"Since television began," says famed newsman David Brinkley in one of seven new TV spots, "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."
Meet the new spokesman for Archer Daniels Midland Co., the gargantuan grain processor and maker of food and feed additives. Yes, it's David Brinkley, the venerable one, retired from ABC News in November, and in January shilling for the Darth Vader of agribusiness.
It would smack of a deal with the devil, if it weren't so painfully obvious the devil was outbid.
ADM and its chairman, Dwayne Andreas, for years have papered Washington with greenbacks, spending liberally in politics and the media to buy respect and influence-even as the company conspired to fix prices of its commodity products on the global marketplace. Such corruption cost the company a $100 million fine, with criminal prosecutions yet incomplete, but meantime countless millions of ABC viewers and NPR listeners have been favored with ADM's nifty slogan: "Supermarket to the world."
That has a nice ring to it-more so than, say, "soybean monopolist" or "ethanol gorilla." It's a question of image management, and thus the purchase of the legendary Brinkley would seem to be the coup of coups.
Indeed, several of the spots from Televisionary, Chicago, are fairly strong. In one, Brinkley offers some frightening statistics about overpopulation and food supply. In another, he revisits the guns-or-butter dilemma: "I've always felt the best way for nations to keep the peace is to supply people with food, not weapons. Back in the 1950s, President Eisenhower said, `Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who are hungry and not fed.'*" Food for thought.
But elsewhere he is absurdly Pollyanna, positing that "people concerned with wildlife and its habitat owe farmers a debt of gratitude." Oh, really? The thousands of species wiped out by clear-cutting millions of square miles of rain forest for low-yield agriculture might not be too grateful. Yet that propaganda spills, in familiar clipped fashion, from his very lips.
Straight and true? No. Heartbreaking? Yes.
This isn't a clear breach of trust, such as Linda Ellerbee's fake news magazine for Maxwell House, or Joan Lunden's reports from the skincare front lines for Vaseline Intensive Care, or ex-NBC correspondent Richard Valeriani's "interviews" of Henry Kissinger and others for Shearson Lehman Hutton. After all, Brinkley isn't pretending to be a newsman here.
But this episode is so much sadder, because of who Brinkley is. It wouldn't be more sickening if Walter Cronkite showed up as the Ty-D-Bol man.
And that's why it may well backfire. All the coverage of Brinkley's new gig has prominently mentioned the ADM scandal-calling attention to the very image problems the campaign is trying to eradicate. This is like hiring someone to remove the skeletons from your closet, only to have him pile them on the front porch.
And now, when Brinkley pops up, it will be that much easier for ADM's opinion-leader target audience to think "Oh, no, look who has sold out" and "Ah, yes ADM. Price fixer to the world."