Joel Brinkley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting when he was a 29-year-old member of The Courier-Journal’s news staff in 1982, died Tuesday at a hospital in Washington, D.C. His wife, Sabra Chartrand, told reporters that the cause was acute undiagnosed leukemia, which resulted in respiratory failure from pneumonia. He was 61.
Brinkley shared his Pulitzer with staff photographer Jay Mather for a series of stories set in the wake of the fall of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. “Living the Cambodian Nightmare” eloquently described the work of a Kentucky doctor trying to help refugees fleeing the brutal dictatorship. In their citation, the Pulitzer board noted the unusual nature of the award for a modest-sized newspaper such as The Courier-Journal and hailed its commitment to substantive international reporting. Such was characteristic of the newspaper in that era. The project was spearheaded by managing editor David Hawpe and his city editor, Bill Cox. Then-publisher Barry Bingham Jr. celebrated the award with a champagne reception at the newly opened Hyatt Regency Hotel in Louisville.
Brinkley was born July 22, 1952 in Washington, D.C. His father, David Brinkley, was a pioneering NBC News anchorman, whose nightly newscasts with Chet Huntley were popular through the 1950s and 1960s. The elder Brinkley later became the senior newsman for ABC News before his death in 2003.
Joel Brinkley came to Louisville in 1978 and quickly established himself as an outstanding byline on the staff, which in those days included such future luminaries as Howard Fineman, Michael Brown, James Herzog, Eleanor J. Brecher, Michelle Marriott, Michael Wines and Mike Winerip. At that same time, The Courier-Journal’s current executive editor, Neil Budde, also joined the staff. Brinkley became known for his passion for truth, and for his very efficient organizational system (including color-coded files), something rare in the days when most reporters still scrawled in notebooks and worked through unsorted piles of papers.
As The Courier-Journal’s Andrew Wolfson reports, Brinkley wrote other significant stories that made a difference in the lives of Kentuckians. For instance, he documented the failures of the state board that regulated physicians, and he was crucial in reforming the state coroners’ system.
A graduate of the Sidwell Friends School and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Brinkley’s first job was with the Associated Press in that state, and then he moved to the Richmond (Va.) News Leader where he reported about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
Like his father, Brinkley had a crisp and witty sense of humor. He recoiled at identification as “the son of,” but his inheritance from his father served him, and his readers, well for more than 30 years.
In 1983, Brinkley left Louisville to become a New York Times reporter, and in that capacity he covered the White House, Israel and points elsewhere for more than 20 years. In 2006, he resigned to become a professor at Stanford University. That is when I re-connected with him, after more than a quarter century. He began to write a column about international affairs, and certainly The Courier-Journal would carry it. Joel’s knowledge of the Middle East, and especially Israel, was lucid, illuminating and vital reading. The last time we communicated (always by email) was just before I retired in April 2012.
Joel’s brother, Alan Brinkley, is a leading American historian and a former professor and provost at Columbia University. His books include “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.” On Wednesday, Dr. Brinkley told The Courier-Journal’s Mr. Wolfson that “He had a good life but it should have been longer.”
Keith L. Runyon was a writer and editor for The Courier-Journal for 43 years. He was a colleague, and later editor, of Joel Brinkley.