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Lessons from a life in journalism

A transcript of Tom Brokaw's Oct. 4 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, in which he offers lessons learned during his 42-year journalism career.

Tom Brokaw made the following remarks at the annual award dinner for the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The dinner was held on Oct. 4, 2004 in New York City.

Here is some of what I have learned in 42 years as a journalist.

Viewers and readers take us seriously and they deserve to be taken seriously in turn. Yes, they'll always stop to watch the car wreck, low behavior by people in high places, volcanoes erupting or hurricanes coming ashore, but they'll also stop to watch the complicated story about governance, foreign policy, science and the economy if you explain that it's important, why it's important and present it in a way that engages the viewer. Too often the big, complicated issues are covered as if you have to be part of a secret society to truly understand them.

Public policy is the oxygen of journalism. City hall, the courthouse, the board of education, the state house, the Governor's office, the White House, Congress, Federal agencies, and the zoning board are the rich veins of public information and journalists are the prospectors for the citizens.

It is the foundation of journalism that the public has a right to know what is being done in its name. Consultants may tell you the public doesn't care and neither should you. Consultants are mercenaries. They're in business for themselves. You're in business for the public.

The next time someone comes into your newsroom and tells you no one cares about city hall or the statehouse, show them a picture of former Governor John Rowland of Connecticut or soon to be former Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey.

Follow the money. Money, as a powerful California politician once said, is the mother's milk of politics. Private money spent to buy access to public money is a front page, lead of the show story without end. Spend more time going through the books than you do worrying about the sweeps book and one will take care of the other.

The best stories come from the bottom up, not the top down, especially stories about what's going on at the top. Get to know the clerks, the staffers, the cops on the beat, the EMTs — the foot soldiers.

Remember, however, they, too, can carry grudges, distort what they see and expect you to do their dirty work, so treat what they tell you with care and skepticism. And when they meet your test, protect them with your life and they will take care of you. Exploit, abuse or violate their confidence and you, not they, should resign.

The best stories are also about the people from the ground up, not the top down. Who hasn't been bedazzled by a Ronald Reagan, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Sally Ride, Mikhail Gorbachev, or Nelson Mandela — to name just a few big-name, historic figures I've had the privilege to report on and interview over the years. Those were memorable, rich moments in my life and career.

Equally rich and in many ways more meaningful were the anonymous people who gave meaning to their ideas and presence in the public arena. The white doctor from a prominent Johannesburg family who was the only physician in a large squatter camp on the outskirts of Cape Town; the young woman who pursued with greater passion her interest in physics and space flight because of a chance meeting with Sally Ride; the young conservative who went into politics instead of Wall Street because of Governor Reagan.

Bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Facts are your firewall against bias. Facts fairly presented in a coherent arrangement that represents the whole story, not just the parts that titillate.

It’s okay to have personal interests, even passions, about newsworthy topics.

Those interests make you a better journalist. Advancing those interests or passions for personal gain or satisfaction makes you an unworthy journalist. Know when to say "no" to yourself as well as to your children.

Mistakes will happen. When they do, correct them, quickly and apologetically.

Factual mistakes are obvious. However, there are also mistakes of perception and exaggeration, myopia and hubris. They're more difficult to acknowledge but no less important to your personal credibility and that of your organization. When you say, "We stand by our story," make damn sure your viewers have a clear, unambivalent idea of why you're standing by your story.

The news, in whatever form, print or electronic, is a narrative of our time and the many people, incidents, elements, interests, conflicts and developments that make up that time. You are most successful when you give form to the narrative. When you make it a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end and not just a random collection of images or facts. That is a collegial process because what may seem compelling and understandable to you may seem a mixed message to your colleague.

In television, the image is the primary form of communicating the information. Words and, especially, reporters and anchors, are there to complement and give context to the pictures, not overwhelm them or suffocate them.

It's important to be serious ,but that does not mean you should ignore the hilarious, the off-beat, the arresting image. That, too, is the stuff of journalism.

Do not be above the news. But don't spend a disproportionate amount of time in the muck.

Don't show off. You're not the story. We assume you're reasonably smart or you wouldn't have the job.

Do your homework. We can see for ourselves what the pictures show. We want you to provide added value. For you to do that, you have to understand what lies beyond and beneath the pictures. That requires extra effort.

Be keenly aware that there's a new universe of information and communication that still is in the process of formation — the Internet. It is transformational technology on almost every level: communication, commerce, culture, opinion, enlightenment and demagoguery. Its reach is global. Its speed and ease is breathtaking. Its availability and power is at once democratic (small "D") and alarming. It is taking us to places we've not been before but we should not be mere passengers on this journey. It requires conductors and engineers. Journalists and journalism must think anew about their role in this world.

At whatever level you work in this craft or whatever role you may play in your organization, be brave. The 19th century mantras of journalism still apply:

"Report the news and raise hell" —  "Without fear or favor"

Each of you and all of you are stewards of free speech and robust debate. In times of cultural and political emotion, have the courage to give voice to the contrary point of view, the dissident expression.

Edward R. Murrow, one of the founding fathers of this craft, characteristically said it best, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

He also said after taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy, "We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak to associate and defend causes which were for the moment unpopular."

In the world in which we now live, that admonition is not confined to these shores alone. We are — or should be — the beacons for press freedom, print, electronic and Internet — everywhere.

Finally, tonight, in the spirit in which we gather, the enduring lesson of a far more distinguished speaker to another RTNDA meeting, in 1958.

Again, Edward R. Murrow:

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and, yes, it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use to that end. Otherwise it is nothing but lights and wires in a box."