When Tom Brokaw announced in 2002 to that he would relinquish the
NBC Nightly News anchor chair in two years' time, his exit from the daily news competition seemed a long way off.
But on Dec. 1 Brokaw leaves a post he has held since 1983, exiting after one of the most tumultuous presidential races in history. What a perfect time to catch up with the veteran newsman and ask about his plans for the future and his thoughts about a television news career that began 42 years ago at KMTV in Omaha. Brokaw spoke with
B&C's Mark Lasswell:
Voluntarily surrendering the anchor chair when you're on top in the ratings is almost unheard of. How did you arrive at the decision to move on?
It was a combination of things, and the ratings, I suppose, that gave me a wider margin than I might have had if I had been third or second in the ratings. It provided a comfort zone. It was mostly about my own life and wanting to live the back third in a new way, rather than being in the same place every night at 6:30 or being on the air from someplace in the world at 6:30 every night. It doesn't mean I'm going to retire from NBC. I'm still going to do long-form programming and help out when I can when there are big stories.
Mostly I wanted to change my life. I'm conscious of the fact that I'm in my mid-60s now. I have an active outdoor life, and as long as I still have my legs and my heart's in good condition and I'm able to go places, I want to be able to do that on my terms. The other piece of it, which was just as large, was that I had my turn in the captain's chair here for a long good run. People stepped aside to make room for me—John Chancellor did, as David Brinkley did before him, and encouraged me along the way—and I wanted a new generation to have its opportunity to step up at NBC News. So it was a combination of those two things.
And finally, the overarching issue, I suppose, for me professionally, was that I wanted to spend more time on fewer subjects and get uncoupled from the day-to-day gathering of news. Think a little more, do a little more writing, be a little more reflective and pursue some interests that I've had for a long time.
Network news organizations are notoriously shark-infested waters, and NBC News had some bumpy patches. Yet you've managed to survive and thrive for three decades. To what do you attribute your longevity?
The ability to hide at the right moment.
I think there were a couple of times when my career was probably in some peril, but before they could get around to moving me or dismissing me, they were losing their
jobs. NBC News and the NBC organization went through some pretty tumultuous periods, but I always had great loyalty to it. There were a number of very, very tempting offers to leave here, but when push came to shove, I began my career here, I had a lot of colleagues who stayed here through very stormy times and I felt an obligation to them—and to the organization, and to myself, really—to see it through. I suppose that may have resonated with some people, the fact that when there were times when I could have left the ship, I didn't. I stayed with it, and I think that might have engendered some feeling of comradeship among a number of my colleagues.
One well-known episode was when Roone Arledge tried to hire you away for ABC.
Yeah, right. That was a time of great transition here and I was greatly flattered. At one point, I mentally made up my mind to do it, and then after a long evening at home just by myself, I woke up the next day and thought, "I can't. This is where I belong. These are my friends. See this through." I knew who this organization belonged to, and it was not a time to be walking out.
What was the tumult going on at that time?
At that time, Fred Silverman had been brought in at the top of the organization. And Jane Cahill Pfeiffer was an associate of his who was brought in here to bring in management techniques; Richard Salant was brought in to be a news consultant. Roger Mudd and the Kalb brothers were brought over from CBS as well, and there was an honest effort to kind of merge the two cultures. But it was, I think it's fair to say, a difficult one at best.
Looking back, is there one story that pops out as making the biggest difference in people's lives? Sometimes people point to the coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s.
That was a huge story. But all the credit for that goes to Mohammed Amin, the cameraman who later died over there, and Michael Buerk, who was the BBC correspondent. When it came in that night, I remember vividly the newsroom was just stunned into silence. We had a very full broadcast that we'd been working hard on, and I looked up and said, "If we don't put that on the air, we don't deserve to be in this business."
I suppose the biggest story, and it was more than just a single story, that had an impact on lives was the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the biggest story for me personally was 9/11. Those two stories will really be stories that mark my professional career. And the consequences of 9/11 we're still working our way through.
Of all the newsmakers you've interviewed, was there anyone who you were surprised to find yourself liking more than you expected?
One of the gratifying parts of my last 30 years is that I had the first interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. We were kind of introducing him to the American audience. I went over and had an hour interview with him. Out of that grew a very warm personal relationship. I saw him just a couple of weeks ago, and we still have a real kinship, in a matter of speaking, I suppose.
I caught him at the peak of his power and did an interview with him then, and a number of times subsequently. It was important to him, and it was important to me journalistically, and I like to think it was important to this country, to take the measure of this man, who represented not just the new face of the Soviet Union, but an entirely new attitude about what they were going to be doing internally in that country and [who] was much more open to having a relationship with this country.
For almost a year after, since I was the only person who had interviewed him up to that point, whenever there would be a big gathering, he would come right over to me, because I think he thought I was the only American journalist who really counted—and I tried to encourage that, much to the consternation of my colleagues [laughs]. He's quite remarkable in his memory. I saw him again recently, and he said, "The last time I saw you, you were going bird hunting out in South Dakota. Are you going to do that again?" I said, "Actually, as a matter of fact I am, in two weeks."
Are there any stories that at 3 o'clock in the morning make you wince at the memory and think, "Ugh, I wish we hadn't done that one"?
I think there are two stories. One, in terms of proportionality, I think we all feel that we underreported the threat of terrorism. And I think that we all feel that to some degree we overreported the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It got to a kind of frenzy. You could say the same thing about the O.J. trial, I suppose.
That's not to say that the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal was not important; I think it was very important politically and culturally for this country. But at the same time, the context is important in journalism. I think that there were days when, across the spectrum, we kind of lost the context. I feel that about the O.J. trial as well: Great story. You can't be above the news.
But what was left out? What if we had spent some of those resources digging into the roots of terrorism? The signs were there, with the attack on the [U.S.S.] Cole, and the attacks on the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. When we go back, we can see that we did a number of stories on terrorism. We did a number of stories on Osama bin Laden. But we never really raised the flag in the appropriate way and said, "Look, this is important and there's more to it than what we're seeing in these episodic attacks."
Weren't you at the Berlin Wall when it went down?
I was the only one there that night. I had gone two days earlier because things were quiet here and there seemed to be a fair degree of turmoil going on over there. I thought I could go into East Berlin and do some reporting, which I was able to do the day before the announcement. I'd like to tell you that I was so prescient when I left here that I knew the wall was going to come down on my watch, but I was sitting in the news conference and was as stunned as everyone else when the propaganda chief from East Germany made the announcement from the Politburo that citizens of the GDR would be able to leave and return through any of the portals in the Berlin Wall.
I later went back and interviewed him, and he said they had no idea of the consequences of that decision. So there I was that night, midnight Berlin time, preparing to go on the air, looking around and knowing that I'm the only one with live capability. People were pouring across the top of the wall, going from the east to the west and back again, and already the hammers and chisels were out as they began to chip away at it. And I thought to myself, "Just do not screw this one up. This is a big deal."
What kind of effect did writing the Greatest Generation
books, and their reception, have on you personally? They weren't like any other books written by another network anchor—they weren't about yourself or the business.
That part of it had not occurred to me until Walter Cronkite, who was a member of that generation, came up to me and was very generous in his praise, and then lowered his voice and said, "And the most important thing is that it was not about you. It was about something else that was very important. You should be proud of that." I must say that my chest swelled at that point.
Look, I can't entirely compartmentalize these things. This has been a great career. I have so many powerful memories of all the work that I've done at NBC, but I suppose that the most lasting thing that I have done professionally is between the covers of those books.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in newsgathering over the past 30 years, for good or for ill?
I like all of the new choices that people have. As I say to folks who are complaining about now and then, when I was a kid growing up in Yankton, I had the Today
show in the morning, a not-very-good daily newspaper, 15 minutes of network news at night, and that was pretty much it. If I'm out there now, I've got all these choices—all-news cable in the morning, including the BBC on most cable systems in heartland America. You go off to school and in a wired classroom keep track of what's going on and do research online, get home at the end of the day, watch a half an hour of evening news on the networks and political commentary on any number of the cable outlets. See Jim Lehrer for an hour, at a more stately pace. He's my friend and I like to tease him. You've got a lot of choice out there now.
I sometimes worry that we're much too much in a hurry to get stuff on the air. We're better served sometimes by taking a breath and widening the lens, as it were, and showing more context.
What do you think the challenges are for Brian Williams and the next generation of anchors?
I think that for the next generation, at the network level, it's to maintain the place of network news—a slightly calmer tone, a little longer treatment of stories—in a universe where there's a lot of fireworks going off all the time, a high decibel count, people clamoring for attention, and more and more people drawn to outlets that reinforce their ideological or spiritual or cultural beliefs.
The real challenge for the network now is to continue to adapt to this new universe in which we now live, and to be responsive to younger viewers who are coming along and what they need, and what they should know and want to know as well. I think that's the real challenge.