David McClure Brinkley (1920-2003)

Written By Robert Patrick

Newscaster David McClure Brinkley helped pioneer the two-anchor format on NBC and revolutionize the format of the Sunday news interview programs with his ABC series, This Week With David Brinkley.

From his earliest days, Brinkley exhibited qualities that would make him successful in broadcasting.  Born in Wilmington, Brinkley displayed a talent for writing in high school, and an English teacher helped him get a job as a reporter on the Wilmington Morning Star. He supplemented his income by rewriting wire-service copy for broadcast for a daily, five-minute newscast on Wilmington radio station WRBT.  After graduation from high school, he attended the University of North Carolina, Emory University, and Vanderbilt University; by 1940 he was Charlotte bureau chief for the United Press.  Following military service, Brinkley went to work at the NBC-owned radio station in Washington, D.C.: WRC-TV.

On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, the twenty-four-year-old Brinkley almost experienced national fame.   Working the assignment desk, he received the first announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and wanted to break into the NBC network with the news.  But the news director chose to let it come from New York.  In the meantime, John Daly of CBS was first on the air with the announcement of FDR’s death. (A similar incident occurred on November 22, 1963, when the manager of WRC-TV refused to interrupt a fashion show so that Brinkley could announce that President John F. Kennedy had been shot; Walter Cronkite was first on television with the announcement.)

Many viewers first saw Brinkley on NBC’s pioneering newscast, the Camel News Caravan. Anchored by John Cameron Swayze, the program featured Brinkley as its principal White House reporter, and many viewers first heard Brinkley’s wry wit.  For example, when some debated whether to change the name of Boulder Dam to Hoover Dam, Brinkley insisted that the former President change his name to Herbert Boulder.

Brinkley’s big break came in 1956, when NBC was looking for someone to cover political conventions and counter CBS’s newest star, Walter Cronkite.  Some insiders wanted the  serious-minded Chet Huntley, who had worked for ABC and CBS; others preferred Brinkley, whose wit would be a sharp contrast to Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, and Douglas Edwards on CBS.  Borrowing an idea he had seen on the NBC affiliate in Huntington, West Virginia, NBC News president Reuven Frank teamed Brinkley with Huntley.  Viewers responded favorably to the duo’s easygoing delivery, and the two soon assumed the anchor of NBC news.

Usually for The Huntley-Brinkley Report, Huntley broadcast from New York and Brinkley from Washington.  The two, however, appeared together on special events: conventions; election nights; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the funeral of Dwight Eisenhower; and the Apollo 11 moon landing.  By the early 1960s The Huntley-Brinkley Report had surpassed Douglas Edwards in the ratings, and CBS brought in Cronkite as its new anchor.  The broadcast expanded from fifteen minutes to thirty in 1963.  They attracted as much as eighty percent of the audience for NBC’s coverage of the 1964 political conventions, and CBS responded by replacing unsuccessfully Cronkite with veteran Robert Trout and a young Roger Mudd.  

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Brinkley’s career had its ups and downs.  In 1969 Huntley and Brinkley added a Saturday broadcast to their schedule.  The next year Huntley retired and the program was retitled NBC Nightly News and rotated anchors: Brinkley, John Chancellor, and Frank McGee.  The format confused viewers.  So, McGee was moved to the Today show, Chancellor became permanent anchor, and Brinkley contributed commentaries titled “David Brinkley’s Journal” (the same name he had used for a weekly documentary series from 1962 to 1963). He continued to cover special events, notably Watergate and the funeral of Lyndon Johnson.  In 1976, Brinkley’s star seemed on the rise again, when he was paired with Chancellor for that year’s political coverage.  Ratings and critical notices were favorable, and Brinkley (in Washington) co-anchored Nightly News with Chancellor (in New York) for the next three years.

Despite increasing unhappiness with his role at NBC, Brinkley agreed in 1980 to anchor NBC Magazine and compete with CBS’s top-rated 60 Minutes.  The broadcast aired Fridays at 10 P.M. (EST), against CBS’s Dallas.  Referring in the first broadcast to the major character in the hit soap opera, Brinkley quipped, “[The program was for] those of us who don’t [care] who shot J.R.”  Brinkley’s roundtable discussion distinguished it from 60 Minutes.  But Brinkley was never comfortable with the program.

In 1981, he accepted an offer from ABC News president Roone Arledge to anchor a new Sunday-interview show: This Week With David Brinkley.  It began when Arledge considered the traditional format (broadcast interviews with a moderator and guest at a small desk, and a panel of four reporters asking questions from a larger one) to be outdated.  Arledge placed Brinkley, his guests, and regulars, Sam Donaldson (Liberal) and George Will (Conservative), in a semicircle. In 1988 Cokie Roberts joined as a third regular panelist.  Following the interviews, Brinkley, Donaldson, Will, and Roberts discussed what had been said and then indiscriminately commented about current events. Through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Brinkley chaired the Sunday news-interview show with the highest ratings.  Eventually NBC’s Meet The Press and CBS’s Face The Nation modified their formats to at least resemble Brinkley’s hour. Despite his professional success, Brinkley retired in 1996 on a note of controversy, for, when co-anchoring ABC’s election-night coverage with Peter Jennings, he had called Bill Clinton a “bore,” and predicted “four more years of nonsense.”

Even so, Brinkley’s peers respected him for his innovative and productive work. Brinkley was the recipient of ten Emmy awards and three George Foster Peabody awards for excellence in broadcasting.  Brinkley also found time to write three books: a fictional work depicting the nation’s capital during World War II, Washington Goes To War (1988); an autobiography that displayed his wit, 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 (1995); and a commentary, Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion (1996).

On June 11, 2003, David Brinkley died at his home in Houston from complications resulting from a fall.  He is buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.