Creating a Tradition in Broadcast News: A Conversation with David Brinkley
Murray, Michael D., Journalism History
For more than a half-century, David Brinkley has been regarded as o leader in the field of broadcast journalism. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, seventy-six years ago, he started writing for his hometown newspaper while still in high school, eventually joining United Press upon the recommendation of his journalism teacher. He went to work for NBC Radio in Washington, D.C., in 1943 and beginning in 1952 was assigned to network television coverage of the national political conventions. He quickly established that he could offer unique insights and observations into the process of selecting a president without taking himself too seriously, a quality viewers seemed to appreciate.
Four years later, he began co-anchoring the NBC evening newscast, "Huntley-Brinkley Report," with partner Chef Huntley reporting from New York, while Brinkley remained in the nation's capital. The program became the biggest revenue producer on the NBC-V network during that era, except for prime-time motion pictures. The series aired from 1956 to 1970, making the transition from fifteen minutes to a half-hour on September 9, 1963. Brinkley made other contributions in the form of special reports such as "David Brinkley's Journal," which won EMMY Awards in both 1962 and 1963 as the best public affairs series on television. When coanchor Huntley retired in 1970, the program was retitled the "NBC Nightly News," and Brinkley continued serving as anchor. He turned those duties over to John Chancellor in 1979 and assumed a commentator's role.
Brinkley left NBC in 1981 and joined the ABC Network where he currently hosts "This Week with David Brinkley" from his home base in Washington, D.C. His first book, Washington Goes To War, was published in 1988. It examined the World War II transition period in the nation's capital, including the period of his first national broadcast assignments in the 1940s. His autobiography, David Brinkley, published this fall, documents his personal experiences in network television, utilizing correspondence he received from the American people over the past half-century. This telephone conversation was taped May 5, 1995, and focuses on his key accomplishments and special programs, including the "Huntley-Brinkley Report."
Murray: When you were a kid, your first editor at the Wilmington Star News, Al Dickson, said you were a "natural" newspaperman. When did you first get started writing? How did a local newspaperman from North Carolina become a national figure in the field of broadcast news?
Brinkley: I started very young at that very small paper doing everything. Over the years, I went to three or four different colleges, but before that I had a tutor, and that's where I really learned everything. I began writing for the newspaper and was pretty good at it--was hired by United Press to write radio wire copy, and was pretty good at that, too.
Murray: In an interview you did some time ago, you said some of the major people in radio news tried to avoid television because they thought it was a fad. Later on--when they tried to make the transition, it did not work out for them?
Brinkley: Well, that was true in the very early years of television--the 1950s and '60s. The big name radio broadcasters in those years, like H. V. Kaltenborn and Lowell Thomas, avoided television at first. It was hard work, there was no money in it, and it was more complicated than radio. H. V. Kaltenborn said to me once, "I hate television." But later they found that it was television or nothing, and they tried to make the transition. Every one failed. Not a single one was able to move from radio to television, because they had been doing the same thing for so long, they couldn't change.
Murray: The fortieth anniversary of the "Huntley-Brinkley" program is coming up pretty soon. How would it compare to other programs you did? Have you ever thought about why that program attracted so many viewers?
Brinkley: I never thought about it very much. …