by D. Lyn Hunter
Touching on subjects as diverse as Watergate, the death of Princess Diana and his family life on the South Dakota plains, Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, shared the ups and downs of his career in network news to a capacity crowd at Zellerbach Hall Monday, Oct. 6.
In a conversation with Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, on a stage adorned with a vase of blue irises, Brokaw revealed he twice considered quitting NBC, the network he has been with since 1966.
"After leaving the Today Show in 1981, I was wooed by ABC with the promise of a big salary, and I guess my ego was getting the better of me," said Brokaw.
The second time was after NBC Dateline, the network's news magazine, was exposed for rigging a pick-up truck with explosives to dramatize the danger of GM vehicles on a segment that aired in the early 1990s.
Despite accusations that his broadcasts increasingly feature "soft" news, Brokaw has chosen to stay loyal to NBC.
"Network news must now compete with 24-hour talk radio, the Internet and local news broadcasts. By the time viewers get to us, they have a pretty good idea of what's going on. This gives us an opportunity to occasionally run important stories that may not normally get covered, such as women's issues and health stories," defended Brokaw, adding that on many nights the newscast consists of only "hard" stories.
Brokaw feels one of the bigger problems facing the media is bombarding audiences with information, such as the flood of stories on the death of Princess Diana.
"Wherever a remote clicked, a radio played or a headline screamed, people were told they should care deeply about the passing of this young lady. She lived her life in a super-heated, electronic fish bowl that made everyone feel like they knew her," said Brokaw.
The rapid expansion of new technology has added to this information overload, he said.
"We are still finding our way through these innovations. We are like teenagers on a joy ride, we're not sure why or where we are going. But I have faith in our ability to eventually sort it out."
The over-exposure of children to television was another concern raised by Brokaw.
"If used in a prudent fashion, TV can be a marvelous tool for finding out about things, but there is an on-and-off button on those machines, and parents must fulfill their gate-keeping role," he cautioned.
Brokaw's daughter Andrea graduated from Berkeley in the early 1990s and was a disc jockey on KALX, under the pseudonym Cindy Loo Who, during her tenure.
His other daughter attended Stanford during the same period and he likened the situation to "having one kid who's a member of the Grateful Dead and one who's a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."
After the laughter subsided, Brokaw dryly added, "this joke always bombs when I tell it at Stanford."
With black cowboy boots peeking out from under his tailored suit, Brokaw reminisced about his childhood on the plains of South Dakota, the "Siberia of America" as he described it.
He grew up in a town called Yankton, 70 miles from where Berkeley's own Chancellor Berdahl was raised.
In his opening remarks, Berdahl said Yankton was famous in South Dakota because it was the home of the state's mental hospital.
"Many years later, when I saw Tom broadcasting live from the roofs of Kuwait under heavy gunfire, I knew he'd been in Yankton too long," Berdahl joked.
Brokaw and his high school sweetheart, to whom he is still married, left "Siberia" and ventured to California during the mid-sixties.
"California has a promise for people, it's a land where lives are changed, almost always for the better," Brokaw said.
After anchoring for KNBC in Los Angeles, Brokaw went on to become Today Show host. In 1983, he became the sole anchor of NBC Nightly News, where his broadcasts consistently top the ratings.
The Emmy-winning broadcaster recently signed a new contract making him the highest paid network anchor in the country.
Brokaw's talk was part of the Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle lecture series on communicating in America sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism.