BRINKLEY, DAVID

U.S. Broadcast Journalist

David Brinkley and Chet Huntley debuted NBC's The Huntley--Brinkley Report in October 1956. A few months earlier NBC producer Reuven Frank had put them together as a team to anchor the network's television coverage of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions. Network news would never be the same. Nor would Sunday mornings a quarter of a century later when Brinkley introduced on ABC, This Week With David Brinkley. Since the mid-1950s Brinkley has not only reported the news; he has also helped to shape the industry of television news. His renowned wit, his singular delivery, and his superb TV news writing style have made him an institution in broadcast journalism.

Brinkley's story is as interesting as any he has ever covered. It begins in a small North Carolina town in 1920, and takes him to the pinnacle of media stardom, a solid journalist with enormous credibility who has also been so famous that he was once more recognizable than John Wayne and the Beatles. And the media world has informally named him one of the "Magnificent Seven" (which also includes Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson, Hugh Downs, Ted Koppel, and Diane Sawyer--all of ABC).

But Brinkley was no star when he first went to NBC Radio in 1943. His talent for strong and clear writing became evident as he continually struggled to write for announcers who read only the words and seemed to miss the meaning. He also began to gain experience as a newscaster when he did ten-minute newscasts for the network. Nor was he famous when he became the Washington reporter for John Cameron Swayze's Camel News Caravan, NBC's early TV news effort. But as the 1956 political conventions came into focus for the U.S. TV audience, they came to see, hear, and to know Brinkley as a new breed of TV journalist.

Brinkley was one of the first journalists to be absolutely comfortable with this new medium of TV. As his boss at NBC Reuven Frank has often said, Brinkley had wit, style, intelligence, and perhaps most importantly, a lean writing style filled with powerful declarative sentences which is very effective in TV news. And Brinkley was aware that TV was made up of pictures and corresponding sounds. He understood that the reporter had to stop talking and let the news footage tell the story. "Brinkley writes silence better than anyone else I know," says Frank. And when this natural TV journalist was teamed with the California reporter Chet Huntley, they literally took TV audiences by storm.

TV news before Huntley and Brinkley was a combination of dull film reports, similar to movie theater newsreels of the 1940s, and a radio reporting style similar to the World War II era. But Huntley and Brinkley took TV news into a new age of electronic journalism. According to one of their main competitors, Don Hewitt of CBS who produced Walter Cronkite and later 60 Minutes; "They came at us like an express train." When Huntley spoke, it was clear the story was a global story. When Brinkley spoke, it was clear it was a story about Washington. They began with a 15-minute newscast, and in 1963 increased to 30-minutes per night. Audiences in the 1990s take for granted seeing different journalists in different cities talking to each other on TV But it was The Huntley-Brinkley Report that began such techniques. And this switching back and forth between Huntley in New York and Brinkley in Washington, created the now famous final exchange e from every newscast "Good night, David...Good night, Chet." The order of the exchange alternated night by night--until their last newscast together in 1970 when Huntley's "Good night, David" brought the response, "...Good bye, Chet."

In that year Huntley retired to a Montana ranch, and Brinkley became progressively restless at NBC. His important role in the Huntley-Brinkley Report could not be matched, and he did not continue producing the excellent documentaries on David Brinkley's Journal. He became known as the grumpy older newsman in the NBC family. He did a series of programs for NBC, including NBC Nightly News and NBC Magazine with David Brinkley. But he hated to go to New York to do the news, since he saw his news beat as Washington. Finally, in 1981 Roone Arledge hired Brinkley for ABC. All the years with The Huntley-Brinkley Report had made Brinkley into the absolute Washington insider. When ABC gave him the Sunday program This Week With David Brinkley, he and his guests could talk among themselves and with all the other Washington insiders about the week's news event.

Brinkley asked his friend George Will to join him on This Week With David Brinkley. ABC reporter Sam Donaldson joined as the resident "liberal" to confront Will's avowed "conservative" stance. Besides the guests who were interviewed every week, other reporters such as NPR's Cokie Roberts have joined Brinkley, Will, and Donaldson. By some critics the program has been deemed opinionated, referred to as ABC's Op-Ed page. But there has traditionally been very little interpretation of news on U.S. TV, and This Week With David Brinkley seems to have partially filled the void. Because of Brinkley's strong Washington ties, the show has at times appeared to be one group of Washingtonians talking to another. But criticisms aside, with ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, Brinkley's enormous talents and his many decades of TV news experience have been riven free reign.

Brinkley has received many awards, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George Bush. But when asked what he thought his legacy to TV news would be, Brinkley told Broadcasting Magazine, "(E)very news program on the air looks essentially as we started it (with The Huntley-Brinkley Report). We more or less set the form for broadcasting news on television which is still used. No one has been able to think of a better way to do it."

-Clayland H. Waite


David Brinkley
Photo courtesy of ABC

DAVID BRINKLEY. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., 10 July 1920. Attended New Hanover High School, Wilmington. Special student in English at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1939-40; special student in English at Emory and Vanderbilt universities, 1941-43. Married: 1) Ann Fischer, 1946 (divorced) ; children: Alan, Joel, and John; 2) Susan Melanie Benfer, 1972; children: Alexis. Served in U.S. Army, 1941-43. Reporter at Wilmington, North Carolina Star-News, 1938-41; reporter, bureau manager, United Press news service (later United Press International), various southern cities, 1941-43; joined NBC as radio news writer and non-broadcast reporter in Washington, D.C., 1943; NBC-TV, from 1946; Washington correspondent, NBC, 1951-81; co-anchor, with Chet Huntley, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, 1956-70; correspondent, commentator, NBC Nightly News, 1971-76; co-anchor, NBC Nightly News, 1976-79; anchor, ABC's This Week with David Brinkley, from 1981. Member: Cosmos Club, Washington; National Press Club, Washington; trustee, Colonial Williamsburg. Recipient: DuPont Award, 1958; Golden Key Award, 1964; Peabody Award, 1961; Emmy Award, 1963; Scholastic Bell Award; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1992. Address: ABC News, 1717 DeSales St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-4407.

TELEVISION SERIES

1951-56 Camel News Caravan (correspondent)
1956-70 NBC News/The Huntley-Brinkley Report (show won Emmies, 1959 & 1960)
1961-63 David Brinkley's Journal
1971-76 NBC Nightly News (commentator only)
1976-79 NBC Nightly News (co-anchor)
1980-81 NBC Magazine with David Brinkley
1981-98 This Week with David Brinkley
1981-98 ABC's World News Tonight (commentator)

PUBLICATIONS

David Brinkley: a Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1995.

FURTHER READING

Cook, P., D. Gomery, and L. Lichty, editors. The Future of News: Television-Newspapers-Wire Services- Newsmagazines. Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1992.

Frank, R. Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Gunther, M. The House that Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. "Pull the Plug." (editorial), The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 7 May 1990.

Fearless and Funny
David Brinkley as Seen by His Colleagues And Himself
ABCNEWS.com

June 12 Throughout his life, David Brinkley enjoyed every opportunity to laugh at himself, even as he was hailed as a towering figure in broadcast news.

Brinkley died today at 82. As colleagues mourn his passing, they remember his impact and his singular charm.

Here are some remembrances, as well as some comments Brinkley made about the news business and his part in it through the years.

Remembrances of Brinkley

"As DiMaggio was the most elegant and spare and graceful ball player of his generation, so too was David Brinkley among broadcast journalists."


George Will, a longtime panelist on This Week With David Brinkley.

"David Brinkley was a pioneer of broadcast journalism. He was respected for his integrity, admired for his candor and wit, and distinguished by an exceptional career that spanned more than a half century."


President George W. Bush.

"I heard David Brinkley even before I saw him. And it still seems to me those rhythms actually changed the quality of news reporting, not just the style. Syncopation. Irony. Individuality. Like a great jazz player gives freedom to those who come behind. He saved journalism from terminal earnestness. And convolution.


ABCNEWS's Diane Sawyer.

"He represented the best of what we try to do in the news business and he did it with humor. David was not someone who hurled thunderbolts at people. He hurled jokes, if you will, about them not to demean them but to leaven the situation. Yet he was a serious journalist."


ABCNEWS's Sam Donaldson, a longtime panelist on This Week With David Brinkley.

"They came at us like an express train."


Don Hewitt, producer of CBS's 60 Minutes, explaining the impact of The Huntley-Brinkley Report to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

"A bit of Americana almost as familiar as the Gettysburg Address."


McCall's magazine on "Goodnight, David Goodnight, Chet," the famed sign off of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, on the show's 10th anniversary.

"For those of us who were privileged to work with him over his long and outstanding career, we know that he set a shining example for everyone in broadcast journalism."


ABCNEWS President David Westin.

"What did David bring to the table that was new and distinctive? His delivery, without question. One of the great dilemmas about working with Brinkley over many years was to sit beside him for long periods of time on election night or at a political convention and be absolutely certain that before too long you were not trying to talk like him. It was very distinctive and unmistakable."


ABCNEWS's Peter Jennings.

 

Brinkley on Brinkley

"The only way to do news on television is not to be terrified of it.... Of course you have to know what you're doing.... You really have to know, and you have to know you know."


Brinkley on reporting.

"I was told they had jobs at CBS. I went there and they turned me away, said they didn't have anything. I walked four blocks to NBC, got hired right away and stayed there for 38 years."


Brinkley on the origins of his TV career. He joined NBC in 1956 and jumped to ABC in 1981, winning 10 Emmy Awards along the way.

"I was at an airport on my way somewhere and a very nice gray-haired lady stopped me and said, 'Aren't you Chet Huntley?' And I said, 'Yes,' partly because it didn't make any difference, and she said, 'Well, I think you are pretty good, but I can't stand that idiot Brinkley."


Brinkley on his fame.

"I always thought that was silly. I still think it's silly. People imagine it when you say things they don't like. They can't find it in the words you say so they try to find it in something else."


Brinkley on accusations that he slanted his reports by cocking his eyebrow.

"On this, my last word here on ABC, I quote Shakespeare, who said, 'All's well that ends well.' My time here now ends extremely well. Thank you."


Brinkley, upon stepping down as host of This Week With David Brinkley in November 1996.

 

 

 

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