Edwin Newman, NBC Newsman With Ear for Words, Dies

NBC Television Newsman Edwin Newman
NBC broadcast journalist Edwin Newman appears in this studio portrait taken about 1965. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edwin Newman, the longtime NBC television newsman who wrote two bestselling books on the use and misuse of the English language, has died. He was 91.

He died of pneumonia on Aug. 13 in Oxford, England, the Associated Press reported, citing his lawyer, Rupert Mead. Newman and his wife moved there in 2007 to be closer to their daughter, Mead said.

In a 32-year career at NBC, from his hiring in 1952, Newman covered seven national political conventions, moderated two presidential debates, narrated documentaries and even served as drama critic for six seasons for WNBC, the network’s local station in New York.

He often filled in as a television news anchor but was never promoted to a prominent job on the evening news or the network’s “Today” show. NBC allowed his contract to expire in 1984, when he was 65.

At the time, commentator Bill Moyers expressed regret to the Christian Science Monitor. “Newman has been so hidden,” he said. “They haven’t used him enough, and that’s been a shame.”

Over the years, Newman collected amusing samples of pompous, redundant or obfuscating utterances by government officials, journalists and people who spoke loudly in public places.

In “Strictly Speaking,” published in 1974, he entertained readers while advancing his case that language sets the tone for society. Capped by reminders of the tortured language of the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal, the book became a best-seller, and was followed two years later by “A Civil Tongue.” A novel, “Sunday Punch,” was less well received in 1979.

Newman moved to the lecture circuit and to the entertainment side of television, where his aplomb and wry humor were better appreciated. He made four appearances on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” including two as host. In 1996, he played the anchor of “Weekly World News,” a Saturday night satire of tabloid news that aired on USA Network for 13 weeks.

Credit Manager’s Son

Edwin Harold Newman was born on January 25, 1919, in New York City, the second of three children of Myron and Rose Parker Newman. His father was employed as a credit manager.

Newman wrote for newspapers at summer camp and Manhattan’s George Washington High School, from which he graduated in 1935. He then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, supplementing a scholarship with a dishwashing job in his final year and a half on the Madison campus.

He wrote for the Daily Cardinal, the campus newspaper, and served as editorial chairman in 1940, the year he earned an undergraduate degree with a major in political science.

After considering a career in law, he accepted a fellowship to begin graduate studies in government at Louisiana State University. After one semester, he decided to seek work as a newspaperman. He was hired as a “dictation boy” at the International News Service, which later became part of United Press International, in Washington in 1941.

Ensign in Navy

In 1942, shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Newman joined the U.S. Navy as an ensign. He served as a communications officer during the war and met Rigel Grell of London. The two were married on August 14, 1944, and had a daughter, Nancy.

Following his discharge in 1945, Newman returned to Washington to work for a series of news organizations, including United Press and the liberal PM newspaper. From 1947 to 1949 he wrote for Eric Sevareid on the CBS Evening News.

Newman moved to London as a freelance journalist. In 1951, he took a job with the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) before joining NBC in 1952 as a reporter in the London bureau. With his trademark wry humor, Newman said he benefited when the public mistook him for Edward R. Murrow, beloved by the British for his wartime dispatches for CBS. After all, both Americans were tall, dark-haired and answered to “Ed.”

Foreign-News Award

Newman was named London bureau chief in 1956, then served stints in Rome and Paris before returning to the U.S. in 1961, the year he won the Overseas Press Club award for foreign news. He served briefly as news anchor for the “Today” show in 1961 but was never groomed to become host of the popular morning program.

He lacked the movie-star looks that the television industry increasingly prized. The book jacket of “Strictly Speaking” repeated colleagues’ quips that Newman had “the face of a baseball umpire” and the voice of a “muffled foghorn.”

In a crisis, however, NBC often turned to the veteran newsman. He helped the network report the shootings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

NBC Radio

Newman also worked in radio for NBC News, winning a Peabody award in 1966 “for wit and depth of understanding” on the “Emphasis” radio series.

He moderated the first televised debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign, then performed the same duty for the second Reagan-Mondale debate of 1984. He narrated a number of NBC documentaries and was tapped to host “Congress: We the People” for the Public Broadcasting System. Initially aired in 1984, the 26-part series became a staple in schools.

During Newman’s turn as theater critic, producer David Merrick dubbed him “the Undertaker” and sought to bar him from productions.

Newman took the responsibilities of journalism seriously. When he met with broadcast students at California State University in Northridge in 1987, he talked about the subjective nature of news judgment and the potential impact of stories on foreign policy or individuals.

Newman was “in a class by himself in his use of language, in his respect for the audience’s intelligence, and in his understanding of the role of journalism in a society which would perish without reliable information,” Moyers told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984.

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