As the “Today” show marks its 50th anniversary, Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, shared his memories of the early years of his career as a “Today” co-anchor in a special appearance in the MSNBC.com Chat Room. Brokaw answered questions from the public on subjects that ranged from the events of Sept. 11 and the anthrax-laced letter that sickened his assistant to his plans for a new book on American values and the current state of the news media. Brokaw took chatters’ questions over the phone from his office at NBC headquarters in New York City. His answers were relayed by a typist and are transcribed below. Chat producer Will Femia moderated the event.
MSNBC-Will Femia: We have Tom Brokaw here and a list of questions a mile long, so let’s begin.
Welcome, Mr. Brokaw.
Question from A: Looking back at the “Today” show and your career, did you foresee the state of TV journalism today? Yourself in this position?
Tom Brokaw: No, I guess I didn’t. It’s always hard to see clearly into the future. The “Today” broadcast for me, however, was in many ways only a positive experience. It broadened my horizons. I dealt with subjects I wouldn’t have dealt with had I been just a Washington reporter, for example. I’m thinking more in the area of cultural affairs, the theater… I did more on books. It took me to places I might not have gotten to.
Of course, there was that memorable day when we had the marriage of Diana and Charles on the “Today” program. So I did think that there would be more news in television, but I didn’t anticipate that we would have “the big bang,” as I call it, that we have now that’s created this whole universe of cable and online and all the other synergy.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Speaking of things you probably wouldn’t have done as a Washington reporter…
Question from Princess: Well, I saw on the “Today” show a clip from 1978, in which Tom Brokaw tried Pop Rocks candy. He acted like he was suffering from electric shock!!
Tom Brokaw: Laughter> Right! That’s probably true. You know, the nation gets up with you in the morning and you want to be cheerful and user-friendly and connected to them. I always thought it was helpful that I was a parent during that time and raising young children with my wife. And people could relate to it because out there in Oshkosh, Wisconsin or Orange Country or in Odessa, Texas, people were going through the same experience at the same time.
Question from Angie: Is it true that you once stood outside at the window to the world? Before you were actually on the Today show?
Tom Brokaw: I did. In Omaha, Nebraska, my first job was I did the Today “cut-ins” and I came to New York with Meredith when we were 24-years-old for the 1964 Worlds Fair and we went down and stood outside the “Today” show windows and held up a sign that said “Watch Today in Omaha with Tom Brokaw.”
Question from Helen Lucas: Tom, the “Today” show is probably one of the first “info-tainment” shows ever. What do you think of the direction the media has taken? Is there any way we can ever go back to straight news?
Tom Brokaw: There is so much straight news on television. It’s just in different places. In fact, if you go back and look at the so-called “straight news” of the halcyon days of Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, Chet and David made their reputation not just based on the news that they reported but on their anecdotal asides, the show biz chemistry between the two of them, David’s little essays on life in Washington.
Walter Cronkite was a paragon of the traditional news but one of his most popular features was “Charles Kuralt on the Road” doing little sidebar features about life in America almost like it was out of “Reader’s Digest.” So there’s always been a great mix of news and, if you will, the lighter side. I often tell my friends in the newspaper business, “I dare you to try to survive by just printing the front page and the editorial page alone, without sports, obituaries, comics, weather and all the other parts of newspapers that draw readers to them.”
MSNBC-Will Femia: This isn’t really a question, but I wonder if we could get your reaction…
Question from shpshftr2: If one adds the “Tonight Show” to the NBC daily line up, for the past 50 years and still going strong, millions of people have planned, organized their life around the news network. Schedules from general planners down to meal preparations can be timed with the NBC news network. Landed on the moon with John Chancellor, had dinner with Huntley and Brinkley, “Concentrated” with Hugh Downs, Sander Vanocur, never dreaming of internet chat rooms.
Tom Brokaw: There’s less of that now than there used to be because society is organized in a different way, but certainly that’s how I grew up. I remember vividly getting up in morning in Yankton, South Dakota to go to school and my mother would be down getting breakfast ready with one eye on the “Today” show with Dave Garroway. We had not lived in an area where we could get television until the mid 1950s and it was a real revelation to us. He was one of my mother’s early heroes.
And then we would come home in the evening after my basketball practice and dinner would be organized around Huntley, Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. But we were pretty much an NBC family. And then later, obviously, Johnny Carson was a huge part of the late night for people who could stay up that long.
So yeah, I’ve always felt there were those appointments that existed more then than they do now, because you have both parents working, coming home at different hours, and people living their lives in different ways. And that’s why we have to work harder at commanding the attention of our audience when we come on at 6:30.
MSNBC-Will Femia: This question came up a lot...
Question from Sandy Burggraf, Tulsa, Oklahoma: How do you subdue your emotions when interviewing your guest? For example, victims from Oklahoma City, Columbine, World Trade Centers, or families that have gone through the violent death of a child?
Question from Amy Reeves: How do you keep your composure during difficult times, i.e., Sept. 11? I admire your stamina and your compassion and your professionalism tremendously! I consider you a friend.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Do you consider your viewers friends?
Tom Brokaw: I do. I’m always flattered when people come up and address me as “Tom” on the street or in an airplane or somewhere and talk about a specific moment that they have shared with me either on the Today Show or on Nightly News. I remember a woman writing me after I interviewed Timothy McVeigh in his jail cell and she was very disappointed that I shook his hand. She said, “You know, you and I go back so far,” and then she recited all these specific references from the “Today” show, anecdotes I told about our children or things that had happened in our life. She said, “I felt like I had a real friend and when you did that I was just terribly disappointed.”
I wrote back to her and said, “Look, that’s what I do as a professional and it’s important for you to hear what he has to say as well.” But I was really very flattered that she felt that personal connection to me.
As for controlling my emotions, I don’t always. Sometimes I, in unexpected ways … I get caught off guard. But I don’t think it’s my job to be out there and to lose control. I’m empathetic to these very emotional situations. I think that does come through, but it’s not something I think about. The one thing I do think about is maintaining focus and discipline and continuing a steady stream of information for people. That was certainly true on September 11 and the days afterward, but there were many moments when I would just get away from where I was sitting to another report or a piece of video so that I could have some emotional relief.
Question from Joe: Tom, who do you think sent the anthrax?
Question from Maggie: Mr. Brokaw, how is your assistant feeling now?
Tom Brokaw: Well, I don’t know who sent it and that remains a puzzle for me. My assistant is making a very good physical recovery, that’s all solved. It’s still an emotional hangover of sorts for her — as it is for all of us — because someone was trying to do great harm to people who work for me and to me specifically. And there was so little known about anthrax and unfortunately my assistant became kind of a poster child. And she was so well-organized that we were able to learn a lot from her saving the letter and saving her own clothes that had anthrax on them when she took them home and that kind of thing. So it’s been a very difficult experience.
Question from Maggie: What moment in your career did you find the most challenging? Did that moment change you in anyway?
Tom Brokaw: I think September 11th was probably the most challenging. I never anticipated we’d have something like this happen in my professional lifetime within the continental United States. It was so unexpected and the magnitude of the damage and the loss of life was so great and there was so much uncertainly for so many hours on end that I said later that, God forbid that this kind of thing had to happen, but if it did have to happen, I’m glad it did at this age and stage of my career.
Going back, the resignation of Richard Nixon and the whole Watergate episode was a trying time. I was the only anchor at the Berlin Wall the night that it came down and I thought, “My God, the whole world is going to be watching this very important event in our history. Don’t screw this up, Brokaw.”
There have been a lot of challenges. The Challenger itself, when it blew up that day, to be on the air and to try to deal with the facts and the emotion and the shock of all that was a trying time.
Question from Maggie: You have met so many extraordinary people. Who would you still like to meet?
Tom Brokaw: HA! You mean who else?
Tom Brokaw: Osama bin Laden at this point. I think he’s the one person who we’d all like to have cornered and sit down and find out what the hell he was thinking.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I wonder if he chats? LOL!
Tom Brokaw: But after that, not many. You know, I’ve met ‘em all. But I think it’s important — and I often say this and audiences are sometimes surprised — it’s not the big, well-known names that always leave the deepest impressions. It’s often ordinary people: civil rights workers in the south who showed extraordinary courage late at night when they were being threatened, the servicemen who answered the call in Viet Nam and came home to a hostile country and got on with their lives. I wrote about a whole generation of people called “The Greatest Generation,” and so many of them were the ordinary people who went off and made these enormous sacrifices during World War II and gave us the world that we have today and then returned to their home towns to continue to make contributions to society and community and their faith.
Question from sammyb: Who was the most memorable interview and why?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is there a single one that stands out?
Tom Brokaw: I suppose the one that will always be mentioned is that I was the first one to interview Mikhail Gorbachev and a general secretary of the Communist Party had never been interviewed before. I interviewed him in Moscow and we learned then that he likes to talk at great length! Laughter>
But we became good friends as a result of that and I see him from time to time. I’m still in touch with him and he was a very important figure in world history. For some time after that initial interview, he believed that I was the only American journalist who really counted and I tried to keep that myth going for a while, but it didn’t always last.
MSNBC-Will Femia: To follow your bin Laden answer....
Question from Stew: What would you say to Osama Bin Laden if you had him in front of you?
Tom Brokaw: I’ve thought about that and one of the things that I would say is, “You killed mostly innocent people. Most of them were people of strong faith — including Muslims. What is it that you think your God would approve of about this entire operation?” That’s off the top of my head.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Do you think of questions for people who aren’t booked yet?
Tom Brokaw: Oh yeah, it’s a loop running in my mind. I’m getting ready to go down and spend a couple of days with President Bush in the White House. We’re going to do “A Day in the Life” and then I’m going back to do a longer interview and it’ll all run on the 23rd of January, probably before “West Wing.” And I’m making these mental notes in my mind and on a notebook that I have about the kinds of things that I want to ask, not just the president but the people who work for him.
Question from Chris: Will you be able to get away and go to Salt Lake City next month for the Olympics?
Tom Brokaw: Yes, to the beginning. We’re going not to cover the events but to cover the security issues and the cultural phenomenon of the Olympics.
Question from Hermione: How has your experience on “Today” affected you as a journalist?
Tom Brokaw: I grew up in the time when most of the news that you saw in the air — most of it — was passed through the prism of white, middle-aged men who lived mostly on the eastern seaboard. And that was okay by me because I expected to be a white middle-aged man living on the eastern seaboard. But the Today Show opened… I guess I had these interests before, but it sharpened my interest in other areas and the impact that they have.
For example, we just did on “Nightly News” recently a long story about “Black Hawk Down,” the new feature film that is about the episode in Somalia and how instructive it is to American audiences even though it is a piece of fiction. It follows faithfully the non-fiction book, and it does tell you what modern combat is all about. That would not have been done 20 years ago on the “Nightly News” and that may have grown out of my interest during the “Today” show days of seeing this cross-pollination that exists between the culture and politics and the economy and so on and how you put them all together.
They’re coming up with the big anniversary of “Roots,” for example, and Alex Haley did his first interview when the book came out, on the “Today” show. That became a part of American history. It was a real phenomenon. And that was very much worthy of a story on the front page of the New York Times, or in a prominent section of “NBC Nightly News.”
Question from jvrlady: What do you think of the Enron episode?
MSNBC-Will: Is that turning into the next big story?
Tom Brokaw: It’s a big story. What it’s turning into we cannot be sure yet, but there’s an awful lot of smoke, and what we have to determine is how much fire and who gets singed by that.
Question from Cheryl Potter: First I would like to say, I really enjoy your dedication to journalism. Did your co-anchor ever get a story that you wish that you would have gotten? You felt that in some way you had a closer connection to the story or could have related better to it?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is there a lot of competition?
Tom Brokaw: There’s always competition, that’s healthy. My co-anchor on the “Today” show was Jane (Pauley) and we had a wonderful professional and personal relationship. She met her husband through me, Gary Trudeau, and my wife arranged a little dinner so they could get to know each other and we’ve felt joined at the hip ever since then. But yes, there’s always competition within an organization and that’s good. I’m going down to interview President Bush, and I suppose Matt and Katie and Stone Phillips and other people would have liked that as well. But it’s something I’ve been working on for some time.
Question from Stew: Mr. Brokaw, who is someone you try to emulate and how do you use those characteristics in your work?
Tom Brokaw: I can’t say that there is a specific person that I try to emulate. I’m now almost 62 years of age and I ought to be my own person, I suppose, by now. But I am struck by the fact that even at this stage in my career and at this age, I am constantly learning from other people and trying to take their best qualities and apply them to my own life. I don’t think that ever stops. I still have my own insecurities. You would think that I’ve achieved a certain level of success professionally and financially and personally and all that would go away, but I don’t think it ever will. And it’s a good thing that it doesn’t because I think to be self critical is an important part of life and I try to be that in an objective way.
Question from Benjamin Carver: I have just read the book “Bias” by Bernard Goldberg. He makes the accusation that all media is dictated by the left-wing influence. How do you balance the opinion from fact? I also want to just say what an outstanding job you and the NBC News team did to get the country through the tragic events of 9/11.
Tom Brokaw: I have not read the Goldberg book, I have read many excerpts from it, so I think I have a pretty good notion of what he’s talking about. This is a debate that’s gone within news organization and from outside of them for a long, long time and my simple answer is that bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. I work very hard to make sure that we are as objective and as fair as possible. It’s not always the case. Sometimes we tilt one way or the other, but it’s almost always inadvertent, based on what is going on that day, and I ask the audience to make an investment in us for the long haul and for the big picture and for the information that they feel, after a period of time, that they can trust and rely on. I’ve been at this now on “Nightly News” for more than 18 years. I think if the public thought that I was a deliberately leftist liberal person, given the Ronald Reagan era and the George Bush era and the George Bush the 41st… I wouldn’t have much standing out there. But I like to think that I do and the audience continues to come back because they apparently do trust me.
Question from Annette Hall: Are you working on a new book? I so enjoyed your last one!
Question from tony: Thanks for writing that book on World War II.
Tom Brokaw: I’ve done three books on the World War II generation, so I’ve decided to move on to other areas. One of the things that I’m interested in is the values of my family and my time and the post-war years and how that affected me. It’s a smaller book, not a larger book, but I’ve been going back and thinking how my parents conducted their lives and the values that they passed on to us, and the things that were going on around me out in the middle of the country where I was not affected by the trendiness, if you will, of either coast. It was a real middle-American upbringing.
Question from Tommy Blair: My grandfather was Frank Blair. He seems to be one of the “forgotten” cast members from the past as he is rarely mentioned in historical perspectives of “Today.” I know that my grandfather prided himself on reporting the news - not how he felt about it. I have always respected that quality in Mr Brokaw as well. If possible, briefly describe the impact Frank Blair had on the past 50 years of “Today.”
Tom Brokaw: He was the original newsreader on the “Today” show. I think that you’ll see a lot of Frank, actually, in all the revisiting that we’re doing in conjunction with the 50th anniversary. I’ve seen his picture, his picture is now posted down in the lobby at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with the cast — Jack Bersculi and Dave Garroway.
I remember Frank was a real favorite in our family because he was so no-nonsense about delivering the news. He was straight ahead. He was not a traditional journalist — I think he’d started as an announcer. But he had a real respect for the news and journalism. One day a protestor of some kind walked onto the set and walked over to him and it could have been an alarming moment, and Frank very quietly and calmly led the young man off the set and went back to delivering the news. So his grandson has every reason to be very proud of what his grandfather did in terms of establishing the place of news in the “Today” format.
Question from coolfrend: Mr. Brokaw — with your experience in journalism, what advice can you give to an adolescent, who wants to really succeed in reporting?
Question from Pepe Barton: I’m 21 and currently going to college and plan to become a reporter. I work at an NBC affiliate in Boise, Idaho as an editor. Do you have any other ideas on how to further understanding of the newswriting process?
Tom Brokaw: I just talked to a group of college students the other day, and I have, over the years, been consistent in my advice. It’s not enough to take mass media courses. You have to take substantive courses that teach you about the kind…. I was a political science major. I tell people now, major in political science, economics, sciences courses are very helpful in this ever more scientific age in which we live.
Another thing is start small. Boise is a good place to begin, that’s an excellent market out there, you’ll learn a lot out there, you get to do a lot of things you wouldn’t if you started in New York.
And finally, everyone wants to be the next Katie Couric or Matt Lauer or Diane Sawyer, and with good reason. But there are a thousand jobs behind the scenes for every job that is on the air and those are often every bit as gratifying and more secure in some ways. So that’s what my advice always is.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I really appreciate you taking all this time with us Mr. Brokaw. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?
Tom Brokaw: Since we’re looking at the 50th anniversary of the “Today” broadcast, I think what is so instructive is the continuity of it, that it’s been there every morning for 50 years on a network. I was looking at it last night and thinking, “Thank God for Pat Weaver, the man who invented the forum and the idea of sharing with the national audience the news from overnight, a longer look at what may have caused some of these news events, and then dealing with the other matters that are cultural or cooking or lifestyle trends or whatever. What it did was take a great newspaper and put it on television, in effect, and that was an enormous important transition. And Today has evolved over the years now to a three-hour broadcast so that it has more room to deal with all those things and I think that the country is very well served by it.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Mr. Brokaw.
Tom Brokaw: Thank you.
MSNBC-Will Femia: And thank you very much, chatters, for your questions.