Thursday, September 16, 2010

Music, when soft voices die

Edwin Newman, the irascible reporter's reporter, has died. I want to mention briefly his career as guardian of the English language before I get to the good stuff. If you have never read his book Strictly Speaking, you must. He is at once witty and angry, and is my role model for this blogging career.
In an age of weak journalism and opinion-sharing that passes as research, one of the last of the great lions of reporting is gone. It's hard to describe what that era was like, when those lions roared and the world stood still. I think, if you wanted to name a contemporary, Greg Palast is about as close as you can get to what those days were like. 
Mr. Newman stood, rumpled and wizened, in front of the camera and told you not what you wanted to know, but what he found out. What you needed to know. And he did it in a spare and unflourished style that gave you the facts up front. He was a reporter in the truest sense of the word, in that he wrote the story as if a print editor would clip it: from the bottom up. 
Newman was unafraid. If he knew a fact that gave depth to a story, he would not hesitate to mention it. He informed, not reported, and we were a better audience for it. 
After all, how many journalists today would dare cut off a President in mid-sentence? In a Presidential debate? Yet he did just that to Ronald Reagan in 1984, when Reagan desperately tried to launch into a polemic in the middle of answering a question.
The most revealing moment, the one that makes Edwin Newman the reporter stand out, was this exchange:

Mr. Newman's most memorable appearance on "Today" came in 1971, when he banished comedian George Jessel from the studio. In a rambling interview, the 73-year-old Jessel likened The Washington Post and New York Times to Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper.

"You are a guest here," a steely Mr. Newman told Jessel. "It is not the kind of thing one tosses off. One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist, which you have just done."

After further strained comments, Jessel said, "I didn't mean it quite that way. . . . I won't say it again."

"I agree that you won't say it again," Mr. Newman replied. "Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel."

"I just want to say one thing before I leave," Jessel added.

"Please don't," Mr. Newman said, as he broke for a commercial three minutes early.

When he came back on the air, Mr. Newman said television had a responsibility to uphold "certain standards of conduct."

"It didn't seem to me we have any obligation to allow people to come on to traduce the reputations of anyone they want," he said, "to abuse people they don't like."

Would Matt Lauer ever say that? Or Charlie Gibson? Or Katie Couric? Imagine Sarah Palin being subjected to Edwin Newman's withering interview. Or Ann Coulter. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or...
Perhaps in honor of Mr. Newman, for one week, they should do just that.
Edwin Newman was 91 when he died of pneumonia on August 13 in Oxford (naturally!), England. His survivors include his wife of 66 years, the former Rigel Grell and his daughter, Nancy Drucker. He'd want those facts included in this piece.
And if I've made any grammatic or usage errors, Mr. Newman, it's only because I want you to have something to keep you busy while you're in Heaven.