May 10, 2020

FTV: David Brinkley

  David Brinkley’s 1995 Memoir (Knopf Books) is on one hand a fascinating story of his life.  Born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1920, he grew up in the same era as my father.  Contrasting Brinkley’s tales of growing up in the post-WWI south with my dad’s stories of his early years in Wakefield, Michigan, I find many similarities.  Certainly there were cultural differences between those two regions and their chosen careers (Brinkley in broadcasting and my father in public service as a State Trooper, Detective, and Investigator).  With that said, they lived through the many cultural and sociological changes that took place in the United States in the Twentieth Century.  Brinkley died in Houston, Texas on June 11, 2003 and the New York Times described him as. “A veteran American newscaster who defined an entire era of television news reporting . . . whose pungent news commentaries delivered with a mixture of wry skepticism and succinct candor, set the standard for network television for generations.”  Brinkley’s account of his career was also interesting because I learned a lot about the evolution of both radio and television broadcasting.

     When there was but one TV Channel available in my younger days, WLUC-TV 6 in Marquette, was a CBS affiliate.  My father was an avid Walter Cronkite man and even after cable added two more channels, he stuck with Uncle Walter for his evening news.  I knew of David Brinkley in high school only in a roundabout way.  My buddy Nick Gorski introduced me to the comedy songs of Tom Lehrer (which we spent many an afternoon snorting about).  One song  (about nuclear holocost*) entitled So Long Mom (I’m Off to Drop the Bomb) had a lyric that went, “Watch Brinkally and Huntllay, describing contrapuntally, the cities we have lost.  There’s no need for you to miss a minute, of the agonizing holocost.”  Yes, dark humour to say the least but in dark times, this kind of humour helps keep one sane (author’s note* – Lehrer often introduced the song by talking about all the great songs written for WWI and II:  “If we indeed engage in a nuclear style WWIII, we better start writing the songs now”).  In this case, it made me aware of David Brinkley (and his news partner, Chet Huntley) even though I never watched NBC’s newscasts.  Times have changed.  WLUC-TV is now an NBC affiliate and the old guard announcers are long retired and/or expired.  The reporting template those pioneers created, however,  lives on even in our high tech, sound byte, 24 hour news cycle world.

     David Brinkley’s youth in Wilmington wasn’t glamorous.  Wilmington was a seaport city of about 35,000 people and in the infant days of radio, their small, unaffiliated station was strictly local.  He describes his mother as a cold, disinterested parent who, after his father suffered a fatal heart attack when David was 8 years old, encouraged his early attempts to write by asking him, “Why are you wasting your time on this foolishness?”  His first brush with success came a few years later when the local 100 watt radio station sponsored an essay contest on the topic “What WRBT Means to Wilmington.”  Brinkley’s winning entry earned him the princely sum of five dollars, which he noted was four dollars more than he had ever possessed.  He became a minor celebrity around his school.  Brinkley was hired to work at the local A&P grocery store because the owner liked his essay about radio helping businesses in town.  The contest win even warmed his mother to tell him, “‘Oh, it’s alright.’  For her, that was an emotional outburst.”  It was his high school English teacher who told him his writing was good and planted the seed that he might become a journalist.  The thought had never crossed his mind, but it certainly took root.

     The state of broadcasting for a 1930s era 100 watt radio station with no network affiliation is summed up pretty well by Brinkley’s description of how they aired baseball games:  “WRBT hired a Western Union wire to bring in the World Series to the newspaper’s office [that housed the station] by telegraph, using Morse Code to cover the action play-by-play.  What came in were the barest bones, the briefest and most cryptic possible descriptions of each pitch and each play.  Strike one came in over the wire as “S1.”  When a batter hit a grounder to the shortstop and was thrown out at first, the Western Union operator sent this information:  “63O” – meaning the ball was hit on the ground to the shortstop, position six, and then thrown to the first basemen, position three, and the batter was out.  Had the runner managed to beat the throw to first, the wire would have read “1B” – a one-base hit.  A generation of small-time radio announcers broadcast baseball games by starting with these tiny, dry bits of information and embellishing them with chatter about events in the game that sounded good on radio whether or not they actually happened, often describing a game far more exciting than the one being played.”  It took the rumblings in Europe leading up to World War II to convince the paper and WRBT that they needed to import news of the world through the Associated Press (AP) wire.  

     On the advice of his English teacher, David had started working for the local paper in a program called Cooperative Education.  As a cub reporter, he wrote copy for the Star-News and was sent to cover local stories the other reporters didn’t want to cover.  Brinkley would translate the wire service news into copy and when they began dabbling in radio, he was put on the air to read his five minutes of news.   He remembered his first forays into live broadcasting:  “In a one-station town with no network, people had never heard a news broadcaster who was any good and so [they] had no way of knowing how bad I was.  It was the first of many times luck has been with me when talent was not.  I am thankful that in these first years tape recording had not yet been invented.”

      Brinkley volunteered for the Army and ended up in a training unit with a group of Wilmington locals from the poorer side of town.  As the supply sergeant, he made friends in the outfit by helping the GIs settle their debts with the Army.  In the cash strapped peace time Army, lost equipment was charged to their pay and most of the GIs in his unit barely made ends meet as it was.  Prior to his unit getting shipped overseas, he was diagnosed with a kidney ailment and sent home (an ailment that never bothered him before, during, or after the service).  When his former unit landed at Normandy, they were the unfortunate recipients of a ‘friendly fire’ bombing that killed all but one member of the squad.  Brinkley talks about ‘luck’ throughout his book with this certainly having been one of his luckiest moments.  When he was cut loose from the Army, he went back to work at the paper and radio station in Wilmington until he was offered a position with the United Press (UP) in Atlanta.  The small town boy in him was hesitant, but his boss convinced him that he would be foolish to not take a chance.  

     As a young, draft deferred member of the UP, he was rotated to various stations when the young men in the bureaus were called to go to war.  He credits his time in Nashville with improving his southern tinged diction.  He became friendly with a graduate of Boston’s Emerson College who happened to have been a speech and drama major.  Her project was to get Brinkley to pronounce words like ‘sedan’ as ‘se-DAN’ and not ‘SEE-dan’ as he was wont to do in his southern dialect.  From Nashville, he was routed east to Charlotte, NC where there was even less news to report than back in Nashville.  Brinkley persuaded his boss to put in a word for him with CBS when a position opened in Washington, DC.  With the arrangements made, he appeared in DC only to be shown the door when the office chief refused to see him, stating he had no knowledge of any open positions.  Four blocks and ten minutes later, he was at the NBC office down the street.  It was the fall of 1943 and whether he realized it or not, David Brinkley had finally found a permanent home.  As NBC transitioned into that new fangled medium, television, Brinkley would be one of the pioneers;  laying the blocks for the foundation of network news as we know it today.

     Early on, they found it nearly impossible to broadcast TV news from a radio studio.  The low ceilings and hot lights needed for the earliest TV cameras made for an uncomfortable atmosphere.  Building a new studio would help, but how does one train people to broadcast in a new medium?  The big names in radio avoided TV because they were used to simply reading copy from a printed sheet.  TV news broadcasts required a different type of writing and visuals.  Film needed to be shot and edited on the fly to fit narrow windows in the fifteen minute programs.  Eventually, TV production became seamless enough to put the old movie house ‘newsreels’ out of business.  Brinkley points out that the movie studios that had produced the newsreels archived all of their footage and are still making money from them today.  Without widespread camera coverage during WWII, anyone needing stock footage of say, Winston Churchhill, needs to purchase it from the movie studio archives.  In 1995, the going rate was a thousand dollars per minute.

     The description Brinkley provides about the development of color television was also eye opening:  “Dr. Peter Goldmark, the CBS scientist who invented the long-playing record, applied himself to this new challenge and in time came up with a color television system of sorts.  It consisted mainly of a motor-driven rotating wheel with a series of mirrors and pieces of colored glass.  It did, indeed, produce a pretty color picture.  But its disadvantages were overwhelming.  It was totally incompatible with existing black-and-white TV sets, meaning the CBS system instantly would make very existing set obsolete.  Since the color picture would have to be viewed through one half of the rotating wheel, the wheel would always have to be more than twice the size of the pciture.  To build the twenty-on-inch TV set in common use today [1995] would require a rotating wheel about five feet in diameter.  Where would you put that in your living room?  Not only that, since the CBS apparatus required an electric motor driving a rotating wheel, there certainly would be some noise.”

     RCA had rushed out a demonstration of their own color TV system a few weeks earlier and it was a complete disaster.  Their half finished system produced a dim, fuzzy image with purple bananas and women with green lipstick.  The Variety headline said it all:  “RCA lays a colored egg.”  The FCC was poised to make the cumbersome CBS system the industry standard until the major TV manufacturers (RCA, Zenith, and Philco among them) refused to make TV sets to run the CBS system.  It set the whole idea of color TV back for some time, allowing RCA’s David Sarnoff to come up with the system that was finally approved as the industry standard by the FCC.

     Television coverage of both the Democratic and Repbulican presidential conventions in 1948  was primitive and not widely seen by the American public.  Radio newsmen were used to filling their reports by explaining activities their listeners could not see.  Having them describe action that was being broadcast on TV became redundant:  “The senator finished his speech, folded it up, put it in his jacket pocket and returned to his seat.”  By the 1952 conventions, 17 million American homes had televisions, but the broadcast networks were still trying to use commentators who had cut their teeth in radio.  Lack of cable connections to the west coast (the three major networks had to share one coaxial cable feed for pooled film footage) meant each network had to add their own narration via the more numerous radio lines.  As the directors became more adept at filming the dull convention action from more interesting angles, the news people had to find ways to add their narration to the clips without simply repeating what the viewers were seeing.  Brinkley first worked the conventions for TV in 1952.  The problems he observed in the radio-to-TV transition period would finally coalless into the new reporting template in time for NBC’s 1956 convention coverage.  Most of these rudimental elements are still employed today.

     Two things transpired in the broadcast world before the 1956 conventions.  The first was a nation-wide search undertaken by NBC to find the ‘next Edward R. Morrow” type of newsman, only one who could translate their work to television.  Chet Huntley was discovered in Los Angeles and hired to work out of New York.  Brinkley and NBC production guru Reuven Frank discussed the ‘how to’ of convention coveraged and decided the fewer rules the better.  The one obvious (yet previously not employed) tenent became known as the Frank-Brinkley rule:  “In talking over a television picture, never tell the viewers what they can easily see for themselves.  If you cannot add anything useful to what is in the picture, keep quiet.”  NBC had been rated second behind CBS’s 1952 coverage and there was no doubting NBC’s desire to up their game for the next convention cycle.

     The second key to improving NBC’s 1956 convention was the pairing of Huntley and Brinkley.  No one was sure the pairing would even work because some of the network suits had little confidence in Brinkley.  He was, after all, not a New Yorker (but then again, neither was Huntley).  The match garnered positive reviews so NBC opted to keep them together.  The two went on to host the NBC nightly news for nearly two decades.  The New York based Huntley and Washington, DC based Brinkley, broadcasting in tandem, were not an immediate hit.  They eventually gained a wider audience, and a name:  The Huntley – Brinkley Report. 

      Brinkley said that when they finally were given their iconic, “Good night, David, Good night, Chet” sign off, he hated it.  To him it sounded trite but apparently their viewers liked it.  It became iconic enough that people on the street would greet Brinkley with a jolly, “Good night, David” long after he left NBC news.  In Part 2 of David Brinkley, we will examine some 1950s history beyond the birth of network TV news.

Top Piece Video:  Tom Lehrer’s ‘So Long Mom’ mentioned above!  A song for WWIII not yet needed, Thank God!