Friday, May 31, 2013

5Qs on Friday: Tom Brokaw

Legendary Newsman Tom Brokaw Revisits History's Biggest Moments

There are news reporters who have lived through some of the most memorable moments in world history. And then there's a handful of people who become the face of those moments. Tom Brokaw is one of them.

Tom Brokaw has been reporting the news for 51 years. His first gig in 1962 was on the radio in Nebraska. He went on to rack up awards, accolades and a place in our collective consciousness with long-running stints on KNBC Los Angeles, NBC's Today Show and, from 1982 until 2004, NBC Nightly News.

In 2001, he produced the documentary the Greatest Generation Speaks, based on his book "The Greatest Generation." Since then, he has moderated a presidential debate, produced documentaries and, these days, he's hosting the original series The Brokaw Files (Military Channel - Thursday, 10pm) from NBC News' Peacock Productions.

Tom spoke with TVFirstLook about that documentary TV series, the most significant moments in world history and, oh yeah, Twitter.

TVFirstLook: The Brokaw Files is an incredible program. Why is this the right time to revisit some of your news reports?

Tom Brokaw: We had done some cooperative programs with Discovery in the past. They came to me and asked if there was something we could do with what we had done. Here at NBC, we were very pleased to go into our archival material to give it another look. The broadcasts that we selected all have a timeless appeal.

TVFirstLook: So, much of the show is original footage of broadcasts like the report you did on the USS Stennis aircraft about 10 years ago. But you provide fresh insight, too, right?

Tom: I have added updates and new introductions about what we are showing. But part of the material is what originally aired.

Take the first episode (Thursday, May 30), the USS Stennis. We did 48 hours on the nuclear aircraft carrier during a time of war steaming through the Arabian Sea. I went off the deck for a six-hour flight over Afghanistan.

It didn't get the audience we thought it deserved. So, this is a chance for us to come back and say, "This is worth looking at." It's timeless. You see people - 5,200 people working together on that huge aircraft carrier. There are so many decisions that have to be made and the cooperation you see is inspiring.

TVFirstLook: You are very closely associated with World War II. Why does that war still resonate with so many people 70 years later?

Tom: It has taken us a lot of years to appreciate the magnitude of the event. The world was at stake. 50 million people died in World War II. It was fought on six of the seven continents.

By the time we got involved, Hitler owned France and most of Europe. He was doing everything he could to bring down the United Kingdom. He had his sights set on the United States.

The Japanese were in China and had picked off most of the strategic places in the South Pacific.

The world was in play. And people fought all over the world. They were inventing new war machinery on the run. They were inventing new tactics and strategies.

Hitler made a strategical blunder taking on the Russians much too early.

Then, the Baby Boomers who came after that had no idea what their parents had endured. That is until they read my book. Then they came to me with tears in their eyes saying, "I had no idea."

I did not expect the book to become what it became, one of the biggest bestsellers of the 20th century. Of all the journalistic things I have accomplished, that may be the one I am most proud of.

TVFirstLook: You were also reporting during the Cold War when Ronald Reagan was president. Why do you think he has become one of the most beloved presidents in history?

Tom: I think historians will be thinking about this question for a long time. The episode we are doing about him goes back to the beginning, how he became Ronald Reagan.

He had an All-American look about him. He was an eternal American optimist. He started out as a radio broadcaster, so we he was at ease with himself. He went out to Hollywood. He became a staple in America. I grew up in South Dakota. We used to see Ronald Reagan every Saturday afternoon on the big screen.

When he got into politics he brought his everyman qualities to office. He had a strong set of core beliefs. But, somehow, he didn't seem mean or vindictive toward people who disagreed with him.

People also forget that he was governor of California for two terms. He had eight very successful years in  a very complicated state. That was partly because he knew when to bend, when to make the deal and when to hold firm to his principles.

For me, watching him was a wonderful journalistic experience.

TVFirstLook: OK, last thing. By comparison to today, news coverage in past decades seemed to be investigated and reported at a leisurely pace. What do you think of today's Twitter-fueled instant news?

Tom: I love the idea that I can get up in the morning and with a keystroke access any newspaper in America. Or I can go to Council of Foreign Relations for overnight foreign policy developments. Or I can go to any number of financial sites.

It used to be that people could be couch potatoes and watch one or two evening newscasts, and get the paper in the morning. Now, the burden is much more on the news consumer to decide what is in their best interest. To me it's better to have more choices.

But I know news consumers sometimes feel overwhelmed by it all. What people need to do is find a website they know they can rely on; a site they know worries about integrity and reporting the facts.

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