Brinkley punctuates news discussions with an infectious chuckle

November 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's funny how a lot of anniversary shows just happen to pop up in November, February or May -- key ratings periods when audiences are being measured to set future advertising rates.

There is, though, a true TV anniversary this weekend, and it's one that is worth a moment or two of reflection.

On Nov. 15, 1981, ABC News introduced a new Sunday morning public affairs program, "This Week With David Brinkley." It was different -- dramatically different -- from NBC's "Meet the Press" and the other more ponderous Sunday-morning interview shows.

For one thing, the program began with real news reports, using satellite technology to bring newsmakers and correspondents from around the world live to our TV screens. There was also the iconoclastic Brinkley, who, in contrast to the solemnity of other moderators, often could not finish his weekly commentary without breaking into laughter at the greed, absurdity and stupidity of the politicians or events he was commenting on.

But most notably, there were the round-table discussions featuring Brinkley, George Will, Sam Donaldson and others. The talk was generally bright, but the casting was brilliant.

The show quickly became the highest-rated Sunday morning news program, a position it still holds. But, more importantly, it has come to serve as a model for public affairs programming on commercial television. It proves that you can have it both ways -- an intelligent show and high ratings.

The round-tables play a big part in that accomplishment, and the casting was done by ABC News President Roone Arledge. In fact, the entire structure of the show is little changed today from the way Arledge conceived it 10 years ago.

While Brinkley's firm, no-nonsense style of moderating is the key to pace and focus in the discussions, it's the dynamic between Will and Donaldson that engages viewers' emotions. Put more baldly, what grabs us and holds us is a desire to punch either George Will or Sam Donaldson in the nose -- depending on one's politics, of course.

But it's as much what the journalists represent as what they are that gets us so stirred up.

Donaldson is associated in many of our minds with a democratic impulse stretching back to Colonial times. It's the impulse that resulted in cartoons of King George depicted as a snake and in dire warnings during the framing of the Constitution that if we gave the president too many powers he'd become a king and tyrant.

That's what contributed so greatly to Donaldson's popularity as White House correspondent during the Reagan years: He was for some Americans their representative outside the White House, yelling at the president not to get too high and mighty.

Will, on the other hand, has Tory smugness written all over him. He and Donaldson represent the two great strains of American political orientation.

All symbolism and emotion aside, the conversation itself is informed. Last week, for example, Will asked the doctor in charge of government AIDS research what no one else had thought to ask: He wanted to know if more money for AIDS research will, in fact, guarantee finding a cure faster. The doctor said no.

Will apparently understood assertions that scientific breakthroughs don't happen in a logical process of accumulation. As Thomas Kuhn's landmark book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," notes, more money will help speed testing processes after a breakthrough. But, right now, money won't make a difference. Such insights are part of what distinguishes the show.

And then came Brinkley with his closing remarks, this time focusing on the Louisiana gubernatorial election. He explained business leaders in the state feared tourism and jobs would be lost if former Nazi party member David Duke were elected. But, Brinkley said with a slowly building smile, their only option is former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who was twice indicted for racketeering.

He then held up a bumper sticker from Louisiana; it read, "Vote For The Crook: It's Important."

The credits started to roll over Brinkley's laughter.

Here's hoping the laughter and smart talk from the 71-year-old anchorman and his colleagues continue for many, many Sunday mornings to come.

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