Remembering Edwin Newman

This may just be my perception, but the network correspondents are no longer the “stars” of television news. They’ve been supplanted by the pundits and “talking heads” from cable news channels like Fox News and MSNBC — and it’s certainly stretching a point to call either, for example, Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity, a journalist.

But for people of a certain age like me, the men and women who reported the news on ABC, CBS and NBC at 6 p.m. were all recognizable names and faces. And I was saddened yesterday to see that one of my favorites, former NBC correspondent Edwin Newman, had died at the age of 91 in Oxford, England.

It seems like I’ve been writing this piece a few times over in the last year or so, but Newman, in addition to being a fine reporter, was another of those vanishing defenders of the language — see my posts on the passing of James J. Kilpatrick and William Safire.

He did great work on a variety of topics for NBC for many years, and actually filed the first radio report on NBC of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Click here for a bit of You Tube video featuring Newman in a special from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. If you’re my age, you’ll certainly remember the “peacock” intro to the show. But he became just as famous for his books on the proper use of English, like Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (1974) and A Civil Tongue (1976).

Newman didn’t look the part of the TV journalist, at least not what we would think one should look like today, blow-dried and impeccably dressed. He was just as rumpled in his appearance as he was fastidious about the language, and both became part of his public persona. I couldn’t find any video of this, but several of his obituaries mentioned a Saturday Night Live skit in 1984 in which he appeared while hosting the show. He played a suicide hotline volunteer who kept correcting the grammar of the distraught callers.

He did the same with his books, calling out reporters who called some breakthrough a “major milestone” or described a “fatal slaying”, or the coach who said that his team played “pretty good.”

He talks about the books and his career in this NPR interview from the “Fresh Air” show from 1988.

He should remain an inspiration to all editors and teachers of writing still trying to fight the good fight against these offenses against the language.


About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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