Signing Off

Respected by his peers, popular with viewers, Tom Brokaw leaves the anchor desk of 'NBC Nightly News' after 22 years.

December 01, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Tom Brokaw's mother once told him a story that helped shape how he approached his work as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

His grandfather, she told him long ago, was a South Dakota farmer in the 1920s. One Christmas, he received enough money to buy a crystal radio set. From then on, Brokaw's grandfather listened to news reports on the two-tube contraption "sitting up half the night, headsets on, forgoing sleep, listening through the static." The image of his grandfather listening, fascinated, never faded.

"If I am in Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the Far East, or South America, I still think, `Am I reporting this important story in a way that the people in the Great Plains will not only get it, but find some application to their own lives?'" Brokaw said last week, nearing his retirement as news anchor. "`Is this the information that they're looking for, so that they can enrich their own lives?' Because that is the bottom line of what journalism is all about."

When he signs off tonight as anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brokaw will end a 22-year reign as the public face of what is now the highest-rated newscast on television.

Much of that success as anchorman and managing editor, his colleagues and competitors say, is the result of sound journalistic instincts and a sense of self grounded in the mainstream, heartland values of his South Dakota childhood and adolescence.

"With hard work, integrity and talent, he has earned the great respect and admiration of the audience and his peers," said CBS anchorman and managing editor Dan Rather, who announced last week that he will leave that post in March. "What makes Tom so special as a broadcaster and more importantly as a person is that, in his case, what you see is what you get: This son of the South Dakota plains, this product of America's public schools and churches, still holds where he came from inside of him - and it comes across on camera and in person."

Over the years, Brokaw's career has been a study in steady growth and maturity. From a reporter in Omaha, Neb., reading wire service stories on air during the early 1960s to a global correspondent recounting world-shaping events, he came of age virtually before his viewers' eyes.

His tenure spanned three wars and 11 presidential elections. He covered civil rights as an editor for Atlanta's WSB-TV, the Watergate scandal as a White House correspondent for NBC News, and such world-shaping events as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the only network anchorman on the scene. He was one of the three network anchors whose calming presence helped guide the nation through those first awful hours in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And in recent years, he's written four best-selling books, including The Greatest Generation, which chronicles the generation defined by the Great Depression and World War II, and sold 3.5 million copies.

"Tom Brokaw is a guy who has a serious bent beyond the anchor desk," said Ken Bode, a former NBC correspondent who now teaches at DePauw University. "He goes to the 40th anniversary of D-Day and is stunned by what he sees. ... And then, he turns it into a great book, which really shows growth."

Unlike CBS' Rather, who became the symbol of a confrontational press corps, or ABC's Peter Jennings, who embodied the dapper image of a foreign correspondent in residence at the anchor desk, Brokaw projected a lower-key, more unassuming presence. Lawrence K. Grossman, who was president of NBC News in the 1980s, says that in Brokaw's case, reality became image - and it's one of the reasons he's the most popular anchor on TV. "I think viewers feel he is who he is, and they like it," he said.

Lee Thornton, a former CBS White House correspondent, confirms that view. "I first met Tom Brokaw in 1974, and it was one of my first days as a general assignment reporter for CBS News at the White House before they put me there on the beat," said Thornton, who now runs the broadcast news program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I was so green it must have been all over me, but when I introduced myself to Brokaw, this wonderful journalist and gentleman extended his hand to me and said, `You work for CBS, I'm impressed.' And he meant it, you could see he was sincere. And it meant so much to me that I will never forget the moment. That's the sort of generous and decent man he is."

But, even according to Brokaw, the anchorman's career began in an unlikely fashion. "I came out of high school a whiz kid, and everybody had very high expectations," he said. "Then I kind of drove myself off the cliff: I majored in beer and co-eds my first couple of years of college and dropped out for a time. I didn't lose my passion for the public arena and journalism, but I was seriously adrift."

Finding purpose

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