10 Questions For Tom Brokaw

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AP PHOTO

Tom Brokaw is shown on his first day as host of the NBC "Today" show in New York City, August 30, 1970

After 21 years as anchor of NBC nightly news, Tom Brokaw, 64, steps down this week. He may have started a trend: his CBS rival Dan Rather announced last week that he will give up the anchor chair in March, leaving ABC's Peter Jennings as the last of the three old lions who have personified network news for two decades. TIME's Richard Zoglin got in some last questions.

Why retire now?

I wanted to change seasons while I still had my physical and, to some degree, my intellectual health and pursue some interests that I've always had, without worrying about racing back to New York to get on the air. I wanted to have more time to think about fewer things.

What's the best piece of advice you've given your successor, Brian Williams?

Put your head down and do the work, and don't read the many media critics who will be out there with commentary and criticism in the beginning. Your compact is not with them but with the audience.

Did Dan Rather steal your thunder?

No, not at all. I sent him a little note the other day. I have felt strongly that I didn't want that much of a fuss being made of my departure. Now, I'm realistic enough to understand that I've been there a long time, that the audience and I have a very strong relationship, so there is going to be a certain ceremonial aspect to it. But I'm trying to keep it to a minimum. And the Dan announcement really didn't trouble me at all.

What was your reaction to his story about Bush's National Guard service, which CBS had to apologize for?

Well, it appeared to me that they made a very big mistake. But I'm willing to wait for the results of the investigation. No reporter of his generation has covered as many big stories as Dan Rather has, from the Kennedy assassination forward. He had a long and distinguished reporting career. No one knows better than Dan that he has also been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism. But I think he deserves to be judged on his whole career and not just on this final episode.

Is Peter Jennings now going to clean up in the ratings?

No. I think Peter is a formidable player in all this. People know who he is. Does that mean that they are going to automatically switch over from NBC or CBS to ABC? Whenever Brian has substituted for me for a week at a time or longer, he's held his own. And it's not just about these personalities who are out in front. It's also about the strength of the organization and the kind of broadcast that you put on at the end of the day.

Jennings criticized you for covering the political conventions as if they were a social occasion. Your reaction?

Well, he called and apologized for that. He claims it was all out of context. When people were asking about the convention, I said that part of the problem now is that not much business is done there, that it's all prepackaged.

Nonetheless, we all go, in case something happens, and besides, everyone shows up, and it's always great to kind of catch up with everyone about what's going on. I think that my reputation for a passion about politics and covering the political scene over the years is pretty self-evident.

Was election night four years ago, when you mistakenly called the race for Al Gore, your worst moment as an anchor?

It's not the worst. I guess what I feel about it is it was certainly the one that I would like to go back and straighten out.

Is there a story you regret not covering?

I regret that we didn't connect the dots on terrorism. We covered the story episodically—an attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the embassies, the Khobar Towers. The people in Washington say the terror is real, and we say yeah and go on to other things.

So you place some of the blame on journalists for that?

I do. I don't know whether we would have made the airline security better. But I do think that we should have, all of us, raised the issue in a more complete form earlier.

You have one of the most famous guttural L's in broadcasting. did you ever try to get rid of that?

Yeah, I did. It mostly comes when I get tired or lazy with it. But, yes, I had a very good speech therapist in Omaha.