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Extended Interview: Tom Brokaw

February 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: In an age of instant news, 24-hour news, is there still a role for those 30-minute evening news broadcasts?

TOM BROKAW: Well, judging by the reaction of the television audiences that we gather every night, yes, there is. On a weekly basis, more than 30 million people watch these network evening news broadcasts. That is the most substantial audience in any part of this ever-more crowded and expanded universe in which we now live. So I think that there is.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet, those broadcasts’ share of the television sets on at that time has declined from about 75 percent in 1970 to about 44 percent now.

TOM BROKAW: But, Terry, in 1970, when it got dark in America, there were only two planets in the universe — CBS and NBC. ABC wasn’t even a player then. Now, when it gets dark in the television universe, it’s filled with planets out there, and people have that many more choices. So it’s a simple matter of math that they go to that many more choices.

Our challenge is to make sure that those people who care about the news have a place that they can turn for a recitation, if you will, of what happened that day, what is likely to happen tomorrow and what’s going to affect their lives in the days and months to come. And we still occupy that place, I think, in their lives.

TERENCE SMITH: If you were to characterize the mission in this age that you’ve just described, this multi-channel age, what would it be?

TOM BROKAW: Well, I think the best way to characterize it is to compare it with what it was in the past. The evening news broadcasts then were kind of a recitation of everything that happened that day. They were the wire service of the air, if you will. Occasionally, there would be a longer, more analytical piece about something that had happened. But, by and large, it was to get as much news into the 22 minutes as you possibly could because, for most Americans, that was the first time they’d heard about what had happened in their day.

Now, we know that they come to us at the end of their day, having listened to all-news radio, cable news, local news that goes on for an hour, two hours before us, covering all of these stories as well, wanting to get a deeper analysis of what has happened, a longer, more interpretative look of what is going on that’s important to them, as well as touching on those stories that demand their attention, that they deserve and should know about.

So we have reduced the number of stories. We’ve spent more time on them. And what we try to do is say: We think that these are the biggest stories and the most important stories in your life, and by the way, here are some stories as well that are not in the day’s news that are going to affect your lives as well in a variety of ways, about finance, health, the changing of the American family. That is all now part of what I believe is our agenda.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, it seems that the sort of conventional hard news is, in all three of these broadcasts, generally presented up front, and there does seem to be almost a rush to go to the interpretative, the practical. What’s the thinking behind that approach?

TOM BROKAW: It is deliberate because we think that that is also important news. And by the way, you know, you and I grew up in the same generation, came essentially out of the same news culture. And when I look back at what was our definition of hard news, I wonder how it landed out there in Middle America or even in the most sophisticated parts of this country. I’ve gone back and looked at these broadcasts, and there have been four and five stories at the top of them saying, “Peace in the Middle East is as imminent today as it’s ever been,” and that would be in 1969. And we’re still stuck in the same place.

TERENCE SMITH: So fragments of news, rather than real news?

TOM BROKAW: That’s right. The idea of hard news is in the eye of the beholder I think very often. And a lot of the hard news of the past really had very little relevance to the people who turn to these network evening news broadcasts looking for real news that has real impact on their lives.

TERENCE SMITH: In your view, as somebody who’s done this for a long time, is the impact of the evening news broadcasts less or different today than it was before

TOM BROKAW: I suspect it may be diffused. And it comes back, again, to the place that we occupy in this wider universe now because there is very little that we do at the end of the day that people are surprised by. They generally have heard it.

On the other hand, I think if you take the post-election period, we had enormous impact. We became, once again, appointment television for America because it was a story that was compelling to every citizen in this country, and they turned to us in rather significant numbers and paid attention. So that’s a good example of when we have impact — when there’s a big, overarching story of some kind that people are genuinely and deeply interested in, and there are late developments on it.

TERENCE SMITH: But what about the other periods? That was exceptional, no question about it.

TOM BROKAW: I think that we have to work harder at finding those stories that do have that kind of impact. I mean, on my watch at Nightly News, the greatest single impact that I can remember had to do with the famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, and we put that on the air here for the first time. And that was part, not the only cause, but a part of the ripple effect that went around the world, and it changed the way people looked at world hunger, and it became part of a genuine cultural movement around the world. That was big impact. And my guess is that we would still have that impact today if we came across that kind of a story, but there fewer and fewer opportunities.

When I was growing up in network news, you know, the civil rights movement was going on. You had huge impact every day. The anti-war movement was going on. In 1968, that memorable and tumultuous time, when our leaders were being assassinated, and Czechoslovakia was being invaded, and men were landing on the moon. Those were big-impact stories. We don’t have as many of those kinds of stories any more.

TERENCE SMITH: When you and I covered the White House, at different times, the White House press secretary sat in the evening with his staff in his office and watched three monitors, watched all three broadcasts, and then reacted to them if he could.

I talked to Joe Lockhart, as he was going out the door, and he said he doesn’t stay, he doesn’t watch the evening news broadcasts. He complained that they don’t cover the White House enough, a familiar lament. But I thought to myself, that’s different. Something has changed.

TOM BROKAW: One of the things that has changed in the White House press room is that they have all-news cable outlets on all day long. In the old days, when I was covering [the White House], we were the first one to come out with what had happened at the White House that day. Local news didn’t cover national politics in those days. They do now, but kind of from an arm’s length point of view. They’ll generally have their own reporter there who works for all of the local stations around the country. So that is a big impact.

The universe has changed. And that, as much as anything else, has affected the way that we construct these programs on a daily basis.

TERENCE SMITH: This institution, this nightly broadcast, has remained essentially unchanged in its 38-year history, from the time that Walter Cronkite took it to 30 minutes — the single, male, white anchor sitting and tossing to correspondents who do pieces. Do you think that’s sort of amazing that any institution as central to changing American life as this one is would stay that same for 38 years?

TOM BROKAW: It has stayed the same, essentially, in its form. Automobiles still have four tires and a central engine that transports them, but they have a different look about them, different styling, and we have different expectations of them as well. I think that we have the same thing going on in the evening news.

There are still three white males. My guess is that that’ll change in my lifetime. When the three of us go, I don’t know what will happen next. We have far more people of color and women reporting the news than when Ed Fouhy was working in it, if you go back and look at it. That’s a big difference.

We have far more bureaus across America than we did then. We have far fewer overseas. There’s more of a consolidation overseas now.

TERENCE SMITH: What about that? In an age of globalization, which we all know is here and part of our lives, why less foreign news?

TOM BROKAW: Well, it’s not that– the Cold War has had a lot to do with that, for one thing. And when I was coming of age in television news, colonialism was ending in Africa and independence was beginning. We did have a divided Berlin, and we had the Eastern Bloc and all that was going on there. Now, we have the arrival of the Euro, and we have the European Union and that kind of thing, and it doesn’t have the same kind of impact, in terms of stark terms, for most Americans who are watching the news. That doesn’t mean that we don’t go off and cover these stories.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East. We’ve spent a lot of time in Africa in the last few years. We’ve all been to the various hot spots in Bosnia and in the Balkans in the past several years. We just do it from more centralized locations now than we did then.

TERENCE SMITH: Look ahead at the next generation of anchors, and the broadcast itself and the role it plays. Does it change, in your guess, in your expectation five or 10 years from now?

TOM BROKAW: Well, my greatest wish always I think will not be realized, which was that we would have an hour. And, alas, I don’t think we’re going to get to that.

TERENCE SMITH: Economically it doesn’t work?

TOM BROKAW: Well, it doesn’t work because the local stations don’t want to give up the access time.

TERENCE SMITH: And that hasn’t changed.

TOM BROKAW: And that hasn’t changed. Now, what may change is that the cost of entertainment becomes so great that the network may decide that it needs a 10 o’clock newscast for an hour, with some inserts for local news, much like the Today program has now. That’s a model that I would encourage. 

TERENCE SMITH: And in the place of the Nightly News?

TOM BROKAW: Maybe in the place of the Nightly News, although I think that there will always be a place for something at the end of the day for half an hour. But, again, to come back at 10 o’clock and to do something that is longer and it’s more of a combination of the Nightly News, as it exists now, and the Today program, first half hour or the first hour.

I don’t know who the anchors are going to be. I’d like to think that they would come up the same way that Dan, Peter and I have; that, you know, we kind of all earned our stripes as reporters first and then got to these desks and never gave up our reportorial instincts. We’re still out the door when something happens, and it’s still what keeps me going. I’m not demeaning what I do between 6:30 and 7 o’clock every night, but it’s the least important part of my life, in many ways, because it’s the performance part of it.

The more important parts for me are, you know, organizing the news on a daily basis, getting out, covering it, finding that story that is relevant and people haven’t thought about, may be a surprise and have a big impact on their lives. That still is what drives me every day.

It’s going to take courage. I think what has happened, however, is that the networks point to the cable more and more now to say: Well, that’s where we have room for that kind of thing. Networks ought to really be more entertainment. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

And by the way, let me just say something on behalf of the younger generation. I find the people who are coming into this business are extraordinarily well educated, and bright and have great instincts, but the demand is so great for them to be in the studio and not in the field that that’s where they get put too quickly, and it’s harder for them to get away from that short leash that ties them to the desk.