Irving R. Levine, longtime reporter for NBC, dies at 86

Saturday, March 28, 2009 | 5:22 p.m. CDT; updated 5:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 28, 2009

Irving R. Levine, who pioneered network television coverage of economic issues during his more than 40-year career as a correspondent for NBC News, died Friday. He was 86.

Levine died of prostate cancer at a hospice in Washington, D.C., according to his son, Daniel R. Levine.

With his distinctive bow tie, slow-paced delivery and use of his middle initial in his sign-off, the balding Levine became a highly recognizable presence in television news.

"A generation of Americans grew up knowing the name Irving R. Levine. From his signature broadcast style to his signature bow tie, this unlikely television star came to symbolize the journalistic standards of NBC News. Irving R. Levine was a global figure in the formative years of television news, and his legacy is with us every day," NBC News said Friday in a statement.

A first in living, reporting from the Soviet Union

Levine also had a significant career beyond his economic reporting. He was the first American television correspondent allowed to live in, and broadcast from, the Soviet Union during the Cold War-era. He also covered the building of the Berlin Wall, the 1960 uprising in what was then the Belgian Congo, and the travels of Pope Paul VI to the United Nations, India and the Holy Land, among the first international journeys by a pontiff.

Born in Pawtucket, R.I., on Aug. 26, 1922, Levine graduated from Brown University and earned a master's degree from Columbia University. He began his journalism career as an obituary writer and reporter for The Providence Journal. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Army Signal Corps, heading a photographic unit that eventually recorded the U.S. occupation of Japan.

After the war, he found work with the old International News Service and was assigned to Vienna, Austria. He was working for INS in Korea at the start of the Korean War and began freelancing for NBC.

He was among the first war correspondents to enter Seoul, South Korea, after the departure of North Korean and Chinese troops. He also covered the negotiations at Panmumjom that led to a truce.

As a full-time Moscow correspondent for NBC in 1955, he was, for a time, the only American television correspondent and radio correspondent in the Soviet Union. He broadcast a series, "This Is Moscow," and wrote pieces for American newspapers on life in the USSR.

After leaving Moscow in 1959, he was stationed in Rome until 1967, then London for a couple of years and back to Rome before returning to the United States in 1971 and the network's Washington bureau.

Given economics instead of State Department

He had hoped for the State Department beat in Washington but was assigned the economics post. Levine became the first network reporter to cover the subject full time.

In a summation of his career that he left for his children, he recalled that the economics beat started slowly and his reports were often bumped for other fare.

He credited President Richard M. Nixon's August 1971 decisions to impose wage and price controls to stem inflation and his move to take the U.S. off the gold standard for lifting the profile of economic news and propelling him -- and his news beat -- into prominence.

Over the years, his serious demeanor became the target for quips from late-night talk-show hosts, which his son said he thoroughly enjoyed.

During one economic slowdown, Johnny Carson quipped on NBC's "The Tonight Show" that things were so bad that "I saw Irving R. Levine standing by the side of the freeway with a sign reading, 'Will work for bow ties.' " On another occasion, Carson noted that "NBC is cutting back so much Irving R. Levine has to buy his bow ties at the Pee Wee Herman garage sale."

After retiring from NBC in 1995, he served as a commentator for the "Nightly Business Report" on PBS from 1997 to 2008. He also was the founding dean of the College of International Communications at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

In addition to his son Daniel of Chicago, Levine is survived by his wife, Nancy of Washington, D.C.; another son Jeffrey C.B. Levine of Chicago; and a daughter Jennifer J. Levine of Chevy Chase, Md.; three grandchildren; and a sister, Eva Schaffer of Walnut Creek, Calif.


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