Edwin Newman: an old-style newsman with a civil tongue;

One of the great hidden weapons of broadcasting'' has left NBC with minimal fanfare. After 35 years of NBC service in many capacities during which he visited some 40 countries, correspondent Edwin Newman has left 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NBC's New York headquarters.

Bill Moyers, a Newman colleague at CBS, told the Monitor: ''Newman has been so hidden. They haven't used him enough, and that's been a shame.

''Strictly speaking (the title of one of Newman's best-selling nonfiction books), Ed Newman is the best, and by that I mean he is in a class by himself in his use of language, in his respect for the audience's intelligence, and in his understanding of the role of journalism in a society which would perish without reliable information.''

A few days before he ended his service at NBC, I chatted with an uncharacteristically shirt-sleeved Newman in his office, tucked away at the rear of 30 Rockefeller Center. He had been packing up to vacate the office. The bookshelves were almost empty except for the Columbia Encyclopedia and an Emmy, which he indicated he planned to leave behind for the producer of the award-winning show ''Kids, Drugs, and Alcohol.''

On the bulletin board was a photo of the NBC News team many years ago, including a much younger Newman. There was also an ominous pocket-size tear-gas bomb clipped to the board. ''I always planned to use it on somebody who blew smoke in my face, but I never did,'' he admits a bit sheepishly.

Newman seems very proud of the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series he recently completed: ''Congress: We the People,'' 26 half-hour programs that provide an inside look at how Congress works. (This series, funded by the Annenberg School of Communications, can be viewed as a college-credit tele-course, seen both daytime and evenings on WETA in Washington, where it began airing Jan. 26. It will probably be on PBS nationally next fall.)

Is Newman leaving NBC because he's of age? Supposedly involuntary retirement at 65 is now illegal.

''Well, my contract was up at the end of June, and I asked it to be extended seven months so as to get to the age of 65. It was.''

He had not been asked to stay on.

Will Leonard Grossman ask Newman to return when he takes over at NBC? I asked Mr. Grossman that question.

''I am not about to make any decisions concerning NBC News at this stage. But I would like to say that I am delighted that Edwin Newman is doing the series for PBS. He is civilized, graceful, talented, one of that old-fashioned breed of correspondents who care about the news and the language in which they report it.''

John Chancellor, Newman's longtime associate at NBC, used his ''Nightly News'' commentary time Jan. 31 (Newman's last day at NBC) to say in part:

''The key to Edwin Newman's success is the triumph of content over presentation. What he says is more interesting to him than how he says it. If he has nothing to say, he doesn't say anything, which is rare in television . . . and in life. . . . He is one of the few in television journalism to have written a book not about TV. One of his books is 'A Civil Tongue.' A civil tongue is what he has. Civil. Civility. Civilization. These are the words we associate accurately with Edwin Newman. He is now going to spend more time in London. A perfect place for a man like that, a man with a civil tongue. Our only problem is there is no one who can take his place. The word for that is irreplaceable.''

Newman, who moderated the first Ford-Carter presidential debate, indicates he would like to moderate such debates again. He also has many lectures lined up and wants to write at least one more book on language.

How about a book on television's misuse of language?

''I switched on the set recently and somebody was being interviewed about his recommendation for redoing a bathroom,'' Newman said. ''Why would you want to redo the bathroom? To make a nice decorative statement. Well, I think that a phrase like 'making a nice decorative statement' is a marvelous one to collect.

''Recently I heard about 'a hunger fast' on NBC. That's fun. On the front page of the New York Times I read about 'a temporary reprieve.' I heard one correspondent say about the Hitler diaries that the publishers had failed 'to convincingly authenticate them.'

Has Ed Newman himself been guilty of grammatical gaffes on camera?

''The worst one I can remember was in Tokyo when I was interviewing the Emperor. I got involved in a long sentence and went for what seemed to be a genteel way out and ended up saying, 'Everybody is behind a screen except the camera crews and I.' Well, the switchboard lit up. There were so many letters about my misuse of 'I' that we mimeographed the reply.''

Mr. Newman is optimistic, however, that there seems to be a growing recognition of the importance of proper language on television.

At various times in his career at NBC, Newman served as critic, correspondent , interviewer, anchor man, and commentator. What was the highlight for him?

''The most exciting part of the job has always been dealing with emergencies. Unfortunately, stories of this kind are almost invariably sad stories. They usually mean assassination. While you are dealing with it as a professional journalist, there is also the effect upon you as a citizen. So you're faced with the problem of somehow detaching yourself from the story and yet not detaching yourself too far.

''I am thinking of the part I had in the coverage of the shootings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. For many years here at NBC I was the man who did the network interrupts.''

Newman had that job because he has always had the reputation for being unflappable.

''That's what I hear. I suppose it's true.''

Newman anchored the evening news many times although he never served as a regular anchor. He says the importance of the anchor man has been overemphasized.

''I don't see any way out of this dependence on personalities since television is a personal way of presenting the news. But I think there is a tremendous amount of exaggeration about the importance of anchors or the implied difficulty of anchoring the news shows. There are thousands of people who can do it. But it seems that the networks believe it to be in their own interest to create very large news figures.''

He feels that in some instances this strategy has worked against network news. The public reaction to the network news blackout of the Grenada invasion, for instance, seems to have been based in part upon resentment of the publicized affluence of network anchors.

''Grenada was apparently a successful operation and therefore newsmen's complaints seemed to be carping. There may be a view by the public that the anchor people are sufficiently rewarded and ought not to be complaining.''

Has Newman seen an improvement in TV presentation of the news over the past 35 years?

''Technologically, yes. Almost beyond imagining when you think of what we can do. But presenting the news in a way that enables people to understand it better , no.''

He sees no need for increasing the evening news to one hour. ''I think there's an argument to be made for more time on the air for more news, but I doubt that it ought to take the form of a one-hour program. Debates, calling in outsiders, information on how stories are being reported by other countries. There must be many other things we could do with another half hour if we could get it.''

There's an unfinished element in the Newman story. The interviewer senses it. Does Newman himself feel it?

He looks out the window at the Radio City sign across the street. It is late afternoon but the lights have been turned on prematurely.

''I would put it this way. I don't think of myself as old. I'm still looking for things to do. I still find myself watching TV news programs and saying: 'That isn't the way to handle that story.' Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong. But that suggests I think I can still make good decisions about what ought to be going on the air. So I haven't lost interest in it. I'm sure that I'm going to find myself saying, 'Gee, I'd like to be in the middle of that!'

Perhaps the definitive word about Edwin Newman -and, perhaps, about network news and the status of NBC News today, comes from CBS/PBS newsman Bill Moyers: ''NBC is like the professional football team that sells off its best talent and then wonders why it finishes last in the league.

''Journalists get better as they get older and, unfortunately, that's what the news consultants don't understand. Ed has no match as an essayist, a wit, a human being. You don't find those every day on the market.''

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