Edwin Newman; news anchor defended proper grammar
NEW YORK — 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 yesterday so that the family could grieve privately, said his lawyer, Rupert Mead. He said Mr. Newman and his wife moved to England in 2007 to live near 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, one about a 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 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 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 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 of NBC “Nightly News,’’ said in a statement.
“To those of us watching at home,’’ Mr. Williams said, “he made us feel like we had a very smart, classy friend in the broadcast news business.’’
Edwin Harold Newman was born in New York City, the second of three children of Rose (Parker) and Myron Newman, a credit manager.
He graduated from George Washington High School in Manhattan, and in 1940 received a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Wisconsin, where he worked on the campus newspaper. He was briefly a graduate student in American government at Louisiana State University before finding work in print journalism. (Ink was something of a family business: his older brother, Morton, known professionally as M. W. Newman, was a prominent reporter at the Chicago Daily News.)
Edwin Newman’s first journalism job was as a “dictation boy’’ in the Washington bureau of the International News Service, where he took down information from reporters in the field. He next joined United Press, to which he returned after serving in the Navy from 1942 to 1945.
In 1947 Mr. Newman joined the Washington bureau of CBS News, where he helped commentator Eric Sevareid prepare his nightly radio broadcasts. Two years later he moved to London to work as a freelance journalist, joining NBC as a correspondent there in 1952. He went on to become the network’s bureau chief in London, Rome, and Paris before settling in New York in 1961.
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 Mr. Newman helped cover numerous historic events, among them the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan. He announced the death of President 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 nonadverbial 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 the use of a preposition to end a sentence.
This approach to English did not win favor everywhere. In an article in The Atlantic in 1983, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg took Mr. Newman and 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 leaves his wife, the former Rigel Grell, and a daughter, Nancy Drucker.
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 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.’’