Tom Brokaw in 1960 at KTIV-TV in Sioux City, Iowa.
Tom Brokaw with Tim Russert (center) during his interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Tom Brokaw reflects on the anniversary of the Saturday Night Massacre.
Tom Brokaw sits down with John McCain.
South Dakota native Tom Brokaw served as the voice of the news for many Americans throughout decades of historic events. When he retired in 2021, he was the only anchor to have led all three of NBC's primary news shows: Nightly News, Today and Meet The Press.
After years of experience, Brokaw became the sole anchor of NBC Nightly News in 1983. During his tenure there as anchor and managing editor, his voice of authority made the program one of the top-rated news broadcasts. He helped shape how the evening news was disseminated and demonstrated a natural ability to gain viewers' confidence. He worked to keep his radar out for information that was useful to all his viewers. "It's not about you," he explained. "It's about what you're able to find out and share with your audience [so they can] make a wise decision about being a citizen."
Over the course of his career, Brokaw has received numerous news and documentary Emmys, the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2014. He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2006.
After covering the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, Brokaw felt so moved by the veterans' stories that he compiled them into the book The Greatest Generation. The 1998 bestseller started Brokaw's successful writing career; his latest work is Never Give Up: A Prairie Family's Story.
He was interviewed in November 2018 by Tom Herman for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Your first broadcasting job was at KYNT Radio in Yankton, South Dakota. How did you get that?
A: I arrived in Yankton late summer of 1955. I had a certain facility for talking, and the radio station hired me.
That fall Eisenhower was running for reelection, and I was out chasing down the returns in the local precincts and going on the air with them. That was the beginning of my passion. I was a political junkie.
The defining moment for me was Election Night 1960. Seeing all these very impressive guys — John Chancellor, Sander Vanocur, Frank McGee — on the air and the camaraderie that existed in the studio, talking about where the country was going, and I thought, "What more could you ask than to be a part of that?"
Q: You went to KMTV in Omaha, and in the early '60s there were a couple of watershed moments in young television journalism, including the assassination of President Kennedy.
A: I was working in the newsroom one day, and a story was going off on the UPI machine. I went over, casually — "Shots have been fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas."
In those days, NBC network went dark and gave local programming airtime ... I ran down and said, "I need to go on the air right now."
I said, "Shots were fired at the president today in a motorcade in Dallas. He was hit. He may have been killed." As soon as we got confirmation, I went back down and did that again. When the hour ended, the network took over.
They shot the president. I thought, "My God, that doesn't happen in America." I remember it vividly. It was an introduction to the life that I'd subsequently have.
Q: In 1965, you began working for WSB- TV in Atlanta. Talk about the state of the Civil Rights Movement in the South at that time.
A: All hell was breaking loose in the South. We'd heard that Taliaferro County [in Georgia] had integrated its school system under court order. I took a cameraman, went by myself, with an AP photographer.
A school bus shows up, filled with white kids. And in the Black neighborhoods, parents sent their children to get on the bus. Out of the woods came rednecks throwing Black kids off the bus, beating on them, and then they realized I was there with my camera crew. They grabbed the camera from my cameraman.
A highway patrol captain showed up, and he had seen me on the air. He looked at me and said, "Boys, I don't blame you. I know what you want to do. You do that, we're going to have a hell of a lot of trouble here. We're going to let Mr. Brokaw leave, right now. Right, Mr. Brokaw?"
I said, "Yes, sir."
The sheriff had a 12-gauge [shotgun] pointed at me and said, "You got about two minutes, young man, to get the hell out of this town."
I went back, did a radio report, and put the film on the air. The next day, correspondents from all over the country were in Taliaferro County.
I remember the bare bones of what I said, which was, "If, in Atlanta, we think this doesn't affect us, or that you can feel secure in your homes because you're not a part of that ... the rest of the country is seeing this, making everybody in the South guilty, because they are. They're not speaking out." I was a white kid from the North saying this. It was a defining moment for me.
Q: In 1973 you became NBC's White House correspondent, and in 1976, you moved to Today. How did that come to pass?
A: Part of the deal with me accepting the Today show was that I didn't have to give up my political reporting. They said, "You've got to do the Today show and we want you to get in line to do Nightly News." I said, "Okay." I was intrigued by living in New York, and the Today show had cultural range that I was interested in — books, the theater, that kind of stuff.
Q: By 1982, you were appointed co-anchor of Nightly News with Roger Mudd.
A: Bill Small had come over to NBC — he was a CBS guy and brought a bunch of CBS people with him, including Roger. I had been promised by NBC that I would be the anchor of the NBC Nightly News. Turns out that Bill had offered the job to Roger and not told anybody.
Roger called me into his office and said, "I don't want to live in New York. I'd be willing to share this with you. I'll stay in Washington; you be in New York."
I was going to go to ABC. And then CBS made me a great offer. But I was a lifer at NBC, and I had all these colleagues who were looking at me with long expressions, because if I left, they were in the hands of the new CBS crowd.
I decided to stay. I was always grateful to Roger for giving me that opportunity. But as a team, we didn't work particularly well. It was then decided that I should be the correspondent. I felt badly because I'm a big admirer of Roger's skill set.
Q: You were in Berlin when the Wall came down in 1989. What was that experience like?
A: The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the defining moments of my career. I wish I could say I knew it was going to happen, but it did not happen that way. Jerry Lamprecht was our director of news, and he came to me and said, "A lot of turmoil in Berlin — why don't you go over there and do a couple of days and then come back?" I flew that night.
It was slow the next day, but I was able to go back and forth at Checkpoint Charlie in a way that we'd never been able to before. But there was still no anticipation. The second day we asked for an interview with Günter Schabowski, propaganda chief of the East German Politburo. He was going to have a news conference in the afternoon, Berlin time. What I remember vividly is that in the room, the East German journalists were suddenly emboldened.
They were asking him questions that they never would have before, and he was deflecting and saying, "We're going to work this all out." About halfway through the news conference, somebody hands him a piece of paper and he reads it and says something like, "The East German Politburo has decided that members of the GDR can exit and return to the same gates without visas."
It was like lightning struck the room. The AP guy who had been dozing off said, "My God, I think the Wall's going to come down." Schabowski said, "That's the ruling of the Politburo," and got up and left the stage.
I went upstairs, where I had the interview with him. I said, "Take out that piece of paper again, Mr. Schabowski, and read it to me."
He did and I said, "Does that mean that members of the GDR can come and go through the Wall at will?"
He said, "Ja, that's what it means."
We went out to Brandenburg Gate. The Wall was covered with students from the West who had gone up on top and were saying to the students on the other side, "Come on, come on!" The students on the other side were afraid they'd be shot if they did that, because the police were all over the place.
That night I said to [executive producer] Cheryl Gould in the control room, "There's no way I can do a script. I'm going to ad lib my way for the next half an hour. Just stay with me." And they did.
It was one of those cases where I have never looked at my entire performance, but my friends have said, "Maybe your best night ever." I did an essay at the end, saying that never had anything like this happened in our lifetime. This is effectively the unwinding of the Soviet Union. The Wall is down. Change has come to our world in ways we could not have anticipated. The East Germans who have been living over there are now free to come and go, and it's going to have a profound effect. We stayed on the air a long time.
Q: Let's go to what you called "the most challenging story of your career": 9/11.
A: I was at my apartment, and the phone rang. It was the desk, and they said, "An airplane has flown into the World Trade Center. Maybe you ought to come in."
Got in a cab. I listened to a very good radio reporter say, "I was just in Washington Square, a plane flew over at high speed and flew into the second tower." I instantly knew we were under attack.
I got to the office. Ran down to Today, where Matt Lauer and Katie [Couric] were on the air and Tim [Russert] was in Washington. There were no big instructions. I sat down, and because I'd been a senior guy on most stuff, it kind of gravitated to me, but it was seamless teamwork.
We hear, "Jim Miklaszewski wants to come on the air." He was at the Pentagon. He said, "I don't want to panic anybody, but we just heard a loud explosion on the other side of the Pentagon. I don't know what's going on."
When the towers began to go down it was truly a heart-stopping moment. I don't mean that as a metaphor. It stopped all of us as we watched. After, I don't have the exact language in my mind because I've never gone back and looked at it, but I said something like, "This will change us. We're at war. And from this moment on, we're going to be a different country. We've been attacked on our soil."
I remember that running through my mind — has there ever been anything remotely like this? Pearl Harbor — Hawaii was not a state at that point, it was a territory. But I remember I said it's going to change us; we're going to have to adapt, that we're now in a war.
It went on for the rest of the day, and I was worried about breaking down at some point, because the pathos of it all was so overwhelming. We put a guy on the air who was describing what happened to him. He said he'd gotten to the bank of elevators and knew that he probably couldn't get down, so he started down the stairs. He had three colleagues in wheelchairs waiting for the elevators to arrive. And of course, they never did. That was the most difficult moment for me. I then passed it off to another correspondent and had to collect myself.
Q: What are some of the key changes you have seen in television news coverage?
A: There have been profound changes. People always say to me, "I remember when you were on the air, it was a lot better ..."
And I say, "Wait a minute. When there were three white guys delivering the news on three networks at night?" We were doing the best that we could. We began to reflect more about what was happening culturally and politically and otherwise. But it was still constricted.
The technological changes had a lot of impact. We could get portable satellites up quickly and get on the air. And from a democratic point of view, a greater variety of reporters and producers was coming into the field. There were few women when I was coming along. Cassie Mackin was one; Lesley [Stahl] was there early. But by and large, it was a white male operation. The face of television news has changed — with more representation of our population.
And there are two other big changes. Ted Turner was a genius and changed communication forever — 24/7 news, all around the world, with CNN. The next big change was the digital age. The marriage of the digital age with television came hand in hand. The downside of that is that you don't know who to trust in the digital age. There is so much false material that goes out there. It's malevolent, and it's across the spectrum.
[As a journalist,] your job is to be a truth teller for the American public. It's not about you. It's about what you're able to find out and share with your audience [so they can] make a wise decision about being a citizen.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.
Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, long-form interviews with industry pioneers and changemakers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at email@example.com or (818) 754-2829.
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2023.