Pete Schulberg/On Television
Like anyone else who spent a lifetime watching David Brinkley on television, I have many flashbacks of the man who helped invent network news.
There was the time Brinkley chimed in with an 'Attaboy, Abe,' while Sen. Abraham Ribicoff spoke of 'Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago' during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention. Brinkley thought his microphone was off.
And there was the time, years later, when I was to be one of several TV news rookies meeting with Brinkley in Portland to talk about NBC's documentaries. Though no one could be more laid-back than Brinkley, what came through most clearly that day was his love for journalism.
Brinkley, who died last week at age 82, said it best. (He always said it and wrote it best.) 'I had acquired a reputation at NBC for being a professional talker who didn't talk much,' he explained. 'When there is no need for explanation or clarification, I always shut up.'
If there is a single anchorperson on the planet who subscribes to that credo now, I'd like to know who it is and when he or she is on.
As host of 'This Week With David Brinkley,' he let the show's regulars pretty much carry the hour. But when Brinkley left the program six years ago, the ratings dropped and have never recovered.
During his last visit to Portland in the late '70s, when he was the guest of honor at a KGW anniversary bash Brinkley may have been the least talkative person in the room. Asked by Ancil Payne, then the president of King Broadcasting, KGW's parent company, to say a few words it turned out to be very few the NBC anchorman told the gathering that 'when Ancil Payne asks me to do something, I do it.' Brinkley was referring to jetting to Portland for the event, but he could just as well have been talking about NBC's push for an expanded, hour-long newscast.
It was Payne, as the head of NBC's affiliates board, who spearheaded affiliate opposition to the expanded newscast idea, which would have meant a big loss of revenue and clout for local stations. My hunch is that Brinkley would have hated the idea of talking more and diluting the newscast each night. After all, it wasn't until the early '60s that network news went from 15 minutes to a half-hour.
Brinkley used to say that if he tried getting into the TV news business nowadays, nobody would hire him. He never looked the part of an anchorman, even when he was one. And he didn't act like one, either. His droll take on almost everything combined with the tightest writing that has ever graced a TV screen would have made Brinkley a star even if there had never been a Chet Huntley to say 'good night' to.
Brinkley was the first network anchor to use biting humor in his writing, analysis and commentary. And he'd regularly crack himself up. The guy never wasted words, but laughing came easy.
In his wonderful autobiography, 'David Brinkley: A Memoir,' Brinkley reflected on those first days of network newscasts when 'we were still confused about what to do with television news.' In the end, Brinkley learned better than anyone.