David Brinkley

Veteran anchorman whose 'Huntley-Brinkley Report', with Chet Huntley, changed US television news
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The Independent Online

David McClure Brinkley, television journalist: born Wilmington, North Carolina 10 July 1920; married 1946 Ann Fischer (three sons; marriage dissolved 1972), 1972 Susan Benfer (one stepdaughter); died Houston, Texas 11 June 2003.

In the breathless and self-important world of US television news, David Brinkley was an understated exception, an anchor and commentator with a taste for irony, a star almost in spite of himself. But a star he was - among the founding fathers of television news, who helped invent a format which has changed remarkably little in almost half a century.

Along with his co-anchor Chet Huntley, Brinkley launched The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC in October 1956, in the wake of their groundbreaking presidential convention coverage earlier that summer. It became the model for the classic double-anchor news shows, with Brinkley in Washington and Huntley in New York.

It was hugely successful. Their signature sign-off, "Good night, Chet . . . Good night, David", became a national catchphrase, and in 1965 a market research survey found that by 1965 they were recognised by more Americans than the Beatles or John Wayne - and certainly more than Walter Cronkite, then their distantly trailing rival on CBS.

Brinkley had joined NBC in 1943 as a radio reporter in the network's Washington bureau before graduating to television. He was a natural for the new medium, with an uncanny ability to write news scripts for television that respected the ability of pictures to tell a story, and making sure they were written as people actually spoke. Today the technique is self-evident - but, in an age when most television news was written by journalists raised in the print media, it was revolutionary.

Huntley-Brinkley ran until 1970, but thereafter Brinkley's fortunes ebbed on NBC. In 1981 he left to join ABC, then very much the third network, but keen to develop its news division. ABC offered him its Sunday morning talkshow, This Week with David Brinkley, and the veteran anchor was a smash hit again.

His worldly, slightly grumpy style enabled him to take a step back from the news. Instantly, you understood that he had been around a long time and seen it all. Never did he lose his sense of perspective. On occasion Brinkley would let slip his amused disdain at a politician's antics by arching his eyebrow. In doing so, he would vindicate yet again what someone once said of him, "No one writes silence better than David."

His career was summed up by the subtitle of his 1995 memoir, David Brinkley, "11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television". The presidents stretched from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. The former had been in the White House barely five years when Brinkley launched his journalistic career at his home-town newspaper, the Star-News in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Clinton had just won a second term in 1996 when Brinkley signed off This Week for the last time. A little earlier, Brinkley had committed one of his rare gaffes on air, gratuitously calling Bill Clinton "a bore . . . always a bore", during what was supposed to be impartial election coverage. But he apologised and Clinton was gracious in reply.

"I always believe you have to judge people on their whole work," he said in an interview as Brinkley retired. "If you get judged that way, you come out way ahead." Few in television news would disagree.

Rupert Cornwell

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