Saturday, September 18, 2010

Strictly Speaking: Modern Society and the Death of Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman, a clear mellow, kindly, avuncular, and authoritative voice of the news of the 50s, 60s and 70s, passed away in August. His family in Oxford England, waited a month to share and announce the news of his passing--they wanted to mourn his death in private. It was a nice anachronistic touch to handling the news that seemed to fit--in Newman's day or the day of the real news man, news was given more thought, and traveled slower, and it was often saved for another day.

Mr. Newman, with balding head and dark eyebrows, was a striking and prominent voice to three decades of postwar television viewers. He was known for his learned style, his priceless wit and his penchant for punditry. He began his association with NBC in the early TV years of the 1950s and was a frequent NBC correspondent, bureau chief, anchor and critic before retiring in 1984.

He was a news anchor and sometimes foil on the “Today” show in the early 1960s and a presence on the program for many years afterward; Mr. Newman also appeared regularly on “Meet the Press,” where he moderated for forty or so episodes. 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 was the moderator for two Presidential debates — the first Ford-Carter debate in 1976 and the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984. He said he was always in the wrong place at the right time, but he covered many key events of the 20th century from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation to the assassination of President Kennedy, to the Martin Luther King shooting.

He was a newsman who cared about the quality of the news reporting, and in Mr. Newman’s best-known books, he declared what he called “a protective interest in the English language,” which, he warned, was falling prey to windiness, witlessness, ungrammaticality, obfuscation, words that lost their meanings, and other depredations.

Newman was a trusted voice who was a prominent critic of phony language and hypocrisy and spoke up in his books, "Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?" (1974), and "A Civil Tongue" (1976), and in his commentary. He could be a little prissy around the edges, but that often added to his charm and authoritativeness. He also showed signs of not taking himself too seriously with his appearance on Saturday Night Live in which in one routine, he corrected the grammar of a caller on a suicide hot line.

Modernity and the lack of attention to careful speaking and thinking was an anathema to Newman, and it must have been harder for Newman to function in the wireless and grammar-less world of today. His sobering visions will still be with us to face modern America, but his stilled voice will be missed.