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Dennis Hans: David Brinkley’s Real Legacy

David Brinkley’s Real Legacy:

Softball questions and a “wide-ranging” panel that stretched from right all the way to center became the template for talking-airhead shows
By Dennis Hans

I’m going to miss David Brinkley. No, I wasn’t a fan. Although I give him high marks for his courtesy, decency and wry wit, I didn’t care for his brand of “journalism” — at least the kind he practiced at ABC. I’ll miss him because I made a small fortune — nearly $300 — dissecting and satirizing his work.

The very first essay for which I got paid was a critique of the January 15, 1984 edition of ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” Fifteen years would pass before I’d write about him again. By then he had retired from ABC and become a pitchman for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the agribusiness giant, convicted price-fixer and sponsor of Sunday morning chat shows.

My make-believe report was datelined Seattle, which was “hosting” the World Trade Organization, and described several of the innovative, market-oriented solutions that Nike, Microsoft and ADM had devised to deal with the vexing problem of pesky protesters. While there I bumped into Brinkley, who was in town to shoot an ad touting a particularly promising remedy. After telling me how impressed he was by the “energy” of the protesters, he excused himself to rehearse his lines. “Who will fuel the SUVs of the new millennium?” he asked in his distinctive, clipped voice. “By converting anarchists into ethanol, ADM can free America from its dependence on foreign oil.” (

The earlier essay, titled “The week that wasn’t” (Christianity & Crisis magazine, Feb. 20, 1984), got to the heart of what was wrong with Brinkley’s dreadful talking-airheads show.

The edition I critiqued dealt with the crisis in Central America and the work of the “Kissinger Commission” — a stacked-deck panel that had the appearance of balance but was dominated by conservative and centrist cold-war hawks. The Commission was convened by the Reagan administration to tell it exactly what it wanted to hear about its policies in that troubled region. (Yes, shocking as it may sound, there was a time in our democracy when a president or his top aides would tell prestigious panels and intelligence agencies to slant or invent facts and issue reports to justify the president’s pre-determined policies.)

Brinkley didn’t say anything about the skewed composition of the Commission, which mirrored the skewed composition of his own right-to-center panel: at one end, staunch conservative George Will; at the other “end,” loud centrist Sam Donaldson. In a 1990s interview with NPR, Brinkley described Donaldson, somewhat generously, as “somewhat liberal.” (That’s actually close to my own judgment of Donaldson as a middle-of-the-roader who leans a bit left on some issues, a bit right on others.) Yet Brinkley would introduce the weekly roundtable discussion as a “wide-ranging, no-holds-barred free for all” (or words to that effect), even though he knew it excluded a CONSISTENTLY liberal or progressive voice.

When guest Henry Kissinger leveled preposterous, unsupported allegations against our evil enemy of the time, Nicaragua, Brinkley assumed they were true. He didn’t challenge them, and neither did lame-liberal guest Senator Christopher Dodd (who has grown even more lame with the passage of 19 years), Donaldson or Will.

Another guest that morning, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam, expressed grave concerns about press restrictions in Nicaragua and how that might impact the upcoming elections there. After all, you can’t have free elections without a free press.

Dam’s logic impressed Brinkley, Will and “somewhat liberal” Donaldson, each of whom slept soundly while the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military exterminated its opposition press in 1980 (not to mention dozens of politicians, hundreds of union members and thousands of peasants). None wondered what effect those killings and many subsequent massacres had had on the 1982 Salvadoran elections lauded by Team Reagan and Team ABC.

Commenting on the performance of ABC and other spoon-fed “news” organizations, I wrote, “Our news media are indeed free; they are also lazy, and/or obsequious, and/or blind.”

It wasn’t just Brinkley’s southern hospitality that made his show so appealing to foreign-policy guests. It was the guests’ confidence that the questioners (Brinkley, Will and Donaldson) had no in-depth, independent knowledge and no intention of gaining any. They might know what the State Department thought and how that differed from the view at the Pentagon or the CIA. But they wouldn’t know or care what Americas Watch (now known as Human Rights Watch) and Amnesty International had revealed about the Nicaraguan contras and the Salvadoran army. Nor would they be terribly curious about the many ways the U.S. facilitated, covered up and explained away those atrocities.

Anyone with that expertise and those interests could never have been a regular on Brinkley’s show — not because the easygoing host wouldn’t have liked such people, but because he didn’t know such people existed.

I’ll miss Brinkley’s distinctive delivery, but not his brand of superficial, inside-the-Washington-consensus journalism or roundtable discussions that excluded anyone to the left of a “somewhat liberal” establishment centrist. Alas, he’s not taking that with him. It’s the modus operandi of most every public-affairs TV show not hosted by Bill Moyers, and it’s here to stay.

That, too, is Brinkley’s legacy.

# # #


©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. You can read his stunning essay “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” — published several weeks before the start of the recent war — at He can be reached at

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