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Where’s Ed Newman When You Need Him?

I was in London last week when news came of the death of the great NBC newsman Edwin Newman, 91 years old. Turns out he and his wife had been living in England since 2007 to be close to their daughter, but I suspect part of him chose to be there for the same reason the late American humorist S.J. Perelman migrated to the UK back in the 1970s. The courtesy may be only skin deep, he said, but that’s deep enough for me.

Disillusioned, Perelman wound up coming back to the States; Newman did not, which is a shame for the rest of us, as our bickering, divided, slaphappy nation could have used more of his perceptive objectivity, dry wit and profound sense of fair play. We certainly need all of those qualities now.

He was that rare thing, a gentleman, although “genteelly rumpled” and “genially grumpy” as his New York Times obituary described him. He also held an unusual record — the only person in the world who had hosted two presidential debates and two editions of Saturday Night Live.

Ed and I got to know each other in the late eighties when he hosted a PBS documentary series I wrote and co-produced on the history of television. He also wrote the introduction to my book on the same subject. We spent a lot of time together, both in a post-production studio as he recorded narration and later on the road as we jointly traveled around the country promoting the TV series.

A strict grammarian and authority on the English language — he wrote two best selling books on its use and abuse — the only argument he and I ever had was on the difference between the words “perimeter” and “parameter.” Ed, of course, won.

To him, precise language and journalistic accuracy were essential; part of what made him such a good reporter. In his life after retiring from NBC News in 1984, he enjoyed playing himself as a newscaster in movies and sitcoms. But he told me how incensed he was when the producers of The Golden Girls handed him a script in which he referred to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the wrong title. He kept correcting it, yet the producers insisted on keeping it the way it was, because, they argued, it was a dream sequence and the character having the dream wouldn’t know the difference. I thought Ed’s head would come to a point.

Newman’s first full-time job in journalism was as a dictation boy in the Washington bureau of the old International News Service, transcribing stories reporters phoned in from the field.

The wire service was owned by William Randolph Hearst and Ed loved to tell the story of the day one of Hearst’s deputies showed up at the bureau while the movie Citizen Kane — Orson Welles’ devastating, satiric portrait of a Hearst-like publisher — was playing at the RKO Keith’s movie theater just around the corner.

“Any of you boys seen Citizen Kane yet?” the man demanded. Ed and the other newsmen fell over themselves proclaiming total ignorance of the film.

Hearst’s deputy looked around the room and said, “Too bad. Damned fine portrait of the old man.”

I suspect that even the legendary Hearst, who was no stranger to exploiting xenophobia and fear to peddle papers, would have been flabbergasted by our current toxic diet of hate radio, Fox News and Internet hyperbole. And I know Ed Newman would have been appalled, as illustrated by a story told in his Washington Post obituary.

On the Today show in 1971, Newman interviewed the 73-year-old comedian Georgie Jessel, one of those older entertainers like Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Kate Smith who were staunch supporters of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. During the interview, Jessel compared the Post and The New York Times to the Soviet government newspaper Pravda.

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

Jessel responded, “I didn’t mean it quite that way… I won’t say it again.”

Newman replied, “I agree that you won’t say it again. Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel.”

Jessel said, “I just want to say one thing before I leave.”

Newman said, “Please don’t,” and cut to a commercial.

As the Post reported, “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.'”

Alas, since then, as the progressive historian and journalist Rick Perlstein has written, “Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans…”

There was a time, he continued, when “the media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of ‘conservative claims’ to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as ‘extremist’ — out of bounds.”

Such was Ed Newman’s time — and that of many other print and broadcast journalists with the knowledge, experience and bravery to speak the truth. Their erudition, skill and dedication to separating fact from fiction, right from rant and legitimate grievance from bellicosity are woefully absent from all too much of today’s misshapen, mainstream media.

Years ago, when we were promoting that PBS series and my book, he and I often would autograph copies together. One night in Seattle, a woman who had just gotten Newman’s signature was trying to make up her mind whether mine was worth having as well.

“Are you Ed’s sidekick?” she asked.

Sidekick? I thought for a moment and answered, proudly, “Yes.”

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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