During a career that spanned more than 50 years at NBC and ABC, Brinkley’s distinctive delivery and sharp wit made the North Carolina native one the most influential figures in broadcast journalism.
“For those of us who were privileged to work with him over his long and outstanding career, we know that he set a shining example for everyone in broadcast journalism,” ABC News President David Westin said in a press statement.
“ABC News has a richer heritage because of his many contributions to the the network,” Westin said.
Brinkley first broke onto the national airwaves as a reporter for NBC in 1946, gaining greater national attention ten years later when he and fellow newsman Chet Huntley began the Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC’s evening newscast.
In 1981, at the age of 60, Brinkley left NBC to become host of This Week with David Brinkley, a critically acclaimed Sunday morning program on ABC. He stepped down as the program’s host in 1996, but continued to do commentaries until his retirement in 1997.
During his career, Brinkley won 10 Emmy awards and three George Foster Peabody Awards. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1992.
Based in Washington, Brinkley was known for his pinpoint coverage of every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Former President George Bush once called Brinkley “the elder statesman of broadcast journalism.”
The Chicago-based Museum of Broadcast Communications said on its Web site that Brinkley was one of the broadcast pioneers who helped to “shape the industry of television news.”
Yet, the humble Brinkley insisted otherwise saying, “I didn’t create anything. I just got here early.”
Born in Wilmington, N.C. in 1920, Brinkley got his start in journalism as a high school student writing for The Wilmington Morning Star. He scored his first network job at NBC at the age of 23 following his discharge from service in World War II.
However, his big break came in 1956 when Brinkley teamed up with Huntley to cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions for NBC News.
NBC executives liked the team’s chemistry so much they made them co-anchors of the evening news program, with Huntley based in New York and Brinkley in Washington.
With Brinkley’s pithy, authoritative style and Huntley’s rugged and handsome image, NBC News’ ratings dominated other evening newscasts throughout the 1960s. During the 1964 Democratic convention, NBC News — competing against CBS’ venerable anchor Walter Cronkite — drew a stunning 84 percent of the viewership.
Former Huntley-Brinkley Report producer Reuven Frank said Brinkley had “wit, style, intelligence, and perhaps most importantly, a lean writing style made potent with strong declarative sentences, which is effective for the delivery of TV news,” the Museum of Broadcast Communication notes in its Brinkley profile.
The co-hosts’ fame even reached beyond the news industry and into American pop culture. A 1965 consumer research survey found that Huntley and Brinkley were recognized by more adults than were the Beatles and John Wayne, the Associated Press reports.
The duo’s nightly signoff — “Goodnight, Chet”; “Goodnight, David” — became a famous American slogan, although Brinkley the novelty quickly wore thin for he and Huntley.
“Huntley and I both disliked, ‘Good night Chet, good night David,’ ” Brinkley recalled. “We didn’t like it.”
After Huntley’s retirement, Brinkley served as an anchor and commentator for NBC for 11 years before jumping to ABC and This Week in 1981.
Brinkley and his first wife, Ann, divorced in the 1960s, and he married Susan Benfer in 1972.
He is survived by his four children, including Alan, an American Book Award-winning historian and Columbia University professor, and Joel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Brinkley, himself the author of three books, epitomized his career and life in the subtitle of his autobiography: “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.”
“If I were 20 years old, I would try to do the same thing again, all of it,” Brinkley told a New York Times interviewer (his journalist son Joel) in a February 1997 profile.
“I have no regrets,” Brinkley said. “None at all.”