OLD Media Moves

Irving R. Levine's career: A retrospective

March 27, 2009


Irving R. Levine died Thursday. What follows is an analysis of his career and why he’s such an important figure in business journalism’s evolution during the 1970s and 1980s.

Levine’s first job in journalism was for the Providence, R. I., newspaper, but by 1950 he was in Vienna reporting European stories for the International News Service. When the Korean War broke out, he volunteered to cover it, and while there began sending stories to NBC News.

The network hired him full time in 1952 and sent him back to Europe. In 1955, he became the first network reporter accredited by the Soviet Union. Levine later worked as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, Rome, and London, and by 1971 wanted to cover the State Department. But the executives at NBC News asked him to cover economics and business instead. Levine shuddered. “It was a barren time,” he said later. “Producers just weren’t interested in those stories.”

Still, Levine was the first network correspondent to cover economics full time, and he reported on issues such as the recession, taxation, tariffs and money that affected everyone. Although they were often dense topics, Levine explained them to his audience in a way that they could understand. Noted former television news producer and Syracuse University professor Robert Lissit, “He’s often called to enlighten a television audience that has a limited background in such subjects. He’s grabbed so much air time over the years that a CBS News president once said all NBC had for correspondents was a bunch of guys named Irving.”Balding and wearing a bow tie, Levine made covering economics an essential part of broadcast TV.

The 1970s was a period of inflation and stagnant business growth as well as rising unemployment. The stock market fell in the early part of the decade. Because of inflation, consumers began purchasing more products, which pushed up prices even further because of the demand. The first gas shortages arrived, leading to long lines at the pump. As a result, Levine was on the news virtually every night, explaining these issues and how they influenced the amount of money viewers had in their wallets or pocketbooks.

Levine first had trouble getting economic stories on NBC Nightly News. “I told him if he could make me understand them, the viewer would too,” said Christie Basham, the show’s Washington producer in 1971. “And he did. He taught me economics.”

Levine’s break came when President Richard Nixon instituted price and wage controls on Aug. 15, 1971. When the oil embargo raised gasoline prices, Levine often began leading the evening news show. He followed five presidents to economic summit meetings around the globe and reported back on their significance to American viewers, and he accompanied a delegation from the U.S. Treasury Department to China to cover trade talks.

Levine was in the right place at the right time. Before the early 1970s, stories about the economy were not often considered important enough to be included on television news shows. But what Levine did was take the issues and explain them in a way that even the uneducated viewer could understand.

Levine became a workaholic in covering stories about the economy. When CNBC began airing, Levine contributed a weekly commentary piece. He also provided reports for the Today show and News at Sunrise. As a result, other networks hired correspondents to cover the economy as well.

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry daily or weekly.

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry.