Each month, we highlight a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific charity. This month we speak with Tom Brokaw, who was anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News” for 21 years. Brokaw who continues to report and produce long-form documentaries and provide expertise during breaking news events for NBC News, discusses his involvement with the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Question: What is the Committee to Protect Journalists?
Answer: It’s an organization that a group of us formed in the early 1980’s because we felt that we should extend the privilege that we have in this country to our colleagues around the world. Most of us have worked overseas and we had seen the variable oppressive environment that exists in too many countries for people to practice the craft of journalism. So we got together one night at a little cocktail party over at 21 and out of that grew this now internationally acclaimed, highly esteemed organization. It’s essentially a journalist advocacy organization in which we get people out of trouble or counsel governments or lecture them in some cases or write to them and try to get them to see the importance of sunshine as a disinfectant in their countries.
Q: Why did you get involved in this cause?
A: Well, it was easy for those of us who started because when you travel the world as a journalist you suddenly quit beefing about the minor inconveniences back home. We have the First Amendment here and very strong laws protecting what we do and a great tradition of journalism. So I thought, I’m at a stage in my life where the least I can do is try to extend these benefits to people around the world that I meet, who look to America as the pinnacle of journalism. And they help me a lot when I’m there, so this is one small way of paying them back.
Q: What are some of CPJ’s accomplishments?
A: Well, it is a wide range and it’s quite astonishing to me. It’s a small office, 25 staff members, but because of the power of the Internet and contacts around the world, they’ve gotten people out of harm’s way in Africa and here and given them a sanctuary. We’ve intervened with governments in Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Central America. We’ve had pretty direct dialogues with Chinese and also with Mexico and with the Russians about the importance of a free press. We haven’t won all the cases, there was a wonderful woman journalist(Veronica Guerin)in Ireland that we honored and she was killed because she was exposing drug trafficking. Recently there was a similar case in Russia where a woman (Anna Politkovskaya)was assassinated. She’s somebody else that we honored for her courage.
Q: Have you had a particularly powerful experience working with the organization that sticks out in your mind?
A: Well I think one of the most gratifying things -- I was thinking about it today actually -- I’ve talked to the governments in Saudi Arabia and Russia and Morocco directly. When I was in Pakistan a couple years ago and a Pakistan guide (journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi) had taken some French journalists down to Waziristan and he had gotten arrested by the Pakistanis because they didn’t want people poking around down there in that very volatile area. And I was able to say to President Musharraf at the end of my interview, ‘by the way…’ His staff was not happy, but he heard me out. And I said, ‘I think, general, with all due respect, you should look into this personally. It’s important for you. If you’re going to be an ally and exporting democracy and protecting human rights, this is an important case.” And the man was released not too long after that. … It wasn’t just because of me but because of CPJ and other organizations, especially in Europe, that also put a good deal of pressure on them. But that was very gratifying.
Q: What are some of CPJ's goals?
A: I think as much as anything is that we want to make people aware of the importance of a free press, unfettered by government repression. And we want to make people aware that in so much of the world, even in emerging democracies, some of the old practices are still in place. And in places like Ireland, the rule of mob law is sometimes more prevalent than the rule of law. Thomas Jefferson, I think, probably said it best when he said, ‘If I had a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government I would not hesitate to choose the latter.’ That might be the extreme position to take, but it’s important, as we have learned in this ever more complicated world, to have courageous reporters who are independent and have the freedom to tell their readers and viewers and now the people who access them on the Internet what, in fact, is going on -- not just what the government or other interests say is going on.
Q: Tell us about the International Press Freedom Awards Dinner that CPJ hosts every year.
A: Well it’s the most inspirational dinner of the year. Journalists come from this city and all over America and always walk out saying, ‘I will never complain again about working an extra couple of hours or getting on an airplane late at night,’ because you hear these heroic and grateful young editors and reporters from Central America and South America, from Eastern Europe and from Africa a lot, from the war zone. You know, I think there have been 37 journalists who have been killed this year (up to 42 at the time of publication). We’re always mindful of that and it’s one occasion in which everybody can come together in the same ballroom, listen to these heroic and inspirational stories and I think be renewed in terms of their sense of commitment to what we’re doing.
Q: Why is it important for people to support CPJ?
A: It’s important because … we are at war in this country. We have something that was imposed on us in a matter of speaking on 9/11 called Islamic rage, and we need brave independent people who can go out there and determine for free people everywhere the information that they need to make wise choices about their lives and about the future of their society.
Q: How can people get involved and help?
A: Go to our Web site. It’s very good. And, we’d be happy to accept a check.
Interviewed by Giacinta Pace of NBC News.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints