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TV News Anchor Known for Dry Wit, Singular Style

June 13, 2003|Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writer

David Brinkley, the television newsman whose acerbic commentaries and singular speaking style were legendary and exerted far-reaching influence on the development of broadcast journalism, died Wednesday night. He was 82.

Brinkley died at his home in Houston of complications from a fall, ABC News said Thursday.

"It is difficult to believe that we will never again hear his distinctive voice giving us his humorous view of our complicated world," Walter Cronkite said in a statement Thursday.

Brinkley began his broadcasting career during the golden age of radio, but was among the first to shift to an electronic novelty called television during the 1940s. Though proud of his ability to adapt to the new medium, in which many radio newscasters failed, Brinkley was quick to say of his rise to prominence: "I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time."

He played defining roles in two network news programs that introduced new formats and dominated the competition in their heyday: NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" in the 1950s and '60s and ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," which transformed Sunday morning talk shows during the 1980s and '90s.

Yet Brinkley's most far-reaching influence resulted from two qualities that sprang from his personality and were apparent in his work almost from the beginning.

The first was his unique speaking style. With his unconventional cadence and dry, reedy tone, Brinkley broke with the mellifluous tradition of earlier broadcasting and spawned generations of imitators. So widely recognized did his speaking style become that comedians routinely mimicked him and younger broadcasters found his style creeping into their own deliveries.

The second and more important contribution was Brinkley's habit of offering skeptical, often irreverent comments on the news of the day. Such commentary, every word of which he insisted on writing himself, was groundbreaking for a network anchor, and helped introduce critical analysis into electronic journalism.

Before Brinkley, network newscasters often "reported what the government said today, and they took on the self-importance of government when they spoke," said Barbara Matusow, who chronicled the evolution of TV news in her 1983 book, "The Evening Stars." "Brinkley separated himself from that. He had a tone of asperity. He used tongue-in-cheek wit. He punctured balloons."

David McClure Brinkley was born on July 10, 1920, in Wilmington, N.C., the seventh and last child of what he once described, with characteristic wry humor, as "an old Southern family with generations of physicians and Presbyterian preachers, none famous." He grew up in a comfortable, outwardly conventional middle-class home.

But tensions between Brinkley's parents, as well as his father's premature death and Brinkley's troubled relationship with his mother, combined to inflict wounds that lingered throughout his life, and contributed to his reserved, sometimes caustic nature.

Brinkley's father, William Graham Brinkley, was remembered as a warm-hearted, open-handed railroad official who made wine during Prohibition and, upon his death when David Brinkley was 8, turned out to have lost much of the family's inheritance through unsecured loans to friends. "A sweet, generous and trusting man, a 52-year-old Peter Pan," his youngest son called him.

Mary MacDonald West Brinkley, by contrast, was a deeply religious woman with a disapproving nature. "None of us could ever anticipate when Mama could or would let down enough, give enough of herself to show some small sign of kindness or generosity, since she seemed to love babies, dogs and her flower garden but nothing or no one else," he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "David Brinkley."

His mother seemed particularly to disapprove of the two things he developed a passion for as a child: reading and writing. Electric lights drew mosquitoes, his mother held, so when he wanted to read on hot summer nights, she sent him out to sit on the curb under a streetlight.

Similarly, he remembered giving her a story he had written. "After a brief glance, she threw the paper in my face. 'Why are you wasting your time on such foolishness,' she said. It was a scar slow to heal," Brinkley recalled.

With his father dead and his brothers and sisters grown, Brinkley became a loner, haunting the public library, reading, writing and giving scant attention to school subjects he was not interested in.

As he entered high school, the town librarian, Emma Woodward, took him in hand. As the story goes, Woodward, who had a doctorate in literature, coached him every day after school. She directed his reading, gave him assignments and critiqued his writing.

"That's where I was educated. I've been to other schools, but they never taught me a damned thing I didn't already know," Brinkley told an interviewer. "Emma Woodward taught me the world. She really shaped my life."

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