Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Good Night For NBC News

News has to be factual. That’s a given. But it has to be something else. News is a story and it has to be told in a way—aurally or visually—to grab someone’s attention. There’s little point in having a good, valid piece of information that is ignored.

One of finest news story-tellers was David Brinkley.

Brinkley didn’t have a booming voice; it was almost a mumble. He wasn’t a telegenic young guy that news consultants pushed on stations once upon a time. He was a clever writer, witty and occasionally sardonic, someone you wanted to hear.

Broadcasting is a funny thing. Very good people can be let go simply because someone in charge likes someone else better. That’s what happened with David Brinkley. John Cameron Swayze was anchoring the Camel News Caravan on NBC in 1956. The higher-ups at NBC didn’t like Swayze for whatever reason. They did like a couple of newsmen they saw anchor the political conventions that year—Brinkley and Chet Huntley. Swayze was out after October 26th. Huntley and Brinkley were in. (Camels were out, too. The new newscast was sponsored by Studebaker-Packard, Sperry Rand and Miles Laboratories).

Here’s an unbylined feature story about Brinkley published about two weeks after his debut, giving his life story to date as well as revealing a small setback.
Brinkley's First Newscast Was Almost His Last One
NEW YORK, Nov. 10. — Commentator David Brinkley's first network broadcast almost was his last. During a report of a news event of extraordinary interest, he mispronounced a word, and he says, needlessly, while millions listened.
Now the co-editor (with Chet Huntley) of "NBC News," Brinkley is still embarrassed about the early slip. "It was one of the broadcasts that followed the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt," he recalls. "I mispronounced 'cortege' in 'funeral cortege.' I don't know why, for I knew the word.
"I heard about it immediately. So many people were listening in. It's very bad to mispronounce a word on the air. I was embarrassed, NBC was embarrassed, and I thought I was finished."
Certainly no one would have predicted, back in 1945, that David Brinkley would become one of the most highly praised news commentators in 1956.
He Was Surprised
Brinkley, a 36-year-old North Carolinian, was almost unknown in a national sense before the political conventions which he reported as one of NBC-TV's anchor men (Chet Huntley and Bill Henry were the others). Although he had been with NBC News for 13 years, he was hailed by television critics as a fresh new personality, a wit, a man of "few but well-chosen words."
Brinkley could hardly have been more surprised. The critics, it seemed, were praising him for being simply himself. He is naturally taciturn. "I don't talk a lot any time," he said, "I've always been really pretty shy." Even now, he said, he is acutely embarrassed when he has to broadcast before an audience that he can see.
And it had never occurred to him that, like Will Rogers, he has the knack of penetrating to the humorous heart of things without wounding and without pretense or bombast. Throughout his broadcasting career, Brinkley has resolutely refused to play the solemn, all-knowing pundit's role. "A person on the air commenting is not there because he is smarter than other people," he said. "Millions of people looking on are smarter than I am. My job is simply to give them information that perhaps they didn't know. But this doesn't give me any reason to be a smart aleck."
David Brinkley, born in Wilmington. N.C., is tall, slender and inclined to stoop. His brown wavy hair is worn closely cropped, his eyes are blue, his eyelashes are so short as to be almost invisible. He gives the appearance of being totally relaxed. His speaking voice, while pleasant enough, is a run of-mill baritone. There is not an urgent or a strident note anywhere in it.
Worked For UP
After his graduation from the University of North Carolina as an English major, Brinkley went to work for the United Press for three years. He worked for United Press in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte and Nashville, but remarks, "I was only 20 years old and I wasn't much good."
He served in the Army briefly — was released because of impaired hearing after a rifle was fired too close to his ear. Romance propelled him out of the U.P. and into broadcasting. "I was working in Charlotte and making $15 a week and I wanted to get married. Marriage was tough at that price. I'd been writing radio copy for U.P. so in 1943 I went to NBC in Washington and got a job for $60 a week."
His first NBC job was writing newscripts for Newscaster Kenneth Banghart. Sometime around 1945, William R. McAndrew, manager of the Washington news room for NBC (now Director of News for the network), encouraged Brinkley to become a newscaster. "He put me on in the early mornings so that nobody would hear me. But I'd still rather write than anything else. It's the only thing I claim to be able to do." He writes all his own scripts.
Tricky Spot
Brinkley has been Washington correspondent for NBC for five years. He believes he had his biggest television audience when President Eisenhower announced from the White House, following his heart attack, that he would run again. "He talked about 17 minutes and I had to fill in 12 minutes. It was a difficult spot to be in. I had to be careful of every word."
His toughest assignment, however, he says, was the Army-McCarthy hearings which he reported for N.B.C. for three months. "I had to take 5 or 6 hours of film that we'd made during the day and get the highlights of it on the air in from 3 to 6 minutes. And it was a very controversial subject. It nearly killed me." Again with Chet Huntley and Bill Henry, Brinkley provided a running commentary on the election. They broadcast from Studio 8-H in New York, with the assistance of a multimillion dollar array of I.B.M. and Tele-register equipment.
Brinkley and his wife, the former Ann Fischer, live outside Washington in Montgomery County, Maryland. They have three children: Alan, 7; Joel, 4, and John 1 1/2.
Huntley and Brinkley soon took over the name of their newscast and outdistanced CBS’ Douglas Edwards in the ratings (leading to Edwards’ replacement with Walter Cronkite). Huntley retired in 1970 and Brinkley carried on until the network that so badly wanted him to replace John Cameron Swayze didn’t want him any more. He left for ABC in 1981 and led a classy and thoughtful roundtable Sunday morning interview/commentary show that, arguably, became the industry’s leader. He retired in 1997 and enjoyed life for six more years before passing away a month shy of his 83rd birthday.

In a 1992 interview, Brinkley summed up himself thusly: “I've simply been a reporter covering things, and writing and talking about it.” That’s not true, if I may be allowed to editorialise. He was more than that. He was an inspiration to many, many young journalists, instilling them with the belief that news must be related correctly and well. It’s something needed society needs today, and always will.


  1. I remember my parents watching " The Huntley-Brinkley Report " every night. But then, Cronkite, Douglas Edwards, Frank Reynolds, Howard K. Smith and all their ilk were staples around the house when it came to evening news. Huntley and Brinkley were mentioned in a number of sitcoms during that era, as they were ingrained in the culture at the time. Whenever I hear a reference to Huntley and Brinkley in an old show, I have to explain to the younger people in the room who they were. Then, they get the joke.

    1. "While we're attacking frontally/watch Brinkeley and Hunteley/discussing contrapuntally/the cities we have lost!" -- Tom Lehrer.