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David Brinkley's Real Legacy
June 26, 2003
By Dennis Hans

Journalism legend David Brinkley is gone, but his legacy lives on.

That legacy was evident in pre-war polls that showed a majority of Americans thought Saddam was involved with al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and that Iraq had or was on the verge of possessing nuclear weapons. Whenever the public internalizes as fact White House disinformation, rest assured that Brinkley-style journalism played a significant part.

I have scant memory of David Brinkley's long-ago work at NBC. Perhaps the reason he was hailed as a giant, both before and after his passing, is because he performed like one the first 40 years of his career. But judging from his 1981-1996 stint at ABC hosting a Sunday morning interview-and-chat show, "This Week with David Brinkley," he was mostly style and little substance. Sure, he used words economically and precisely, and he possessed a wry wit. But those qualities hardly offset his deference to power and his superficial, inside-the-beltway knowledge that made him an easy mark for U.S. officials eager to demonize a foreign foe or glorify a friend.

After Brinkley's death, Terri Gross, host of the fine NPR show "Fresh Air," replayed an interview she conducted several years ago with the broadcaster. Gross raised a point that I heard raised by no one else in the many tributes to Brinkley I saw, heard or read. She asked if he had any problem with the limited range of views expressed on his show, explaining that she didn't regard Sam Donaldson to be nearly as liberal as George Will was conservative.

Brinkley conceded that Donaldson was not Will's ideological opposite number, describing him as merely "somewhat liberal." Nevertheless, Brinkley told Gross he was pleased with the range of debate and saw no need to widen it.

Brinkley described himself to Gross as basically middle of the road - liberal on some issues, conservative on others. But within a couple of years he would publish a book that revealed him to be a crotchety conservative and anti-tax zealot. Many of his admirers in the media were taken aback by his reactionary views, which didn't seem to fit the pleasant fellow with the courtly manners, wry wit and penchant for puncturing pompous asses not named George Will.

So the book created a dichotomy, with Brinkley seeing himself as a centrist and most informed observers now placing him somewhere on the right, though perhaps not in Will territory. It's no wonder that, from Brinkley's skewed perspective, he saw the generally centrist Donaldson as "somewhat liberal." But even if his assessment of Donaldson was on the money, that doesn't speak well of Brinkley: It shows he had no problem moderating every week a roundtable discussion that featured the very conservative Mr. Will while excluding a CONSISTENTLY liberal or progressive voice - and misleading viewers about the panel by introducing it each week as (I'm paraphrasing Brinkley here) "our wide-ranging, no-holds-barred, free-for-all discussion."

Donaldson and Will often joined Brinkley in the interview portions of the show, and there, too, the limitations of this trio were apparent.

The first essay of media criticism for which I got paid (by the excellent but now-defunct magazine Christianity & Crisis) looked at the January 15, 1984 edition of "This Week." Its focus was 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.)

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, 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.

Thus, 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 had no in-depth, independent knowledge of most foreign-policy issues and no intention of gaining any. They might know what the State Department thought and how that differed from the Pentagon's or CIA's perspective. 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 its clients' 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.

Commenting in 1984 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."

That was then, this is now. We have just witnessed one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in U.S. history, as the Bush administration lied us into an unnecessary war. Brinkley's successors, and most everyone else in the mainstream news media, functioned more as accomplices in the campaign than dissectors of it.

Some legacy.

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