Brinkley's Real Legacy
By Dennis Hans
Journalism legend David Brinkley is gone, but his legacy
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
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'
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.