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.

 

See also Anchor; Huntley, Chet; News (Network)