Joel Brinkley, who won a Pulitzer for a series on Cambodian refugees, dies at 61

March 13

Joel Brinkley, who followed his father, broadcast news commentator David Brinkley, into a journalism career and won a Pulitzer Prize for a harrowing series about Cambodian refugees after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, died March 11 at a hospital in Washington. He was 61.

The cause was acute undiagnosed leukemia, which led to respiratory failure from pneumonia, said his wife, journalist Sabra Chartrand.

Mr. Brinkley’s main residence was in Palo Alto, Calif., where he taught journalism at Stanford University, but he had recently returned to the District to work for a U.S. government oversight agency that documents how billions of dollars in reconstruction money is spent in Afghanistan.

The return to Washington was, in many respects, a homecoming for Mr. Brinkley, who had grown up in the city and held reporting and editing jobs here during his 23 years with the New York Times.

After covering the Reagan-era arms-for-hostages scandal known as Iran-contra, he served a stint as a White House correspondent and then was named chief of the Times’ Jerusalem bureau.


Joel Brinkley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Cambodian refugees following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, died March 11 at 61. (Sabra Chartrand/Family Photo)

He worked in Israel from 1988 to 1991, a period that included the first Palestinian uprising and the Persian Gulf War. As a Washington-based technology reporter, he later chronicled the antitrust trial against Microsoft. He also served as national security editor and retired from the Times in 2006 as a foreign-policy correspondent.

Mr. Brinkley then began his work at Stanford and became a weekly foreign-affairs columnist syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

As a syndicated columnist, Mr. Brinkley wrote scathingly about how the U.S. Agency for International Development disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars in Afghanistan every year without ensuring that the money was properly used. He noted the aid agency’s “belligerent refusal even to acknowledge the problem.”

His contacts in Washington and his skepticism toward the federal bureaucracy led to his hiring late last year by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

“We’re an audit agency, and sometimes our reports can be mundane reading,” said Gene Aloise, SIGAR’s deputy inspector general. He said Mr. Brinkley’s “crisp, clear, effective writing would grab audience attention and highlight how important this job is.”

Mr. Brinkley, whose newsman father became a public affairs commentator on NBC and later ABC, had not initially wanted to pursue a journalism career. Working for newspapers was merely a paycheck to support his post-collegiate ambitions as a novelist.

Within five years, at 27, he shared the Pulitzer for international reporting with photographer Jay Mather. They were working for the Courier-Journal in Louisville when they were tapped to cover the refu­gee crisis sparked by the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

Mr. Brinkley initially thought the assignment was a joke by a prankster editor. Until that point, the cub reporter had been mostly writing about a local school board, filing stories about achievement test scores and high-school yearbook sales.

His only venture into foreign news, he later wrote, was “an overnight trip to Edmonton, Alberta, where I was assigned to write about a shopping mall.”

For the Louisville paper, the connection to Cambodia was a local doctor who had gone to treat refugees on the Thai-Cambodia border. But Mr. Brinkley’s editors were proposing the international story from less civic-minded motivations, too.

The paper was cash-flush at the time, he wrote, and his bosses wanted to spend all their money before the end of the budget year “or risk not getting as much the next year.”

Cambodia had been a major international news story for years, since the civil war and rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The despotic leader Pol Pot implemented a radical communist approach to social engineering that claimed nearly 2 million Cambodian lives between 1975 and 1979.

Hollywood dramatized the suffering in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” based on the experiences of Times reporter Sydney H. Schanberg and his guide and interpreter, Dith Pran. Schanberg won the 1976 Pulitzer for international reporting on Cambodia.

By the time Mr. Brinkley and Mather arrived in Southeast Asia in late 1979, Cambodia was in near-total disarray. They landed in Bangkok, then made a seven-hour trip to the Cambodian border, weaving among water buffalo clogging the jutted roads. They finally found a refugee camp, rampant with traumatized Cambodians.

His series, called “Living the Cambodian Nightmare,” began:

“Gaunt, glassy-eyed and possessionless, they crouch in the heat, hungry and diseased.

“They wait in tight lines for hours to get today’s ration of food from international relief agencies: a bowl of rice gruel, two bananas, a bucket of brown drinking water.

“They wait for doctors to heal them.

“Some wait for news of family, though many know their relatives are dead; they remember watching brothers and sisters, parents and children being murdered, or struggling for a last breath before starvation.”

“They wait for another assault by Thai soldiers who come to rape their women.”

He concluded:

“Talk to them.

“As they tell of years of horror and misery that Westerners can barely comprehend, their faces are expressionless and dull. Their voices go flat, as if they’re talking about a dull day at work. Their tales end with a nodding acknowledgment of the death of their nation and culture.”

Joel Graham Brinkley was born July 22, 1952, in Washington, where he graduated from the private Sidwell Friends School in 1971. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1990, he married Chartrand, whom he met when both were reporting in Israel. Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters, Veronica and Charlotte, of Palo Alto; two brothers, John Brinkley of Washington and Alan Brinkley of New York, a professor of American history at Columbia University; his stepmother, Susan Brinkley of Bal Harbour, Fla.; and a sister, Alexis Collins of Fort Worth.

His father, David Brinkley, died in 2003 at age 82. His mother, the former Ann Fischer, an antiques dealer in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, died in 1996.

Joel Brinkley was a past director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based grantmaking organization.

He wrote well-received books about the development of digital, high-definition television technology (“Defining Vision,” 1997) and the Microsoft trial (“U.S. v. Microsoft,” 2000, with journalist Steven Lohr).

Mr. Brinkley faced harsher reviews for his book “Cambodia’s Curse” (2011), which explored that country’s endemic political struggles.

Many critics, especially experts on Asian affairs, found its passages about Cambodian suffering powerfully written but said that Mr. Brinkley was far too sweeping in his generalizations about Cambodians as an essentially passive people in the face of authoritarian leaders.

He fulfilled his desire to write novels with “The Circus Master’s Mission” (1989), a critically embraced thriller that drew from his experience covering Iran- contra.

At his death, he had nearly finished writing a second book of fiction, this time with a plot influenced by his years in Cambodia.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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