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
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
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
Photo courtesy of ABC
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.
1951-56 Camel News
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)
David Brinkley: a
Memoir. New York: Knopf,
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
— 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
Here are some remembrances, as well
as some comments Brinkley made about the news business and his
part in it through the years.
"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 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
— 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
— 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.
"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.