Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw in St. Petersburg tonight to talk politics and the future of media
For me, it was the best line in a long night of TV coverage during Tuesday’s midterm elections.
And it came from a guy who doesn’t sit behind the anchor desk for a living anymore, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.
“I said ‘There’s a wild bull loose in the arena, and it’s the American electorate,’” noted Brokaw, outlining how voters delivered a massive loss to Democrats that President Obama later called a “shellacking.” “I think that’s a pretty good metaphor.”
Since leaving Nightly News in 2004 — don’t use the word “retired” unless you want a fight — Brokaw has hardly slowed down. He still produces documentaries for various NBC outlets and helps out when big news needs covering.
At 7:30 tonight he stops by the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists which owns the St. Petersburg Times, to talk about politics, the transformative power of the Internet and his own, 44-year journalism career — from covering Vietnam and Watergate to hosting the Today show and Nightly News. The event is sold out.
Here’s a preview:
Times: What happened Tuesday?
Brokaw: “For most people alive today, we’ve never been through an economic downturn as prolonged as this one and as unsettling as it is. It goes right to the two most important things in people's lives when it comes to their economic security: their job and their house. And there were all kinds of assurances about how we were going to get out of (the recession) and none of them proved to be true. The political reaction has been, 'We have to take matters into our own hands. Because you can’t count on Washington or Wall Street to save us.'...The baby boomers are now in their early 60s. and they’re not thinking about spending money; they’re thinking how in the hell am I going to get through these senior years? They’ve gone from being the counter culture of anything goes in the '60s, to now pulling up the drawbridge and holding government officials accountable for every dime they spend.”
How have journalists figured into this?
“We’re like the military, we’re always fighting the last war. We haven’t caught up to some of the profound changes in our society. We know the Internet is a transformative tool, but when it comes to the American political culture, I’ve never seen anything like it. You can organize people around the country with a keystroke and mobilize them with websites and blogs. It’s a whole new dimension of American politics.
Some have said journalists didn’t do enough to explain complex issues such as healthcare and the economic downturn.
“On health care, back when it first was passed, I kept saying: ‘This is way too complex.’ They spent way too much political capital on getting it passed and did not focus enough on jobs. The well-paid people at Fox didn’t pay attention to jobs, either. The Fox people were much more concentrated on the ideology, spending a lot of time on health care and so-called socialism. I believe very strongly the Obama team, for reasons that will always be mysterious to me, didn’t get how important that was. The James Carville line ‘It’s the economy stupid’ should have been stenciled on their foreheads.”
Any other lessons for media?
“There was always too much fascination with the horse race. For the last year, I’ve been saying the country’s divded into two parts: One is half cocked in the pissed off position and they’re in a rage about everything. The other half is getting up every morning, getting on the backhoe or going on the factory line and worrying about the family, their community and their kids. And they don’t believe anything they’re hearing from Washington – because everything they’ve been told since 9/11 has turned out not to be true.
Does NBC News suffer because of the connection to liberal-oriented MSNBC?
“There’s a firewall, there. I didn’t even know what they were doing last night….I think the viewer separates it just fine. The country’s got a far greater range of choices, and that’s a good thing… Yes, you have to have a core of journalists who have high standards, good ethics and stay true to their values. But the readers and the audience also have a role. And they pay less attention to where they get their news, too often, than where they'll pick out their next flat screen television.”
Daily Show host Jon Stewart had some pointed words for the media at his Rally to Restore Sanity. What did you think of what he said?
“I thought Jon and Stephen (Colbert) did a national public service. I fan the flames of Jon Stewart, because I think he does keep people honest. People are upset that young people get their news from him. But Jon helps lead them to the news, which is a good thing.”