teeth articulately on edge were these: all jargon; idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak”; the non-adverbial use of “hopefully” (he was said to have had a sign in his office reading, “Abandon ‘Hopefully’ All Ye Who Enter Here”); “y’know” as a conversational stopgap; a passel of prefixes and suffixes (“de-,” “non-,” “un-,” “-ize,” “-wise” and “-ee”); and using a preposition to end a sentence with.

This prescriptive approach to English did not win favor everywhere. In an article in The Atlantic in 1983, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg took Mr. Newman and the author Richard Mitchell to task for writing “books about the language that rarely, if ever, cite a dictionary or a standard grammar; evidently one just knows these things.”

Mr. Newman’s other books include a comic novel, “Sunday Punch” (Houghton Mifflin, 1979). Other honors are an Overseas Press Club Award in 1961 and a Peabody Award in 1966.

His survivors include his wife, the former Rigel Grell; a daughter, Nancy Drucker; and a sister, Evelyn Newman Lee.

Despite his acclaim, Mr. Newman’s constitutional waggishness kept him from taking himself too seriously. In 1984, the year he retired from NBC, he appeared on the network as a host of “Saturday Night Live.” (One of the show’s sketches portrayed a distraught woman phoning a suicide hot line. Mr. Newman answers — and corrects her grammar.) A few years before that he delivered the news, in front of a studio audience, on David Letterman’s NBC morning show. He was also a guest on the game show “Hollywood Squares.”In 1996 Mr. Newman shocked the journalistic establishment by serving as the anchor of the USA cable channel program “Weekly World News,” a short-lived television version of the supermarket tabloid. Among the “news” items Mr. Newman introduced was a report on a South Seas island tribe that worshiped the boxing promoter Don King.

“Apparently it is thought that my presence lends some authority,” Mr. Newman told The Washington Post that year. He added, “If I’m leading into a story about a couple with a poltergeist in their lavatory, I have to do it soberly.”

Strictly Speaking

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