Journalist Tom Brokaw

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Veteran journalist discusses race relations in the U.S. today and describes the essence of American character.

Tom Brokaw is one of America's most respected journalists. The former NBC Nightly News anchor-managing editor has earned most of the major broadcasting awards, including two Peabodys and several Emmys. A South Dakota native, he began his career in Iowa and joined NBC in '66. Brokaw is also a best-selling author. Since leaving the anchor chair in '04, he continues to provide his expertise to NBC News and moderated the second presidential candidate debate of the '08 campaign. His latest project is the documentary, Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide.


Tavis: Despite his alleged semiretirement back in 2004, Tom Brokaw seems as busy as ever in his role as a special correspondent for “NBC News.” His latest project is a terrific look at discrimination in America roughly 50 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement. The one-hour special airs this Friday night on the USA Network, and so, here now a preview of “Bridging the Divide.”
Tavis: Tom Brokaw joins us tonight from New York City. Mr. Brokaw, as always, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Tom Brokaw: And Tavis, it’s always a pleasure to be with you.
Tavis: This special, as I mentioned, ties in neatly to the beginning of the civil rights movement 50 years ago, and yet this documentary is really not about race. So tell me what it is about.
Brokaw: Well, I think it’s about a lot of anxiety in this country and what I call the fault lines of America that have been exacerbated by the uncertainty about the direction of the country and certainly by the economic dislocation. We really profile four different kinds of discrimination, which you just saw.
There are refugee children, most of them children of color, who have come here. They have been resettled by organizations like the International Rescue Committee and the State Department and others. These are people that we liberated, in effect, from Iraq, who we helped get out of Sudan, out of Cuba, out of Ethiopia, out of Thailand.
We take enormous pride in that, and then when we bring them here there are some Americans who don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat. These young people have been subjected to some terrible racial slurs. For example, there was an attempt to not allow them to use the city parks for practicing soccer. But even after all that, the youngsters will say it is so much better here than it was back where they came from.
Then we have a story about somebody that I’m sure you probably know about now, Wes Moore, who was a young man who had kind of a difficult start in life, went to Johns Hopkins, Rhodes Scholar, White House fellow, and in his same neighbor, in effect, there was another Wes Moore who didn’t get off on the right foot and is now in prison. He’s written a remarkable book, our Wes Moore, called “The Other Wes Moore,” and it’s about expectations versus environment.
We have a young woman who lost both of her legs but went on to be a successful model, a gay woman in Seattle who could not visit her dying partner in the hospital because she wasn’t a member of her family.
What we’re attempting to do here is to get out the American character, because in each of these stories there is so much courage, Tavis, and so many people trying to do the right thing, but they’re pushing a little bit against the tide these days.
Tavis: How is it possible – again, as we establish, this is not just about race, and you’ve brilliantly laid out these four storylines, these four different narratives – so it’s not just about race, and yet Black folk have kicked in the doors that so many others have walked through, and I say that with some small degree of pride.
And yet 50 years later we are still dealing with these issues of discrimination while we have an African American sitting as president in the White House. How is it possible that we are still lagging so far behind? The nation has grown older. Put this way, Tom – the nation has grown older, but we’ve not really grown up. We’ve grown older, but we haven’t matured enough. How is that possible?
Brokaw: No, but we also have to give credit to the country for the gains that it has made. I came of age when African American people couldn’t drink out of a water fountain, sat at the back of the bus, were in segregated schools in the South.
I lived in the North, where the cities were just as deeply segregated in their own way as they were in the South. I heard Dr. King talk about his dream and then we saw the passage first of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.
You have your own program now. Across America, the face of the mass media has changed profoundly. We have an African American president of the United States. We have an African American CEO of one of the Fortune 500 companies.
We have so many gains for women that are going on, too. But we’ve always set out to make the same more perfect union, and we’re still some distance from that. I think a lot of this, Tavis, quite honestly, is exacerbated now by the anxieties over the economic condition of the country and also about where America fits in the world. We are a much more multicultural country than we were 25, 30 years ago.
If you go to the Pacific Northwest, California, Oregon or the state of Washington, for example, there is an enormously, profoundly greater presence, for example, of the Pacific Islanders and the Asian-Americans in every aspect of life, and so people are still adjusting to that in some fashion.
What we’re hoping to do with this broadcast, not just on the race basis but on other issues as well, is to get them to take a deep breath and step back and remember this is an immigrant nation, and we’re always at our best when we’re more than the sum of our parts.
Tavis: You’ve said two things here now, Tom, I’m hoping that I can get you to juxtapose for me, because I think herein lies the rub for me; here’s where the tension is for me.
On the one hand, you spoke earlier in this conversation about this special really being a mirror, if you will, up to the character of our nation. It is, as you said, about the character of the country. Now you make the point that it’s about us making these adjustments.
Is it really about making adjustments, or is it really about our character? What does this special say, what do these issues of discrimination really say about the character of the country?
Brokaw: Well, that’s a very complicated question, and character in America is something that you can’t put in a tiny little package because there are so many of us coming from so many different backgrounds who have so many different aspirations.
We have different values in many cases, depending on our faith, where we live, what it is that we want out of life. But the essence of the American character, I’ve always believed, is that you should love your country but always think that you can improve it.
Tavis: Mm-hmm.
Brokaw: In the 70 years that I have been on this Earth and in this country, I have seen enormous improvement, but it is frustrating, to say the least, to know that there are still the kinds of discrimination that we see out there on a daily basis.
Some of it, I think, again, is exacerbated not just by the economic conditions but also by the mass media, the Internet. People who wouldn’t necessarily have a voice otherwise now have the vast universe of the Internet that they can light up and create a constituency where it may not have existed before.
Part of what we have to do, Tavis, is we have to talk about it. We have to be realistic about it. We have to examine it. We have to put it on the air, as you do almost every night. But now, to its great credit, USA, the cable channel that’s a big part of the NBC family, is going to put it out there. They’ve spent the last year on USA celebrating the American character and examining it. I think that’s a big, important step in the right direction.
Tavis: I think now, Tom, given your response of an American – I think an iconic American who was all at once an African American, a woman and later in her life physically challenged, confined to a wheelchair – you know her well; Barbara Jordan.
Barbara Jordan, a former member of Congress out of Texas, once said that the American people all want the same thing – that we want to live in a nation as good as its promise – a nation as good as its promise. Nobody’s asking for more, nobody ought to settle for less. I’m paraphrasing now.
Talk to me about this special in terms of how it will push us toward that place where we will one day become a nation that really is as good as its promise for all of us.
Brokaw: Well, I think that we have to kind of join arms together and work for that and be candid with one another. I think it’s across the political spectrum, across the ethnic spectrum, across the race spectrum. Everybody has to step up here.
I think that when you watch this broadcast that you’ll see that there are some very candid observations that are made – for example, Wes Moore talking about the other Wes Moore, went to have a conversation with him in prison and he said, “Do you think we’re the products of our environment?” and the other Wes Moore, who was in prison, said, “No, I think we’re the products of our expectations.”
Sometimes, expectations on the other side of the divide are too low as well, and that has to be addressed. We have to remind everyone, wherever they live in this country, that there’s a better way than just living in the streets or getting into trouble.
So yes, I think we’re going through a difficult time, and I don’t want to take it, by the way, out of the context of more than any time in my lifetime, people are questioning whether America is headed in the right direction overall. I went through a very difficult time in the ’60s, especially 1968. But now we’re competing in a different global environment against India and China, and we’ve got Islamic rage, we’ve been at war for nine years.
We’ve had this systemic unemployment going on; it went up the other day, not down. I think all that feed anxieties and it makes people not be at their best always because they’re just trying to worry about their own condition on a daily basis.
Tavis: Let me offer this as the exit question. You mentioned earlier in this conversation, although you look no worse for the wear, you mentioned you’re threescore and 10 years on this planet and in this country. I wonder, then, after all that you have seen in your lifetime and all that you saw putting together this special, whether or not it is that you remain hopeful that Americans will change their attitude about our future direction.
I ask that against the backdrop of this Rasmussen report out the other day, Tom, that finds that almost 50 percent of Americans think our best days as a nation are behind us. If that’s true, that many Americans think, almost half of us think our best days are behind us, how do we move forward?
Brokaw: It’s only true if we allow them to be behind us. Honestly, I have grandchildren now, and they’re so bright and they have so many friends across the entire spectrum of American life. I have other – one of my daughters’ granddaughters is learning Mandarin Chinese, for example, because her mother believes strongly she’s going to be living in a different kind of world.
What we really have to do on a daily basis is not be afraid to confront these issues honestly and not play to the least of us but play to the most of what we all have and to step up, and you do see that out in communities where people are taking on these issues and finding a way to work their way through them.
If you go across the country as I often do on a pretty regular basis, America is not what happens on cable television when the sun goes down or on the Internet when the bloggers light it up. America’s still out there in the main street or in the schools or in the faith community and in the workplace, and the best demonstration I know of how we work together is in the American military, quite honestly.
We’ll get beyond Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell before too long, I think. In the meantime, when you go out and spend time with these units you see African American kids with – kids from rural Wyoming, for example, and an Asian-American working in a unit on a big battleship and living in the tightest possible quarters, sharing their life stories and helping each other get through things.
So there are lots of places where it is working, and we just have to shine the light on them a little more, I think.
Tavis: “Bridging the Divide” airs this Friday night on the USA Network, hosted by the inimitable Tom Brokaw of “NBC News.” Tom Brokaw, always delighted to talk to you. Thanks for your time, sir.
Brokaw: Well, Tavis, it’s always a pleasure to be with you, and the fact that you and I are able to come on this broadcast and talk about it as openly and as candidly as we just have for the past few moments, I think that’s one more demonstration of the progress that we have made and that we must continue to make.
Tavis: Tom Brokaw of “NBC News.”
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm