For half a century, David Brinkley set the standard as a news anchor and reporter. As we mark the centennial of his birth, it’s worth noting how this broadcasting pioneer successfully navigated an ever-changing industry. Almost two decades after his 2003 death, Brinkley’s career offers some lasting lessons for today’s journalists.
Brinkley was born on July 10, 1920, in Wilmington, North Carolina. After serving in the Army, he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1943 and became NBC Radio’s White House correspondent. He began reporting during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, the first of 11 presidents Brinkley would cover.
He moved into television and eventually was paired with Chet Huntley at the 1956 political conventions. Critics praised the duo and were impressed by their knowledge, wit, and poise under deadline pressure.
Their immediate chemistry led to the Huntley-Brinkley Report. After a slow start, it became a ratings hit and ran from 1956 to 1970, airing more than 3,500 times. The NBC evening news program was anchored by Huntley in New York City and Brinkley in Washington, D.C.
Producer Reuven Frank authored the program’s iconic closing line on its first broadcast: “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night, for NBC News.” This exchange became one of television’s most famous catchphrases even though both anchors thought it was silly.
Their contrasting styles somehow made for the perfect blend. Brinkley’s wry humor and whimsical style contrasted nicely with Huntley’s smooth and serious demeanor. The program received a Peabody Award in 1958 for having “developed a mature and intelligent treatment of the news that has become a welcome and refreshing institution for millions of viewers.”
Brinkley remained an institution at NBC. After his career wrapped up there, he began an exciting new chapter at ABC. In the 1980s and 1990s, he hosted the popular This Week with David Brinkley program. His innovative Sunday morning broadcast revamped a tired format and generated many imitators.
Why did this television anchor succeed in an era of endless change when others failed? It was because he understood the importance of using precise language, being brief, and knowing when to remain silent. In his memoir, Brinkley said, “Never tell the viewers what they can easily see for themselves. If you cannot add anything useful to what is in the picture, keep quiet.”
Above all, Brinkley kept fame at arm’s length. He attributed success to hard work, luck, and being in the right place at the right time. Both Brinkley and Huntley remained grateful for their careers and avoided any sense of entitlement. “They didn’t take themselves seriously,” producer Frank remembers. “They took their work seriously.”
During the turbulent 1960s, there was plenty of serious news to report, including wars and assassinations. But Brinkley instinctively understood there was a time and place for humor.
“News is not just the bad stuff,” Brinkley said. “The news is human experience, and a lot of it is funny. And I never saw any reason to keep it off because it happened to be funny. So I always, whenever I could, rounded out the program with a funny story. I think it helped.”
Brinkley was popular with the public and lauded by his peers. The respected journalist won 10 Emmy awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Some in today’s news business take themselves too seriously as self-appointed arbiters of right and wrong. Their blatant advocacy has overwhelmed fact-gathering. They could learn a lot from Brinkley. Despite all the accolades, he never focused on the adoration. One of his favorite stories says it all.
While their popular NBC news show was on the air, many people mixed up the two anchors in person. One woman approached Brinkley at an airport and said, “Aren’t you Chet Huntley?” Brinkley said, “Yes,” because it was just easier not to argue in such cases. She replied: “Well, I like you on the news, but I can’t stand that idiot Brinkley.”
No one chuckled more at the punchline than Brinkley. By remaining modest, the “idiot” made himself probably the smartest and most enduring person in America’s living room for decades.
Kendall Wingrove is a freelance writer from Okemos, Michigan.