The Middlebrow

Tom Brokaw

It’s not his journalism you love.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

What makes a great network anchorman? That he’s covered every presidential election since [fill in the blank]? That he’s seen history with his own eyes, kibitzed with world leaders, and comforted the nation in times of mourning? Such are the cosmic tributes being heaped upon Tom Brokaw, who exits NBC Nightly News Wednesday night after 22 years. Why do they feel so inappropriate to explain Brokaw’s strange appeal?

Brokaw’s official NBC biography credits him with dozens of network “firsts”: “In 1995, Brokaw was the first network evening news anchor to report from the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, and in 1996, from the scene of the TWA Flight 800 tragedy.” It’s a curious honor, being the first to stand in front of the smoking ruins of the Murrah Federal Building or along the New York seashore after a plane crash—and it’s an accolade more properly awarded to Brokaw’s NBC travel agent. The network goes on to praise Brokaw for many more “firsts”: everything from the “first exclusive U.S. one-on-one” interview with Mikhail Gorbachev to the first interviews with Charlie Trie and Johnny Chung, the campaign-finance scamps. 

It’s telling that the network that has employed Brokaw for three decades should grope so awkwardly to explain his legacy and that it would fail to mention a single word Brokaw uttered during these many “firsts.” It points out a problem in eulogizing departing anchormen, a process we must get used to as Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings shuffle off to their prime-time specials. The problem is, no one has any idea of what makes an anchorman great, journalistically speaking, outside of whether they find him personally appealing.

I prefer Brokaw to Rather and Jennings, but if you asked me who had been a sharper journalist since assuming the evening-news throne, I wouldn’t have a clue. The only honest case I can make for Brokaw is based on style. Brokaw’s on-air manner is something you might call elegant roboticism. He’s like a mechanical man come to deliver the news. The Nightly News begins with a Brokaw voice-over that billboards the coming stories with pithy headlines; on Monday, the headlines were “Terror Tape,” “Deadly Crash,” and “Condition Critical.” Then Brokaw appears, his sunken eyes swiveling dramatically up from the floor like the Terminator’s. He never sits behind a desk and rarely moves. Most news anchors practice the shopworn technique of hammering certain words to add fortissimo to their copy, but Brokaw has made this a science, pounding every third or fourth word with uncanny precision. Moreover, Brokaw performs each night without seeming too eager or intense; his composure is such that when he surged past Dan Rather in the ratings in 1987, Rather’s producers forced their anchor to dial down his intensity to emulate Brokaw’s cool.

Brokaw says he draws his directness from his red-blooded American childhood. (Between him and Little Russ, NBC must pass red-blooded childhoods out at the door.) A native South Dakotan, Brokaw had a father named “Red” who built dams. The defining event in young Brokaw’s life was a kiss-off letter he received from Meredith Auld, his future wife, after he had spent a few high-flying years in college. Auld made up with Brokaw and later became Miss South Dakota. After awaking from his collegiate slumber, Brokaw’s path to network glory was swift and relentless: local anchor, White House correspondent, Today co-host(with Jane Pauley),evening news anchor.

Part of Brokaw’s genius is that he has never pandered to his base. His competitors have done just the opposite: Rather became too corn-pone, too Texan; Peter Jennings too intellectualized. When Brokaw delivered a prime-time special, it was about a mildly engaging topic like cocaine or bored grade-school students; while you could never quite imagine him breaking major news, you could never imagine him waving phony National Guard documents, either. His best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, took a great baby boomer plaint—our parents are better than we are—and stretched it to 400 pages.(And with impeccable timing: He delivered it almost simultaneously with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, another gilded tribute to geezer greatness.) It’s no wonder that Karl Rove, according to the New York Times, was pestering Brokaw to call the race for George W. Bush on Election Night, figuring that Brokaw’s imprimatur would carry more weight than anyone else’s.

That’s Brokaw’s style. As for the quality of his journalism, it’s anyone’s guess. Take his most sensational “first,” the 1987 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. Brokaw deserves few points for corralling Gorbachev. According to press reports, NBC landed the interview because CBS News had been too harsh on the Soviet behavior in Afghanistan and because of the heroic efforts of NBC “fixer” Gordon Manning, whom Mark Singer celebrated in the pages of TheNew Yorker. Nor did Brokaw squeeze much from the Soviet: just Gorbachev’s comment, in passing, that the Soviets were pursuing their own version of the “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative. The transcript records few rhetorical flourishes from the anchor, though he did prod Gorbachev about Jewish émigrés and human rights. It was, in sum, a chance for Brokaw—and not Mike Wallace or Peter Jennings—to be sitting across the table when the Soviet general secretary said, “We have built up a new atmosphere in the country, an atmosphere of glasnost, openness, and we have plans to go on moving forward.” That’s something, I suppose.

Or take a less momentous occasion, Brokaw’s “A Day in the Life of the White House,” a special produced in 1990 that had NBC cameras shadowing George H.W. Bush’s minions for a day. The cameras went to staff meetings and ceremonies with astronauts. As with much TV news, NBC confused access with journalism, with Brokaw insisting, ludicrously, that he had pushed viewers “beyond the carefully managed images” of the Bush administration. (Maybe John Sununu didn’t borrow the chopper that day.) At the end of the special, the Washington Post’s Tom Shales recorded Brokaw gushing, “The nation is in love with Barbara Bush,” and “Barbara Bush makes everyone feel comfortable”—a carefully manufactured image the White House would have paid for.

One might argue (with apologies to Susan Sontag) that for news anchors, it’s futile to try to separate style (i.e., delivery) and content (i.e., journalism). If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we admit that our collective Brokaw love stems from something a bit less exalted (and a bit more complicated) than his “journalism”? Before Brokaw had even left, his heir, Brian Williams, was already being pelted in the press. An NBC executive moaned to the Times that while Williams looked great and talks well, he won’t have Brokaw’s reporting experience when he assumes the desk. To which some of us would respond, “How would anyone be able to tell?”