David Brinkley Biography

Born David McClure Brinkley, July 10, 1920, in Wilmington, NC; died after complications from a fall, June 11, 2003, in Houston, TX. Broadcast journalist. Veteran American newscaster David Brinkley helped define an entire era of television news reporting. His long stint as co–anchor of NBC's nightly Huntley–Brinkley Report between 1956 and 1970 set the standard for an entire generation of on–air journalists. Brinkley, noted Washington Post writer Bart Barnes, "was known for a wry sense of humor, pithy observations and a low–key, matter–of–fact style of reporting and commentary that lacked pretense and pomposity. He was supremely self–confident, not easily impressed, and he came across as less enamored of himself than many of his colleagues."

Born in 1920, Brinkley was a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the last of seven children in his family. His father, scion of an old Southern fortune, died when Brinkley was eight, and the household was left penniless when it turned out that the elder Brinkley had made many unsecured loans to friends. Brinkley's mother was an austere, religious woman who disapproved of her bookworm son's reading habits on the grounds that using electric light bulbs at night attracted mosquitoes, and he was at times forced to go outside and read under the light of the street lamp. He began writing for the local newspaper while still in high school, and after graduation spent a year at the University of North Carolina and then the North Carolina National Guard, from which he was discharged when misdiagnosed with a kidney ailment.

In 1942, Brinkley went to work for the United Press wire service in Atlanta, Georgia, and moved on to its bureaus in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. In 1943, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview for a job with CBS Radio; when CBS turned him down he went to NBC to ask for an interview, and was hired immediately. A quick study, Brinkley was soon given the White House beat, and after World War II became one of the few radio reporters to move successfully into the new medium of television. The cameras, lights, and teleprompters confounded some of his former colleagues, but Brinkley confessed later that he made his first mistakes on shows like America United in the late 1940s, which was broadcast locally in the District of Columbia area when, he claimed, there were but a few hundred households with television sets.

Brinkley was anchoring NBC's 15–minute nightly news broadcast by the early 1950s, and covering major news stories on assignment. In 1956, he was paired with NBC's Los Angeles–area newscaster, Chet Huntley, at the Democratic National Convention. Their on–air repartee struck a chord with viewers, and the network received an unprecedented amount of mail commending their coverage; even the New York Times pegged Brinkley as a rising star. Thus in October of that year, Brinkley and Huntley debuted on The Huntley–Brinkley Report, which would become the leading news program in American living rooms nightly for more than a decade.

Brinkley and Huntley's half–hour broadcast of the day's news—twice as long as most at the time—featured Brinkley's liberal, often irreverent commentary that served to take television journalism out of the era of news "readers" who simply recited copy and into the modern era of intelligent, measured critical analysis. Brinkley wrote all of his own copy, often underlining certain words for emphasis, which gave him a distinctive style. "With his unconventional cadence and dry, reedy tone, Brinkley broke with the mellifluous tradition of earlier broadcasting and spawned generations of imitators," declared Richard T. Cooper in the Los Angeles Times. His delivery was even mimicked by comedians, and both he and Huntley enjoyed immense celebrity during the 1960s. Brinkley reported from Washington, and Huntley from New York, and their trademark sign–off—"Good night, Chet," followed by "Good night, David"—became a national catchphrase. Brinkley later admitted both he and Huntley loathed it as a bit of forced froth.

The Huntley–Brinkley Report ended when Huntley retired in 1970. Brinkley floundered at NBC for the next decade, since news executives were busy grooming a new generation of broadcast journalists, but ABC was eager to hire him in 1981 when he was finally released from his contract. He was given his own show, This Week with David Brinkley, which once more set a new standard for its genre. The Sunday–morning chatfest topped the ratings as Brinkley moderated a panel comprised of well–known journalists in a discussion of the week's top story. He retired from the network in 1997, ending his run as the longest–serving anchor or host of a daily or weekly national television program in American broadcast history.

Brinkley wrote with characteristic frankness about his career in journalism in a 1995 autobiography. He had only one notable gaffe in his 40–plus–year career: late on ABC's election–night coverage in 1996, he fumed over a re–elected Bill Clinton's lengthy speech, terming the President "a bore," not realizing that his microphone was on. He later apologized for the remark, but ran afoul of his former colleagues a year later when he appeared in a series of feel–good ads for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Company. He wrote three books, including a 1988 bestseller, Washington Goes to War, about the transformation of the United States capital during World War II from a slow–moving Southern burg to the epicenter of global power. Throughout his career, Brinkley won ten Emmy awards, three George Peabody awards, and, in 1992, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At his Wyoming home in January of 2003, a wheelchair–bound Brinkley was rescued from a fire by a sheriff's deputy, who broke a window to take him to safety. He died on June 11, 2003, in Houston, Texas, at age 82 after complications suffered in a fall. He is survived by his second wife, Susan Benfer Brinkley, three sons from his first marriage, and a stepdaughter he adopted. His assessment of the dominant news source of his generation is often quoted by detractors of television journalism. "The one function that TV news performs very well," Brinkley once said, according to Barnes in the Washington Post, "is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."


CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/TV/06/12/obit.brinkley/index.html (June 12, 2003); Entertainment Weekly, June 27/July 4, 2003, p. 16; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,11965,00.html?tnews (June 12, 2003); Independent (London, England), June 14, 2003, p. 17; Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2003, p. A1; New York Times, June 13, 2003, p. A30; Washington Post, June 13, 2003, p. A1, p. A11.

Carol Brennan

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