When television journalist Tom Brokaw first sat down in the co-anchor chair of NBC Nightly News in 1981, the competition stood up and took notice. Walter Cronkite, who shares a distinction with Brokaw of being among the most trusted newsmen in American television history, recalls the response at CBS Evening News.
“Our reaction was, well, we’ve got a serious contender in our attempt to remain at the top of the broadcasts of the three major networks,” says Cronkite, who had ushered CBS Evening News into first place during his tenure (he retired the same year that Brokaw stepped in at NBC). In particular, Cronkite admired Brokaw’s skill at effectively translating for viewers the most salient and difficult parts of the news.
“It was quite clear when he was doing the evening news, he was speaking of a situation that he had a pretty deep knowledge of. You felt like you were listening to an expert on these matters.
“We immediately recognized, or at least I recognized, the strength of this competitor,” Cronkite says, “I thought he was superb.”
As it turned out, Cronkite’s instincts were right. Brokaw rose to become an enormously popular news personality. During his 21-year tenure as the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, the program was one of the top-rated news programs on the air.
Since then, the veteran journalist continues to provide expertise during breaking news events and produce documentaries for NBC. He has reported and produced six documentaries since 2005, including one about the African American underclass in the south and two that examined the Middle East situation, crisscrossing the globe to interview world leaders.
Brokaw, 66, shrugs when asked why he hasn’t taken more time for his fly-fishing hobby and other pursuits. “I’ve kind of flunked the first stage because I over-scheduled myself,” he says. “Partly I think it’s because there’s a certain momentum that comes after 40 years in this business. You think you have to fill every waking hour.”
Throughout his extraordinary career, Brokaw proved to be an indefatigable reporter, correspondent, anchor and editor, obtaining many exclusive interviews and firsts. He was the first American anchor to travel to Tibet to interview the Dalai Lama and report on the human-rights abuses there. He was the first American news anchor to report that the war with Iraq had begun.
His replacement on NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams, points out that Brokaw was also the first to gain an exclusive interview with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, for which he received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award. And he was the only anchor at the Berlin Wall the night it fell. “In both cases, it was his innate news sense that drew him to the story,” Williams says. “And in both cases, it was his inner drive that led him to go the extra mile.”
As the managing editor for the broadcast starting in 1983, Brokaw also profoundly affected how the evening news was disseminated. When he first came onboard, the routine was to take the 11 most important stories of the day and put them in some order. “Then it became clear that there were many other sources of information for an audience during the day,” says Brokaw. “So we had to stop and think about what is it that people want to know when they get to 6:30 at night. They know a lot of what’s happened already. So we did fewer stories. And we did them at greater length and tried to do them in a more analytical fashion.”
His colleague Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press and senior vice-president of NBC News, remembers a passionate moment in the newsroom in October 1984. Brokaw was sitting at his desk, lining up the evening newscast, when he suddenly saw a satellite feed from the BBC about the Ethiopian famine. “He immediately stood up and said, ‘Tear up the show, we are running that piece in its entirety,’” recalls Russert, who says that NBC was the only network to do so, and Americans responded. “People across the country donated tens of millions of dollars to ease the pain for starving young children,” Russert says. “That is Tom’s legacy — he always understood real news and had the courage to fight for his convictions. He knew his viewers wanted hard news, and he gave it to them.”
And when Brokaw sat in the anchor chair, he also demonstrated a natural ability to gain viewers’ confidence. “Viewers across America knew that Tom Brokaw was grounded by his South Dakota roots and family values,” says Russert. “They sensed that Tom was one of them, a good guy who cared.”
Brokaw says he worked to keep his radar out for news and information that was useful to all of his viewers. “I always tried to remember those people out there, who were in the middle of America,” he says, “who were maybe working two jobs, and wondering how all this news affected them.
“It’s tricky,” he adds. “There is no more mass medium than television. And when you put on a half-hour newscast, it has to satisfy everyone: From the salons and ivory towers of the Ivy League, to the centers of power in America on corporate Wall Street, to the businessman on Main Street, to the rangers in Montana. And there has to be something in there for everyone if you’re going to be successful.”
Growing up in a small town in a working-class family, Brokaw didn’t get a chance to view television until he was a teenager. So the idea of working in television didn’t occur to him until that moment. But once it did, his mind was set.
To friends and family it seemed a natural fit — he was a talkative kid who liked to write. “I loved to know what was going on and kind of share it with people,” he says. “I always wanted to know what was going on over the horizon.” His first thought was that maybe he could get a network to pay for him to see the world. “I sometimes think that I over-wished,” he wryly surmises.
He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1962 with a major in political science and married his high-school sweetheart, Meredith Lynn Auld, a former Miss South Dakota to whom he had once inadvertently professed his love across the airwaves after mistakenly leaving his radio disc-jockey mike on. They moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and he began working the early-morning shift for television station KMTV.
After three years, he was hired as the late-evening news anchor by WSB-TV in Atlanta, a station that often gave news feed to NBC. The civil-rights movement was peaking, and Brokaw would get calls in the middle of the night to race off to towns in Alabama, Southern Georgia or Mississippi where stories were brewing. He sometimes filled in for NBC correspondents and also filed for NBC radio.
A year later, in 1966, he was hired by NBC News. In 1973, he was given the job of political reporter and national correspondent. “I raced around the world for the Pope’s attempted assassination, and for Sadat’s assassination. I covered a lot of presidential trips in Europe and Russia.” From 1976 to 1981, he also anchored NBC’s Today program.
While anchoring Nightly News, Brokaw earned critical praise for his documentary series Tom Brokaw Reports, which tackled a variety of topics, from drunk driving to affirmative action, and won him two George Foster Peabody awards. Over the course of his career he has received four Emmys, the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement award, and various other prestigious awards, including the George Catlett Marshall Medal, the highest award from the Association of the U.S. Army and the first ever given to a journalist.
After covering the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, walking the beaches with the men who stormed it during World War II, Brokaw felt so moved by their stories that he compiled them into the best-seller The Greatest Generation. He says that every day some stranger will acknowledge the book’s impact. “That means as much to me as anything,” he says. He followed that with several other books, including his most recent best-seller, A Long Way from Home, a look back at growing up in America’s heartland.
The one thing that surprised Cronkite was Brokaw’s decision to step down as anchor as early as he did. “He’s still quite a young man,” he says. “And I think that as far as CBS and the other competitors are concerned, they should be grateful that he’s retired for a moment from the business.”
Brokaw has no regrets. “From time to time I get the rush about, gee, I’d like to get back in the chair. But life is phases and stages, and I have other interests that I’m involved in,” describing his commitment to various organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Rescue Committee, and his pleasure at being able to fully immerse himself in documentary projects without having to rush off to anchor the nightly news. Besides, he says, “I’ve had my chance.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Tom Brokaw's induction in 2006.