Brinkley's reputation falls with rise to become corporate pitchman

January 12, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It was more in sorrow than in anger that we read that David Brinkley, one of the icons in the business of political journalism, had decided in his retirement from ABC News to become television spokesman for a corporation that is among the sponsors of the Sunday morning interview show that he used to moderate and that used to bear his name.

Brinkley's own business what he chooses to do in his retirement. But at the same time he is not just any run-of-the-mill television reporter or analyst. At 77, he has a career in journalism behind him that has been an inspiration for his contemporaries and future journalists.

First as a reporter, then as a co-anchor with the late Chet Huntley in what at the time was the top television evening news show, and finally as host for ABC's ''This Week with David Brinkley,'' his voice was the voice of integrity, moderation and good will, with more than a dash of wry humor mixed in.

Firm commitment

There never was any doubt in all his years on the air that he blew anyone's horn but his own. The fact that others in his field chose at one time or another to cross the line from pure journalism into promotion only made his firm commitment to the news all the more admirable.

Mr. Brinkley's attitude up to now had been one of almost reverence for what he did, though he never got on a soapbox about it. In an era in which it has become almost commonplace for reporters, commentators, politicians, propagandists and self-serving blowhards to come together in a mix to discuss the ** affairs of the day on television, David Brinkley stood above it all, somewhat aloof from the hubbub around him.

There have certainly been much worse cases of journalists crossing over to become hucksters for this or that individual or corporation, from reporters becoming press secretaries (and press agents) for prominent public officeholders to television news celebrities play-acting at their real jobs in the movies.

Revolving door

The worst offenders are those who bounce back and forth between the news business and politics, playing the straight-arrow role in the one and then special pleader in the other, like so many human yo-yos. Ever since California newspaper editor Herb Klein kept spinning through the revolving door to take on stints as Richard Nixon's press secretary or communications director and political adviser in the 1950s and 1960, it has been thus.

Mr. Brinkley clearly is not selling his soul at this advanced stage of his life for his new employer, the agribusiness Archer Daniels ,, Midland Corp., whose chairman, Dwayne Andreas, is an old friend. But the fact that the firm's officers pleaded guilty in 1996 of price-fixing does cast doubt on Mr. Brinkley's usually sober judgment.

In the first of the television ads done for ADM, Mr. Brinkley rather shamelessly trades on his long reputation for integrity in reporting the news. One has him saying that ''since television began, I have brought you the news: wars, elections, victories, defeats. The news. Straight and true. I will still speak straight and true; I'll never change that, but now I will bring you information about food, the environment, agriculture -- issues of importance to the American people and the world.''

Television watchers have become accustomed to ADM ads that are distinctly in the public-service mode, albeit gently tooting the corporation's whistle as a do-gooder. Mr. Brinkley's easy style should fit snugly with this promotional effort. He will not, after all, be selling repainted used cars with his coat collar turned up.

The soft sell

But he will be selling -- soft-selling -- all the same. It is to be hoped for Mr. Brinkley's sake that the money is good. It will have to be to make up for whatever smudging of his well-deserved image as a straight shooter results, at least among members of his own fraternity.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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