Broadcaster David Brinkley Dies at 82
Jun. 12, 2003
NEW YORK (AP) _ David Brinkley, a pioneering TV journalist who became a household name delivering a sign-off he didn't even like, has died at 82.
``Neither of us liked it,'' Brinkley said a few years ago, referring to his NBC co-anchor Chet Huntley. ``Two guys on the air saying good night to each other didn't look quite right.''
But they had to close the newscast somehow, and ``Good night, Chet,'' ``Good night, David'' did the trick. It also became a national catchphrase in the late 1950s as ``The Huntley-Brinkley Report'' fused those two newsmen into TV journalism's reigning force.
``It's hard to overstate the enormous impact they had on the country,'' NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said Thursday. ``TV didn't have two bigger stars.''
Brinkley died Wednesday at his home in Houston of complications from a fall.
He began the second act of his career in 1981 by moving to ABC News. There he flourished for another 15 years, particularly on ``This Week with David Brinkley,'' where he reinvented the Sunday political talk show.
He won 10 Emmy awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards and, in 1992, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. He is the author of four books, including the forthcoming ``Brinkley's Beat: People, Places, and Events That Shaped My Time,'' to be published in November.
But none of that quite conveys Brinkley's legendary status _ or his role in defining TV journalism _ despite his insistence, ``I didn't create anything. I just got here early.''
Born in Wilmington, N.C., on July 10, 1920, he was still in high school when he began writing for his hometown newspaper. He attended the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University, and after Army service he worked in Southern bureaus for the United Press syndicate.
He moved to Washington, D.C., thinking a radio job awaited him at CBS News. Instead, he landed a job four blocks away at NBC News and became White House correspondent _ NBC's first.
Not long after that, as Brinkley recounted in his 1995 memoir, ``a large, odd-looking object arrived at the Washington studio ... so big it could barely be rolled through the door. It was our first television camera.''
In those early days, Brinkley was unusual for his courtly manner, wry wit and a clipped style of delivery that suggested a mild case of hiccups.
Then his distinctive presence was paired with craggy, leading-man-handsome Chet Huntley for NBC News' coverage of the 1956 Democratic and Republican national conventions. It was a perfect fit.
``He and Huntley represented a transition from wartime radio, which had dominated television news for its first few years,'' said former NBC News president Reuven Frank, who coined their soon-to-be-famous sign-off as the young producer of their weeknight newscast.
``I used to classify newscasters as the Singers and the Shouters, and Brinkley was neither of those,'' Frank said Thursday. ``He was adult, he was stylish, he was skeptical. And the best writer I ever worked with.''
Beyond their nightly newscast, which began in October 1956, Huntley and Brinkley led NBC as it covered space shots, assassinations, riots and other breaking news with a beat-the-competition thoroughness expressed by the unofficial byword ``CBS plus 30 (minutes).''
During the 1964 Democratic convention, NBC, up against CBS and its anchor Walter Cronkite, won an astonishing 84 percent of the viewership.
But the fame of Huntley-Brinkley reached far beyond the realm of journalism. In 1965, a consumer-research company found that the twosome was recognized by more adult Americans than John Wayne or the Beatles.
One New Yorker magazine cartoon showed two parrots with a sign that says ``$150 a pair.'' The pet shop clerk tells a wavering customer, ``Madam, would you ask NBC to break up Huntley and Brinkley?''
And satirist-songwriter Tom Lehrer paid them tribute in his song about World War III: ``While we're attacking frontally, Watch Brinkally and Huntally, Describing contrapuntally, The cities we have lost.''
But if they were part of pop culture, they didn't act like it.
``One thing I've always been grateful for,'' said Brokaw, ``is how they held to a standard. They kept television news moving in the right direction.''
Then, in 1970, Huntley retired. He died four years later.
Brinkley co-anchored the renamed ``NBC Nightly News'' with John Chancellor, then became the program's commentator. But the spell was broken. ``The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite'' seized the ratings lead as NBC News stumbled.
After a falling out with his bosses, Brinkley gratefully moved on to ABC News, a late bloomer finally making a name for itself (thanks in part to Brinkley).
In November 1996, he stepped down as host of ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley'' but continued to do commentary. He left amid a rare controversy: Late on Election Night, after a long evening, he said unkind things about President Clinton on the air, including calling him a ``bore.'' Even so, Clinton sat for an interview for Brinkley's last show anyway, during which Brinkley apologized.
Divorced from his first wife, Ann, in the 1960s, Brinkley married Susan Benfer in 1972.
Among his four children, Alan is an American Book Award-winning historian and Joel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
A man who shot pool, rode horses and designed more than one of the houses he lived in, Brinkley aptly summed up his career and life in the subtitle of his memoir: ``11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television, and 18 Years of Growing Up in North Carolina.''
But in a 1992 interview, he summed up his profession this way: ``People go and find out what is happening, and then tell what they have seen. That's all a reporter ever did. I think it's a very honorable thing to do.''