Albion Monitor /Commentary

David Brinkley's Rough Trade

by Jeffrey Perso

Selling 54 years of credibility and respect
Some would have it that we live in the time of the sell out. Bob Dylan, for instance, sold "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to an investment firm, which then used the 1960s anthem as a soundtrack to hawk its services to aging baby boomers.

Others would have it that selling out is nothing new, and that despite our loudest claims to the contrary, everyone can be bought. All that's really left to determine is the price.

Take the case of longtime newsman David Brinkley. Earlier this month, Brinkley returned to the television show he hosted for 15 years, but it was as a paid shill for a sponsor, not as a commentator or guest. Now Brinkley could use a PR flak himself. It was just a few months ago that Brinkley stepped down as host of ABC's "This Week," a position he held for 15 years. All told, Brinkley's career as a broadcast journalist spanned 54 years. During that time he earned the respect of politicians, viewers and fellow reporters. Brinkley asked tough questions, appeared to be fair and unbiased, seldom allowing his political beliefs to betray his journalistic duty.

In the Capitol, where elected officials and media personalities share cocktails and tee-times, that's not always so easy. During his final years as a Washington, D.C. insider, Brinkley achieved the status of a distinguished elder. His demeanor was marked by a gentle humor and wry, knowing smile. He had independence, integrity, status, and ranked right up there among national media icons such as Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Jim Lehrer.

Now that all stands to be lost.

If ever a business needed to rehabilitate its image, it's ADM
Brinkley's return to "This Week" as a spokesman for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has resulted in scathing criticism. An editorial cartoon in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for example, shows Brinkley in brassiere, fish-net stockings and stiletto heels, a prostitute ready for an evening's work. Hoping to trade off his reputation as an honorable journalist, it's obvious what ADM was after with its hiring of Brinkley. If ever a business needed to rehabilitate its image, it's ADM. One can't help but wonder, however, what Brinkley was thinking when taking the job. If he was looking for additional income, certainly there are more responsible corporate citizens to represent, companies that would not have threatened to damage a reputation earned over five decades of work.

ADM, based in Decatur, IL, earned revenues of $13.31 billion in 1996, making it one of the world's 500 largest companies. But how it earned its high place is suspect. In 1996, it will be recalled, ADM paid $100 million in price-fixing fines for joining food and feed additive cartels. Additionally, two top ADM executives, vice chairman Michael Andreas, currently on leave, and Terrance Wilson, now retired, are charged with conspiring to fix the $600 million world market in lysine, a feed additive.

This is the company Brinkley now wishes to keep. Imagine the outcry if Walter Cronkite had done the same.

With short public and political memories, ADM will no doubt continue to do business as usual. After all, what's a $100-million fine when compared to annual revenues of more than $13 billion? It's unlikely that Brinkley will fare as well. He may be richer, he may even be wiser, but at what cost? Brinkley will always be stained from his association with ADM.

But let's be candid. Brinkley is not the only journalist who can be accused of selling out; he is merely the latest in a long line of media practitioners who, trading on the perception of independence, left journalism and took high paying, influential jobs inside corporations, government or show business.

Indeed, for some time now there has been a rapidly revolving door between journalism and show business and journalism and politics. TV reporter Geraldo Rivera, for example, moves from covering legitimate news to hosting a sensational talk show and then back to news, and he's supposed to be taken seriously.

Sidney Blumenthal leaves his editorial position as a senior editor at The New Republic and takes up residence inside President Clinton's administration. Scott Klug, a former TV anchor from Madison, serves as a U.S. representative from Wisconsin.

Moving in the other direction, Susan Molinari, former U.S representative from New York, enjoys a new career as a broadcast journalist on CBS. Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale's running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket, leaves politics, stars in Pepsi commercials, becomes a TV pundit on "Crossfire," and then announces she'll seek the U.S. Senate seat now held by Alfonse D'Amato. And Mary Matalin, George Bush's one-time campaign manager, runs her own cable news show.

The list goes on.

It's a rough trade, and something has got to give. The result is a blurring of journalistic lines and values. Already suspicious, viewers and readers grow increasingly alienated by the professional musical chairs. Credibility is damaged. Trust is lost. There are no truths, only versions, and spin doctors choose from among them. Did David Brinkley sell out? Or did ADM just successfully determine the price at which he could be bought? The difference is crucial. But whatever the answer, when bargaining with the devil you had better be prepared to lose your soul. Just ask David Brinkley.

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Albion Monitor January 21, 1998 (

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