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Tom Brokaw: Expanded Profile

By Lowell Ponte
Discover The Networls

Tom Brokaw is a commentator and documentary host on NBC. From 1981 until 2004 he was Anchor and Managing Editor of the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw

Thomas John Brokaw was born in February 1940 in Webster, South Dakota. His father was a construction worker on government projects who moved the family around South Dakota several times to towns such as Igloo during the boy’s childhood. His mother, who had aspired to be a journalist, worked as a clerk. While in High School he worked as a disc jockey at a Yankton radio station. One day he interviewed the new 1959 Miss South Dakota, fellow student Meredith Auld, and became so distracted that he forgot to turn off the microphone afterwards. Radio listeners heard young Brokaw’s private romantic statements to the young woman he later wed.

As a college freshman Brokaw had attended the University of Iowa where, as he told one interviewer, he “majored in beer and coeds.” He transferred to the University of South Dakota, working part of his senior year at a Sioux City television station, and graduated in 1962. That same year he married Meredith and took a job at $100 per week at an Omaha TV station.

In 1965 Tom Brokaw was hired as news editor and anchor at WSB-TV in Atlanta, where his reports on civil rights occasionally put his face on NBC’s nightly news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. 

By 1966 Brokaw was hired as a reporter and late news anchor at the NBC-owned station in Los Angeles, KNBC, whence he covered stories such as Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the hippie drug counterculture of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  

“I lived in the vortex,” he told one interviewer. “California was an important story. I was the first television reporter I know of who went to Haight-Ashbury. I stumbled on it in my coat and tie, my trench coat, and I was about the same age as many of the kids who were there. I couldn’t believe it. I did a number of stories and felt I was caught between two tides. I was fascinated by the Haight. There was a kind of daring about these kids that I didn’t have in my soul…. I was so ambitious and so intent, I couldn’t quite identify with the freedom of their behavior and their absolute lack of discipline about where they wanted to go within the establishment. I was trying to fight my way up through it, and they were oblivious to it.”

In 1972 at one of the political conventions Brokaw met NBC veteran John Chancellor, who told him to “grow up and leave that cushy job in California.” In 1973, at age 33, Brokaw became NBC’s White House correspondent at the start of the Watergate scandal. Once again, Brokaw demonstrated an uncanny knack for being in the right position to cover big news. He also worked as anchor of NBC’s Saturday national newscast.

In 1976 Brokaw became co-host of NBC’s Today Show, replacing Barbara Walters who had moved to network rival ABC. Because of his willingness to work long hours and to pour all his earnest energy into every interview, whether with a politician, movie star, chef or hair stylist, Brokaw’s colleagues gave him the nickname “Duncan the Wonder Horse.”  

“The long curve of my career was always serious journalism,” Brokaw later told two interviewers. “The Today Show was kind of a left turn.” It was a far left turn. His co-host on Today was hardcore liberal Jane Pauley, who in her native Indiana had been a member of the Democratic Party’s State Central Committee.

In 1982 Brokaw was a hot property, offered mult-imillion dollar deals by all three major networks. The largest offer was said to come from Roone Arledge of ABC, who hired Peter Jennings as that network’s anchor only after Brokaw turned ABC down. Arledge’s willingness to bid for talent had also prompted CBS to retire veteran Walter Cronkite so that Dan Rather could be secured as that network’s new anchor. Arledge, therefore, played a key role in putting all three network anchors of this era in their jobs.

Brokaw’s years at the helm of NBC Nightly News began as co-anchor with network news veteran Roger Mudd, who moved from CBS to NBC after he came in second in the contest to succeed Cronkite. Promoted as the “new Huntley-Brinkley,” Brokaw from New York and Mudd from Washington, D.C. failed to excite viewers. On Labor Day 1983 NBC removed Mudd, and Tom Brokaw began more than two decades as sole anchor of the newscast.

“It’s a position that brings with it power and influence, and that can prove to be pretty tempting,” Brokaw told the New York Times. “It’s certainly the most visible job, perhaps the most glamorous in the public mind, and in most instances the most financially rewarding. But it’s not necessarily the most professionally fulfilling. You’re often tied to a studio as an anchor, and you can’t get your hands on that much material, which is what I really like to do.” Brokaw never said for what purpose he desired the “power” of being a network anchor.

What explains Brokaw’s success? Brokaw’s “kind of news is centrist,” wrote Edwin Diamond in the left cultural magazine Rolling Stone. “The iconographic Dan [Rather of CBS], of course, is country & western, appealing to an older, idealized America of the imagination. Peter [Jennings of ABC] is urban, projecting an image with which a more youthful market can identify. Tom [Brokaw] positions himself somewhere in between, in the middle an avatar of suburban values.”

“I’ve always hated the anachronistic idea of a white man, middle-aged, sitting there at a desk reading to America,” Brokaw told journalist Charles Kaiser. Brokaw took to doing news while standing, often in front of a 7-by-12 foot video board, the sort of thing he had done as a young weather reporter in South Dakota. He also re-shaped his newscast to feature fewer stories, each of which took time to look more deeply and at more facets of its subject. His ratings improved after Brokaw made these changes.

Although politically somewhat to the left of America’s center, Brokaw usually has been less overtly ideological, leftward and partisan than either of his rival anchors Jennings or Rather. Brokaw also has tended to find something positive to say regarding the stories he covers, presents himself modestly, and speaks with an endearing speech impediment that often makes his words sound chewed. He therefore has elicited less of the visceral distrust and dislike felt by some Republicans and conservatives for Jennings and Rather.

Brokaw is a member of the left environmentalist Sierra Club and an avid outdoorsman. In 1993 he was offered the job of director of the National Park Service by Democratic President Bill Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Brokaw endorsed the Clinton Administration's environmental policies. Brokaw told the Washington Post that he considered the offer "very seriously" but decided to reject it because of turmoil at NBC. "We need more parkland,” said Brokaw. “I have a lot of friends in the environmental movement. I'm not an Earth Firster but I feel strongly, given my Western roots, in a reasonable dialogue on the issues; I think I'd be reasonably good at that.”

An object of bipartisan affection, Brokaw was offered the job of White House Press Secretary by Republican President Richard Nixon. Brokaw also turned down that presidential job.

In 1998 Brokaw was author of the best-selling book The Greatest Generation about Americans who helped win World War II and their children. This book gave voice to and honored many, including President George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. This and Brokaw’s 2001 sequel An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation left millions of readers with a clear sense of Brokaw’s patriotism and love of country. Nothing comparable can be found from Jennings, who was raised as a Canadian citizen by an anti-American mother, or from Rather, who was caught lying to the public about his few months in a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp out of which he got booted. These uplifting books have enlarged the reservoir of public good will for Brokaw.

Tom Brokaw’s record reveals glimpses of the politics beneath his moderate exterior, examples of which include the following: 

“I thought from the outset that his supply-side theory was just a disaster,” Brokaw said of President Ronald Reagan in an April 1983 interview with the socialist magazine Mother Jones. “I knew of no one who felt it was going to work.”

“When the public phase of those hearings ended today…” reported Brokaw on August 3, 1987 about the Iran-Contra hearings orchestrated by a Democratic Congress against President Reagan, “we were left with an astonishing record of deceit, ignorance, naivete, good or bad intentions, failed policies, and discredited public servants, and this story is not yet complete.”  In 1987 Brokaw wrote The Arms, the Men, the Money, which investigated the Nicaraguan Contras but made almost no criticism of the Soviet-backed, Fidel Castro-backed Communist Sandinista dictatorship in that Central American nation against which the Contras struggled as freedom fighters.

“You’re opposed to abortion in any form,” Brokaw said during an August 17, 1988 convention interview with Republican Vice Presidential nominee Dan Quayle. “You also have opposed the E.R.A. [Equal Rights Amendment], and you’re opposed to increasing the minimum wage, which is important to a lot of women out there. Aren’t you going to have a hard time selling Dan Quayle to the women of this country?”

On January 6, 2004 during an appearance on The Daily Show on Viacom’s Comedy Central cable network with Jon Stewart, Brokaw said that Democratic presidential primary candidate Howard Dean “cannot equate with the fundraising power of the president of the United States who is a Republican, especially representing the corporate interests. He can go out there, push the button and get a lot of money.” 

Tom Brokaw has dismissed accusations that he has a liberal bias, both by saying he has been criticized from right and left, and by saying that “bias – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder.” But in a November 19, 2003 speech at the National Press Club, Brokaw declared that “in the social upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a kind of tyranny of the left, as there now is in too many quarters of commentary a tyranny of the right,” surely a skewed view of this history.

During this speech Brokaw singled out for criticism conservative talk radio stations, whose growth was fueled by the exclusion of conservatives from network airwaves, which he claimed are “instantly jingoistic and savagely critical of any questions raised about the decisions leading up to, for example, the war in Iraq…. They suffocate vigorous discourse, the oxygen of a system such as ours, by identifying those who refuse to conform and encouraging a kind of e-mail or telephonic jihad, which is happily carried out by well-funded organizations operating under the guise of promoting fair press coverage.” No example could be found of Brokaw at any time in his career ever specifically criticizing the “tyranny of the left” or engaging in such heated rhetoric in describing liberal media.

By contrast, Brokaw minimized the ethical issues regarding fellow anchor Dan Rather and CBS for a story that weeks before the 2004 presidential election attacked President Bush by using fabricated documents that CBS’s own experts had warned might be bogus. “I think [Rather] was really trying to get at a big story about the President’s National Guard service,” said Brokaw on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, “and they got stung by some documents.”

In an interview with 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry, Brokaw said: “Someone has analyzed the president’s military aptitude tests and yours, and concluded that he has a higher IQ than you do.”  Kerry replied: “That’s great. More power. I don’t know how they’ve done it, because my record is not public. So I don’t know where you’re getting that from.” 

But when NBC’s news magazine Dateline broadcast Brokaw’s interview with the would-be president, its transcript indicates that Kerry’s statement that his military “record is not public” got edited out. The Kerry campaign claimed to have released all his military records, but Kerry repeatedly refused reporter requests that he sign the simple government form that would have made approximately 100 unreleased pages from this record public. Brokaw later told radio host Don Imus that Kerry told him his IQ test score had been lowered by boozing the night before he was tested, another bit of information (assuming that it is information and not merely a candidate spin) that was not given to voters during Brokaw’s broadcast interview with Kerry.

Saying he wanted “to leave when I’m at the top of my game…when I’m feeling good about leaving and there’s no question of being forced out,” Tom Brokaw retired at age 64 as NBC anchor shortly after the November 2004 election. Brokaw was succeeded as NBC Anchor by Brian Williams.

In May 2004 Brokaw signed a 10-year agreement to do occasional documentaries and commentaries on NBC.

Tom Brokaw and his wife have a home in New York and a 4,000 acre ranch in Montana.

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