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Interview With Tom Brokaw

Aired November 14, 2004 - 11:30   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The Brokaw era. After 22 years as the face of NBC News, Tom Brokaw is stepping down from the anchor chair. We'll ask him about the media's missteps in the 2004 campaign, his final interview with President Bush, how politics, war coverage and television itself have changed since he broke into the business, and whether he's really ready for retirement.

Tom Brokaw in a RELIABLE SOURCES exclusive.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our lens on the anchor of NBC News. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Tom Brokaw got into television at KNBC in Los Angeles back in the black-and-white age. From there, it was on to Washington, where Brokaw covered the Nixon White House, and New York, where he became co-host of "The Today Show."

In 1982, Brokaw emerged as one of a new generation of network anchors, along with Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. He's interviewed every president and major candidate since then, including pre-election sit-downs with John Kerry and George W. Bush. Brokaw has chatted with world leaders and celebrities. He's parachuted into war zones and was there when the Berlin Wall fell.

On December 1st, he'll sign off from "NBC Nightly News" for the last time, turning over the anchor chair to Brian Williams.

Tom Brokaw joins us now from the "NBC Nightly News" set in New York. Welcome.

BROKAW: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: We've just been through a bruising presidential campaign. Do you think that journalists in places like New York and Washington understand rural and religious voters in the red states?

BROKAW: Not as well as they should, and nor do I think that most political reporters work as hard at it as they need to. Too often I think that the central part of America is treated as kind of flyover country. People land their during the Iowa caucuses and may make a run through there on a bus with somebody else, but I don't think they go back independently and try to understand the DNA of that part of America as thoroughly as they need to.

Now, this is not condemnation. I find myself guilty of those same sins, although I have more I suppose personal reasons to spend time in that part of the world and I am still connected to it.

I have a friend, for example, in a small town in Iowa that I check in with from time to time. He works on Main Street, he has prospered over the years. He is a die-hard Republican and I kind of get from him, if you will, the wavelength of the Republican Party across rural Iowa when I check in with him.

KURTZ: And, of course, you grew up in South Dakota.

BROKAW: And I grew up -- but you know, I've been gone for a long, long time, but I am still -- I still have connective tissue to that state and all that it stands for.

KURTZ: Well, let me ask you this. Some say the news business itself seems to be splitting into red and blue media. For example, networks like yours on one side and maybe Fox News and talk radio on the other. Do you see any evidence of that?

BROKAW: Well, I think that there are more niches now than there used to be, but then there are more choices than there used to be, and so it's only natural that they would break down or be stratified along some lines. When I first got in the business, there were really only two networks. It was CBS and NBC. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley against Walter Cronkite. And when I worked in the South during the civil rights movement, we were seen as the great liberal pariahs from the north, those network news organizations.

Huntley and Brinkley, revered in most of the country, in the South in a lot of areas, people thought that they were nothing short of TASS, the Soviet news agency.

KURTZ: But now, of course, both people on the liberal side and people on the conservative side have lots of doubts about media coverage.

BROKAW: They do.

KURTZ: Is this a problem that we brought upon ourselves?

BROKAW: I think it is to some degree, but I also think that because this universe is so crowded now, that the more sensational parts of the universe tend to get most of the attention, and that's how we get measured. So I always believe that it's incumbent upon those of us in the mainstream electronic press or newspapers, to just do our job and not try to become defined by all those disparate parts that are out there on the edges of the spectrum.

KURTZ: Well, turning now to your job. You very famously said after the election night debacle in 2000 that we don't just have egg on our face, we have a whole omelet. Let's take a look at a key moment in the coverage of election night 2004.


BROKAW: This race is all but over. President Bush is our projected winner in the state of Ohio.


KURTZ: Did it make you nervous at all to make that call when only Fox News at that point had projected Ohio to Bush?

BROKAW: Yeah, and I did not know that, by the way, because I made a real effort this election night, as I had in the past, not to be moved in any way by what the others may be doing. I think somebody did tell me 10 minutes later -- you know, we're out there with just Fox at this point.

The man who made that call, Shelly Geweiser (ph), is somebody I have worked with for a long time. He is extraordinarily skilled as a statistical analyst. We talked a lot going into election night. I didn't even talk to him after he made that call that night. I think a few minutes later I said on the air, I guess somebody heard me say, "Are we nervous about this?" and the word came back and said, "No, he's not nervous, he is very confident about it, and..."

KURTZ: But that projection got President Bush to 269 electoral votes. One short of the magic number, and then for the rest of the night and the rest of the morning, NBC didn't make any more projections, even after other networks had called Nevada, for example, in Bush's column. Why the sudden caution?

BROKAW: In part because the Kerry campaign was contesting Ohio. They did not accept that projection. In fact, I just today was talking with a friend of mine in the White House. Now the friend is somebody that I have done a lot of business with over the years and he was -- It was not Karl Rove, by the way, it was somebody else in the White House hierarchy, who had sent him an e-mail that night saying, "Why don't you call Nevada and New Mexico, you know we've got this won." And I finally wrote back and said, "If you know that you have won the presidency, you don't need me to say it."

And we were laughing about it today, and he said we were both pretty exhausted at that point. And I said, "I felt very strongly that as long as the Kerry people were contesting Ohio, that that was in a kind of limbo, in their judgment, and anything that I said was not going to alter the outcome of what was going to happen by 10 o'clock in the morning," Howie. So what I was trying to do was preserve the integrity of the decisions that we had made and not to take it to the next step in a way that would make it look like I was determined to be the kingmaker here.

KURTZ: Well, I guess Tom Brokaw gets lobbied like everybody else, particularly on election night.

BROKAW: Yes. KURTZ: Now, shortly before the election, you interviewed both George Bush and John Kerry, and you pressed the president on why he says he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known at the time that Saddam didn't have any weapons of mass destruction. Let's take a brief look at that exchange that followed.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But it's easy to second-guess. I've never known you to be a Monday morning quarterback like this.

BROKAW: This is not Monday morning quarterbacking on a part of "The Economist."

BUSH: I don't want to -- sorry, I didn't mean to accuse you -- insult my...

BROKAW: That's OK. I'm a grown-up here.


BROKAW: But these are legitimate and important questions to the American people ...


KURTZ: Now, Bush pushed back on you a little bit. Is it hard to get a president or any candidate off the talking points on these subjects?

BROKAW: Yes, it is. And in both those interviews that I did, I did push hard on especially the issues surrounding Iraq. With Senator Kerry, I pushed hard. He was beating up the president pretty hard about the missing explosives, and I said at one point, that if you were the president you have said you would not be at war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein would still be in power and he'd have control of those explosives.

The senator said it's disgraceful and irresponsible for me to suggest that he wouldn't have gone to war against Iraq. The fact is that on Imus and on David Letterman, he had said flat out that if he were the president we wouldn't be in Iraq now. So I think that was part of the problem that John Kerry had.

By the way, Howie, in setting up both those interviews, I told both campaigns that I would promise them parity in tone, content, time and attitude and I think that -- I like to believe, at least, that I delivered on it and both campaigns came back and said, look, those were tough interviews, but at least they were equally distributed in terms of your aggression.

KURTZ: I'm sure they were monitoring your attitude closely. Now, I interviewed you during the Republican convention and you seemed pretty frustrated. Not only at the overly-scripted nature of modern conventions, but, after all, you do all this work and you are on NBC for three hours for the week, although you made other appearances on MSNBC. Aren't the broadcast networks now ceding more and more news coverage to cable and does that bother you at all?

BROKAW: No. I think it depends on the event. If you look at this morning, for example, we were up with at great length on the "Today Show" with the burial of Yasser Arafat. NBC News went up at 11:25 or whatever it was this morning for what I thought was an extremely important joint news conference on the part of the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When it was a big breaking story, the country still turns to these network news divisions. I think that we have to be selective.

The conventions, and as we talked about here in New York, they've become a whole different order of magnitude. They are not at all what they once were, and if you poke a little bit even within the two parties and the people that organize those conventions, they'll acknowledge that.

KURTZ: Another example of breaking news, Friday we had the guilty verdict in the Scott Peterson case. You haven't done much on that over the last two years on "NBC Nightly News," but the "Today Show" and "Good Morning America" and certainly cable, 24/7. Why do you think that some in the news business get so wrapped up in pumping out these kinds of dramas about previously unknown people?

BROKAW: You know what? It's always been the case. I don't -- Howie, you're a little bit younger than I am, but you may have a vague remembrance of this. Do you remember the Sam Shepard case out in Ohio?

KURTZ: Yes. Sure.

BROKAW: And you remember the frenzy that surrounded that? Those were the days of radio and the Hearst newspapers and tabloids and Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell, and they were all out there. It led to "The Fugitive." It was the same kind of murder story that was going on. Here you had an attractive guy, his wife had been murdered under mysterious circumstances. The same thing in the Scott Peterson case.

I guess the one that I was not happy about a couple of summers ago was the Gary Condit case -- look, that was a good story in Washington, D.C., a very attractive young intern disappears under mysterious circumstances, turns out she was having a relationship with a dashing California congressman. But night after night after night after night after night, when there were other things going on in the world, and among the other things going on in the world, it turns out, was the planning under way by Osama bin Laden to attack this country and the threat of terrorism.

KURTZ: Which of course we did not know at the time and which changed the nature of news coverage probably even until today.

You were asked recently, Tom Brokaw, about the CBS story on President Bush that relied on the apparently bogus National Guard documents and you said that some critics on the Internet were mounting a kind of political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS News that is quite outrageous. Some people thought you were kind of dissing the bloggers out there.

BROKAW: No. Not at all. I am a big student and admirer of this new universe and the choices that it provides us, but what I am troubled by is the double standard. I think that CBS made a very big mistake and in that appearance, before I got into the description of what I thought was a jihad, I said that CBS had made mistake and I said that to Dan.

But what too often happens now on the Internet is that someone gets accused of not checking their sources carefully enough or trying to impose on the country some kind of a political agenda, and as part of the critique of all of that, there is an equal carelessness with the facts or another kind of agenda that is being pushed. And that is what I was referring to, Howie, is that I think that there should be standards about veracity and about fact, and there should be transparency about motivation on the blogs as well as there is in the mainstream media.

KURTZ: All right. We have to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about why Tom Brokaw decided to abandon the anchor chair and what he plans to do next. Stay with us.


ANNOUNCER: This is "NBC Nightly News," reported by Tom Brokaw.

BROKAW: Good evening. President Reagan goes on national television tonight to share with the country insider information on the shooting down of that Korean Airlines jumbo jet.




BROKAW: Having done this for 42 years, I find it nothing less than awe-inspiring, to sit here and share that information with you, and I am so grateful to you for not just the opportunity, but the graciousness with which you have accepted me into your homes, into your lives.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Tom Brokaw, it has been two decades now you have been in this sort of race against Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. You're the first one to head off to the farm, so to speak. You've been asked this a thousand times, but you must feel some twinge of regret.

BROKAW: No, not regret. I feel I am very comfortable with this decision. It was my decision. I have said repeatedly I believe there is seasons in life, and I want to move on to a new season and I want to spend more time thinking about fewer things and I want more personal liberty to go places and not have a short wave radio or a cell phone to my ear or a satellite phone, worried about how I am going to get back if something breaks out.

I suppose the twinges that I will have is when a big story breaks and I am not in the middle of it. That's a conditioning that has been built up over many, many years.

On the other hand, it is hard for me to imagine how I can improve on, or exceed, the adrenaline rush I have already had over the years in the big stories that I have been able to cover. I've loved doing it every day of my life. I want to go off now, write some more books, Howie, and as I say, spend more time on documentary-form programming and thinking about things and having more time to pursue some of my interests.

KURTZ: At least we've got some breaking news. We got you to acknowledge at least a twinge of regret. When you sign off for the final time on December 1st, you will be handing that anchor baton to Brian Williams. What advice have you given him? It's an awfully hard situation to step into because you have been there for so long.

BROKAW: Well, you know, it was true for Dan and it was true for Peter and it was true for me. When we first began, we were deemed not worthy. We were too young or too inexperienced. We were not appropriate for those jobs.

So I have told Brian, and I hope you won't take this personally, to quit reading the media writers, and to listen to his own inner compass and trust his friends and his family. And to find, as I think I told you at one point, two or three areas of particular interest to him, and he does have a lot of them, and concentrate on those, and spend as much time getting your boots muddy as you do sitting here in the studio. I think people want to know that we are able to go out there and relate to what is going on in their lives, and that means you've got to get out of the studio and get out of New York.

Now, at the very beginning, he's going to have to sit here and remind people that he is on the air every night, but it reminds me kind of like the weekend before the Super Bowl. There is just so much speculation about what is going to happen. Everyone is an expert. Then the ball gets kicked off, the game plans get changed, and it's almost always a surprise to everyone.

KURTZ: Actually, most of the speculation now about who will succeed Rather and Jennings at those other networks.

BROKAW: Right.

KURTZ: Anchors these days in the modern television era make millions of dollars a year. Does that inherently at least raise the danger of putting you out of touch with ordinary people? I am sure you've thought about this.

BROKAW: I have thought about it, but it certainly has given me more personal freedom and a greater financial comfort than I ever anticipated that I would have. But as my friends will tell you, I still look at the price tag on everything. It's given me an opportunity, Meredith and me, to do things in our community back in South Dakota that we never thought would be possible. We have been able to finance scholarships at our alma mater and other schools that we like a lot, and I try to stay grounded in terms of the real values that I have always had, and I have friends who have helped me do that. I don't think you buy a new set of values just because you got more money. Or at least I don't in my case.

I am very conscious of people who just spread it around for the sake of spreading it around. And I really am very much aware of that. What I like most of all is that it does give me a chance to help some people in ways that I couldn't have before.

KURTZ: The other day on "Nightly News" you seemed to choke up for a moment after a story about two friends who died after joining the Marines. Did writing those "Greatest Generation" books change the way you look at soldiers and war?

BROKAW: I supposed it did. I think it took me closer to who they are and what they mean to each other, and that story about those two men who were all but brothers is so emblematic of how people are joined together in combat. Everybody that I have talked to from the World War II generation forward would talk about that bonding experience. One of them said to me, "I didn't fight for the flag, I fought to save my friend, I fought to keep everybody else around me alive." And that's something that no one who has not gone through the knothole of combat, as the great writer Paul Fussell has described it, cannot relate to it.

I was not in combat so I don't know that feeling, but I think I have a vicarious understanding of it now, spending so much time with these people.

KURTZ: We've got about 30 seconds. Do you want to respond to the critics who say that the nightly newscasts on the broadcasts networks, with their aging audiences, are an anachronism in this age of 24/7 cable and Internet and so forth, and that eventually they are going to fade away?

BROKAW: You know, there has been a diminution in audience, but as it's been diffused across the spectrum, and it's been a concern at your newspaper, it's been a concern at CNN, it's a concern for us. But we still deliver the big numbers. I mean, there was a night last week, one night, and I think we've got this right, that we had almost 12 million viewers one night. That's a lot of circulation one night, Howie, that people were coming to us to find out what was going on in the election.

And as people grow older, we find that they come back to the "NBC Nightly News." They want the information gathered and put in coronary form them at the end of the day so that they can make decisions about their life the next day.

Let's not put RIP on these evening network newscasts quite yet, because I think that they have many years ahead of them.

KURTZ: All right. Tom Brokaw, after 22 years as the NBC anchor. Thanks very much for joining us.

BROKAW: All right, Howie. Thank you very much.

KURTZ: When we come back, some ABC stations say, "No thanks" to "Private Ryan" and CBS regrets breaking the news?


KURTZ: "Saving Private Ryan" may have won the Oscar as one of the best war movies ever, and ABC may have aired it on past Veterans Day evenings. But on Thursday, at least 20 affiliate stations refused to carry the Steve Spielberg film. Why? It's got profanity and plenty of violence. It's a World War II movie, folks. And the stations were worried that the newly aggressive FCC might hit them with a big, fat fine, even after ABC offered to pay any government fines. Not exactly a profile in courage.

In other media news, CBS is really, really sorry for preempting the last few minutes of the drama "CSI New York" on Thursday night to bring us breaking news. But there was no embarrassing media mistake. No one jumped the gun on a story that turned out to be false. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was dead. The crime according to CBS? "An overly aggressive CBS News producer jumped the gun with a report that should have been offered to local stations for their late news. We sincerely regret the error."

Incredibly, CBS has now fired the producer who thought breaking news was more important.

Well, checking our viewer e-mail about last week's show, Dan in Santa Barbara writes: "You asked your panel, will the press corps become a little less hostile to the president in a second term? Surely you must have been joking. For five years, the national media have let Bush, Cheney and all their surrogates lie and distort on a daily basis. If reporters get any less hostile, they will be letting Karl Rove write their stories."

Maxine had a different view. "I can't believe you're wondering if the press should go after Bush more strongly than before. Don't you know the media's mean spiritedness and downright arrogance toward the president got him enough votes so that he won reelection?"

Great, both sides hate us.

When we come back, the Peterson verdict on cable.


KURTZ: There was big breaking news on Friday afternoon. Not quite as big as the election or Iraq, but for cable, pretty darn close.


DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC: A stunning first degree murder conviction of Scott Peterson. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then boom, there's a verdict.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Scott Peterson showed absolutely no emotion as the verdict was read.


KURTZ: It's been nearly two years since the media turned Laci Peterson's murder into a never-ending national soap opera. Just think, Bush is reelected, Arafat is dead, the Red Sox have won the World Series, and now the Peterson case is finally over.

What on Earth will we find to talk about next week?

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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