Huntley and Brinkley

Chet Huntley (1911-1974) and David Brinkley (born 1920), American journalists and radio and television news broadcasters, were the most popular dual anchormen in broadcasting history.

In October 1956 NBC News replaced the "Camel News Caravan" with the "Huntley-Brinkley Report," which was apparently a third choice as a replacement after author John Hershey and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. The success of the Huntley and Brinkley combination, which soon became the ratings leader, was unprecedented. Previously the great names in American broadcasting were solo performers: H. V. Kaltenborn, Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heatter, and Edward R. Murrow. It is inconceivable that those giants of broadcast news would have shared a podium. Huntley and Brinkley did. Their format has often been imitated, but their success has never been equaled.

The two partners were similar in their backgrounds, yet also quite different. Chester Robert Huntley, a Westerner, was born in Montana, the only son of P. A. and Blanche Wadine (Tathan) Huntley, the former a descendant of John Adams and the latter of Western pioneer stock. At an early age, Chet Huntley excelled in speech and debate. Those skills earned him a scholarship in 1929 to Montana State College, where he was a premedical student for three years. Another scholarship took him to the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle, Washington. From there he transferred to the University of Washington, earning his BA degree in 1934.

That same year Huntley was hired by a Seattle radio station, where he worked about two years. From 1935 to 1939 he worked for radio stations in Spokane, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, California. Then he began a 12-year employment with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) at Los Angeles. In 1951 he moved to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), where he broadcast daily news at that network's Los Angeles radio and television stations. When Huntley joined the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1955, he had been recognized with the prestigious George Peabody Award twice (1942 and 1954), as well as several other professional citations.

While Huntley was a Westerner and retained ties to that region and its style of life, Brinkley's roots were in the border South. He was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, one of five children of William Graham and Mary MacDonald (West) Brinkley. He began his journalistic career as a high school student when asked to write a weekly column by a relative who owned a newspaper. From 1938 to 1940 he was a reporter for the Wilmington Star-News and attended classes at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).

Following service in the United States Army (1940-1941) Brinkley worked for the United Press (UP) in Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1943 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he joined NBC as a news writer. By the end of that year he was also broadcasting news on television, one of the first persons in the field of television newscasting. Initially his broadcast duties also involved radio, but by 1950 he was a television news commentator and soon thereafter he became the Washington correspondent for his network's "Camel News Caravan."

The Huntley-Brinkley Report

The first collaborative efforts of Huntley and Brinkley occurred at the 1956 presidential nominating conventions. The merger was largely coincidental. NBC had been grooming Huntley for major responsibilities since he joined the network. His skills had been utilized on both radio and television before he was transferred to New York in early 1956. He began his half-hour Sunday news and features program, "Outlook," in April. Media observers saw him as the likely candidate to challenge the preeminence of CBS in television news. That contention was reinforced by his designation to be the on-camera chief of NBC's coverage at the national conventions.

The joint efforts of the Westerner and the Southerner at the political conventions were rewarded by favorable ratings, which led to the launching of the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" on October 29, 1956. The events of those days were unusually newsworthy. The Suez War had begun and ended a few weeks before; the Hungarian Revolution was raging, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was concluding a successful re-election campaign. Huntley and Brinkley did not immediately overwhelm the opposition, but their viewer ratings were respectable and continued to improve. With the 1960 conventions, the duo demonstrated their viewer approval was not restricted to the evening news; they could outshine their opposition in coverage of special events as well. Throughout the 1960s, the NBC team was the front-runner among the evening news broadcasts. On July 31, 1970, the last "Report" was broadcast as Huntley retired.

Sources of Success

Why was the Huntley-Brinkley combination so popular? The answer is neither obvious nor certain. Reference is often made to Brinkley's sardonic sense of humor or his dry wit. He did frequently offer brief comment on the paradoxical or illogical implications of a news item, but that trait in itself would not explain the pair's popularity. Huntley was often characterized as serious. That is not to say that he was a straight man for Brinkley's punch line or that Brinkley was frivolous. Rather, it denotes that in his presentation of the news, in his writings, and in his interaction with his colleagues Huntley repeatedly indicated his awareness of the immense responsibility he felt to report the news fairly, accurately, and professionally. Neither Huntley nor Brinkley presumed that the facts would speak for themselves. Both sought to present the facts, put them in context, and suggest likely consequences. To a greater extent than any broadcasters before them, except possibly Edward R. Murrow, the NBC co-anchors offered commentary, not merely news reports.

Both broadcasters were handsome; Huntley received a legendary amount of mail from females. Both were well spoken. Those attributes no doubt contributed to Huntley and Brinkley having a greater public recognition than movie stars and heads of states.

Upon the final "Goodnight David … Goodnight Chet," Brinkley became sole anchor for the "NBC Nightly News" until John Chancellor assumed that role the next year. Then Brinkley was intermittently either co-anchor or commentator on that program until October 1979, after which he devoted himself to specials and eventually to "NBC Magazine," which featured four correspondents, each of whom reported on a topical subject that varied from week to week. In September 1981 Brinkley unexpectedly announced his retirement from NBC. Two months later he broadcast his first "This Week with David Brinkley" on ABC television—a position he would hold for over 15 years.

In addition to his weekly series, Brinkley provided political commentary for World News Tonight and national election coverage. It was just such coverage that led to his retirement from ABC in 1996. At the end of ABC's election coverage, Brinkley declared that President Clinton was "boring" and would subject the American public to more "goddamned nonsense" during the next four years. Brinkley began his final appearance on This Week with David Brinkley on Nov. 10, 1996 with a personal apology to President Bill Clinton. "I'm reminded of something I wrote years ago," Brinkley said. "It may be impossible to be objective, I said, but we must always be fair. Well, after a long election day and seven hours on the set, what I said on the election night coverage was both impolite and unfair. I'm sorry. I regret it." Clinton appeared on the show and accepted the apology with a smile, saying he had often said things he regretted late at night when he was tired. The show marked the end of Brinkley's 53-year network news career and he spoke his last commentary on the program on September 28, 1997.

Huntley's off-camera activities were touched with controversy. Unlike Brinkley, he crossed picket lines during a 1967 strike against the networks. The Federal Communications Commission admonished him in 1968 for his failure to inform his audience of his financial interests in the cattle feeding industry when he criticized on the air governmental meat inspection requirements. Subsequently he sold his New Jersey cattle farm following incidents of vandalism there. After retirement, Huntley devoted himself to the development of the Big Sky recreational complex in Montana, a project opposed by conservationists. As the facility was about to be dedicated, he died on March 20, 1974, following abdominal surgery for cancer.

Further Reading on Huntley and Brinkley

A brief but interpretive account of the Huntley-Brinkley collaboration is William Whitworth's "Profiles: An Accident of Casting," The New Yorker (August 3, 1968). Huntley provided a delightful autobiographic account of his youth in Montana in The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood (1968). He described his professional chores in Chet Huntley's New Analysis (1961). He stated his professional principles in The Reporter (January 27, 1955). The final days of Brinkley's career are taken from several newspaper articles. They include: Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1996, "Brinkley Apologizes to Clinton, Exits as TV Host" October 17, 1996, "Brinkley's Weeks Ahead Will Include Documentaries" articles were also used from Media Week, 1/15/96.

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