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That's the Way It Was Before MacNeil-Lehrer


By David Brinkley, Knopf, 273 pp., $25

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Before PBS's MacNeil and Lehrer, there was NBC's Huntley and Brinkley: Chet Huntley reporting from New York and David Brinkley from Washington. During the 1960s, the NBC duo ruled the roost, consistently beating CBS's Walter Cronkite in the ratings. Covering the 1964 Democratic Party convention, they got the highest rating in TV history: 84 percent of the viewing audience. The key to their success, according to Brinkley: "I have no idea. Neither did anyone else."

In a storytelling style, Brinkley spins anecdotes about his childhood; his entry into journalism; the beginnings of TV and the cluelessness of the radio journalists who had to make the new medium work; and presidents back to Franklin Roosevelt. The memoirs cover, as the book's sub-subtitle puts it, "11 presidents, 4 wars, 22 political conventions, 1 moon landing, 3 assassinations, 2,000 weeks of news and other stuff on television, and 18 years of growing up in North Carolina."

Among the most interesting stories: the North Carolina NBC-TV affiliate owner in the early 1950s who was so enraged by Brinkley's reporting on the civil-rights movement that he hired a "deeply unskilled" reporter to go on the air every night after NBC News to "answer Brinkley's lies." The reporter became so effective at it that he was elected to the United States Senate. His name: Jesse Helms. Or the time the Brinkleys were on a picnic with friends in the countryside when a White House helicopter appeared out of nowhere and landed next to them. Lyndon Johnson wanted the Brinkleys to come up to Camp David - now.

Brinkley has no idea why Huntley-Brinkley's ratings eventually dropped, but he ties it to the 1967 TV strike, in which Brinkley observed the picket line while Huntley did not. In so doing, he says, they managed to antagonize both pro- and anti-union viewers. By 1971, CBS/Cronkite had grabbed first place.

Though chock full of good stories, its style makes it a lighter read than one might expect. I came away with the feeling there's a lot more Brinkley could have told us about his close relations with the Washington power elite over the past 50 years.

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