Irving R. Levine (1922-2009)

America fawns absurdly over singers and actors and expects under-educated athletes to be our role models. National and international news in my local newspaper, the Santa Rosa, CA, Press Democrat (owned by The New York Times), almost always comprises fewer column inches than the sports section.

The Stupidification of America continues unabated.

Irving R. Levine died Friday, an intelligent journalist whose thoughtful, clearly articulated reports educated and explained difficult political and economic topics for almost 50 years. But the obituary I read focused on Levine’s bow tie and middle initial rather than on the caliber of his reportage. America craves infotainment.

Written by the Washington Post‘s Patricia Sullivan, it reads like something out of Obits for Dummies. Almost half of Ms. Sullivan’s 666-word review of Levine’s worthy life dwells on the minutiae that made him a character rather than the work that made him a respected journalist. Some excerpts:

WASHINGTON — Irving R. Levine, the balding, bow-tied correspondent for NBC News whose insistent use of his middle initial amused viewers even as he informed them of economic news and world affairs, died Friday at the Washington Home hospice of complications from prostate cancer. He was 86.

Levine’s unabashedly old-fashioned delivery, his bow ties and his middle initial made him a distinctive personality amid the younger, blow-dried correspondents.

He owned 103 bow ties, and he had the longest-running signoff in television news. “Irving R. Levine, NBC News, Rome,” took a full six seconds, a producer once said, and Levine could turn the word Rome into three syllables.

One busy news day, as NBC Nightly News producers were struggling to shave seconds from the program, Levine was asked to drop his middle initial. “I’d rather drop the ‘B’ in NBC,” he replied.

In 1981, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush noted the “sex symbols” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley, Leslie Stahl, Irving R. Levine. … Wherever Irving goes, female groupies beg for a lock of his bow tie.” Eight years later, actress Candice Bergen, in the role of a TV news anchor on the sitcom “Murphy Brown,” was said to have had “the hots for Irving R. Levine.”

He accepted multiple jests in good humor, and in 2001 he wrote an essay in the New York Times welcoming the return of the middle initial with the election of George W. Bush as president.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Nancy J. Levine of Washington; three children, Jeffrey C.B. Levine and Daniel Rome Levine, both of Chicago, and Jennifer J. Levine of Chevy Chase, Md.; a sister; and three grandchildren, all of whom use their middle initials.

News reporting used to be intelligent and unbiased (think Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, John Chancellor, et al.). There was once serious talk of drafting Walter Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) for a presidential run. Now we have Fox News and MSNBC vying for the anchor-clown award.

Here is Levine at work in 1971 (starts at 0:40):

[youtube 8cNGeScxJNw nolink]

Irving R. Levine deserved better (click here for a more thoughtful review of his life and work…written before his death).  He was a careful, serious journalist.

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2 Comments on “Irving R. Levine (1922-2009)

  1. I had the privilege of working for Mr. Levine as his research assistant for five years and wrote the following tribute after his passing:

    While Patricia Sullivan may have focused too much on bow ties and middle initials in her obit of Mr. Levine, please know that these were important to him and actually choices he made to set himself apart from other journalists.

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