Media Circus: brokaw shucks

The preternaturally cheerful NBC anchor smiles and jives his way through a feel-good session at Berkeley.

Published October 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Tom Brokaw is a happy man. In fact, he is positively giddy with good vibrations. So far as the self-described "boy-wonder poster child" of NBC is concerned, these are the best days "in the history of civilization." He is living proof, as UC-Berkeley Dean of Journalism Orville Schell told an audience that had come to hear him speak on Monday night, that "optimism is in."

Brokaw has plenty to be happy about. Not only does he sit atop the network news ratings (never mind that overall viewership of network television is spiraling into the toilet), but at 57 he's still married to his high school sweetheart from South Dakota, his cheekbones remain high, his teeth are in great shape and he still has a single chin. He's so wholesome he belongs on a cereal box. In fact, listening to him was rather like eating a bowl of Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes: After 90 minutes you weren't quite sure what you had consumed.

Flashing his easy smile, Brokaw displayed a natural ability to play the good-natured media star -- worrying about celebrity journalism even though he was a prime example of it, disparaging the log-rolling practice of journalists interviewing other journalists even though with Schell, author and magazine writer, that was exactly what was occurring right in front of us during the question-and-answer period. He lamented that broadcast journalism was once a game for "middle-aged white men," unfazed by the fact that the big three anchors are all ... oh, never mind.

The bromides went down beautifully. "When you're a public figure like that, you can't really say anything controversial," a fresh-faced female journalism grad student remarked at a reception for Brokaw. Why, then, did we all show up to listen to him? Because Brokaw is a member of what Schell called that "curious class that Marx never quite defined -- the class of well-known people who feel like they know each other because they've seen each other so often."

OK, that's not entirely fair. After all Brokaw has been in the thick of the news since the mid-'60s, tramping through various battlefields, conducting interviews with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. Curiously, however, he seemed more animated when talking about the corporate jungles he's waded through than when recalling feats of journalistic derring-do.

Brokaw related how he stopped worrying and learned to love General Electric, NBC's owner and the butt of numerous David Letterman jokes. He touched on the miserable years -- a time when he almost quit -- when NBC producers blew up GM pickup trucks that didn't cooperate with exposis about unsafe pickup trucks, and the once-mighty home of Huntley and Brinkley and John Chancellor sank from first place to third in viewer affections. He cited Peter Jennings, who once said he felt that ABC's owners, Capital Cities, were the "Nazis" and ABC was "occupied France." But in time Brokaw learned to appreciate his occupier's "deep pockets," and he assured the audience that NBC, like the Resistance facing Vichy, France, is extra tough on GE and has never been warned off a story by the corporate honchos.

Schell tried not to let Brokaw off that easily, but as Brokaw himself said, his years of interviewing have taught him "to pick the part of the question he wants to answer." Mostly, he aw-shucked his way through the proceedings, mixing stories about his hearty Midwestern parents with banalities about Princess Diana ("She lived her life in a super-heated electronic fishbowl"), the information age ("cyberspace is the equivalent of teenage joyrides") and California ("It's the land where your lives are changed, usually for the better"). Defending NBC's reduced foreign coverage, Brokaw opined that there's just not as much going on in the rest of the world as there was in 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square and the Czechs' Velvet Revolution. So much for Rwanda, the Middle East and the globalizing economy. The historic expansion of NATO, he admitted, "isn't something that grabs my heart."

Such honesty, said Brokaw, comes with age. "I feel more freedom to say what I think." As an example, he recounted his commentary about Chelsea Clinton going to Stanford: "Any parent who sends a kid to college knows there will be broken hearts that you never hear about, missed classes, failed grades and 36-hour road trips to nowhere. She's entitled to her secrets, whether she has Secret Service agents with her or not." His little speech, Brokaw told us with a touch of pride, resulted in a thankful phone call from the president. Fair enough, but not exactly Edward R. Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy on "See It Now."

Still, the audience was in the palm of his hand, laughing and applauding at his gently self-deprecating anecdotes. He told of the time he was strolling around a New York City department store when he saw a guard staring at him. Realizing he'd been recognized, he nodded, at which point the guard shouted, "You're Tom Brokaw!" "Yes," Brokaw solemnly acknowledged, "I am." Then the guard said, "I remember you from Omaha! What ever happened to you, anyway?" The future would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins ate it up. No wonder. Brokaw has the role of a man who plays a serious reporter on TV down pat.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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