Feature

Edwin Newman, 1919–2010

The newsman who had a love of language

Edwin Newman showed no mercy to those who abused his beloved English. If he heard a colleague at NBC News deploy the adverb “hopefully” without an accompanying verb, Newman would march the miscreant into his office and point to a sign that read, in a slight paraphrase of Dante, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Born in New York City, Newman wrote for his campus newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1940. He then went to work for several news services before serving a hitch in the Navy, said The New York Times. When he got out, he worked for legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow at CBS, then joined NBC in 1952. Instantly recognizable by “his balding head and fierce dark eyebrows,” Newman covered stories ranging from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the economic rise of Japan.

A familiar face to two generations of television viewers, Newman “became known for his unflappable manner on the air, embellishing broadcasts with knowledge from his well-furnished mind,” said The Washington Post. When the funeral train carrying the body of Robert F. Kennedy to Washington took eight hours to complete its journey instead of the scheduled four, Newman “improvised his coverage, citing historical facts pertinent to every stop along the way.” A versatile reporter, Newman was comfortable anchoring an evening broadcast, providing theater reviews, narrating a documentary, or sitting down for an hour’s conversation with prominent cultural figures on the series Speaking Freely.

His work as an author complemented his career as a newsman, said the Associated Press. A Civil Tongue, published in 1976, was a written reaction to the linguistic manglings of the Watergate era; it took witty aim at “assorted creators of gobbledygook.” He reserved special scorn for tautologies such as a “fatal slaying” and “totally complete.” He also hosted Saturday Night Live, in one memorable skit playing a helper on a suicide hot line who repeatedly corrects a distraught caller’s grammar.

Newman’s survivors include his wife, Rigel, and daughter, Nancy, who had requested that news of his Aug. 13 death be withheld in order to give them time to mourn privately.

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