“Those of us who are in my line of work have to stay cool and keep our eye on the ball about what we do, which is report what we know, what the facts demonstrate are true,” says the NBC News anchor, who celebrates 50 years at the network.
Veteran NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw has covered combative administrations. He was NBC’s White House correspondent during the final year of the administration of Richard Nixon. So the early and dysfunctional relationship between President Trump and the media — which Trump advisor and provocateur Steve Bannon has labeled “the opposition party” that should just “keep its mouth shut” — is nothing new. Brokaw’s suggestion for how the media should conduct itself? “Stay cool.”
Journalists, he says, “have to keep our eye on the ball about what we do,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter, “which is report what we know, what the facts demonstrate are true, and not get into a back-and-forth with the White House.”
The media is itself a hackneyed catchall that is almost meaningless in the era of information proliferation. The industry’s approval ratings are at a nadir during a time of hyper–partisanship, making it an easy bogeyman for President Trump. “It’s an uneven proposition,” Brokaw says. “Many parts of the media are not only defenders but advocates of what he’s doing. Other parts are probably reacting a little too strongly to what’s going on. I think everybody has to take a breath. And we need to do a better job in my end of the business of explaining to the American public what we do and why we do it.”
Brokaw, 76, will mark 50 years at NBC News with a two-hour special Sunday night at 9; Tom Brokaw at NBC News: The First 50 Years. The anchorman has occupied a singular place at the news division, having maintained close ties and serving as a sounding board and advisor through several changes of leadership. He appeared on the network throughout the 2016 presidential campaigns, including on election night.
The two-hour special, produced by Dateline executive producer David Corvo, includes famous interviews from his career but also has Brokaw sitting down for new interviews with newsmakers including Jon Stewart (they discuss the effect of social media, which Stewart says has “democratized abuse”), Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Powell, David Letterman, Sheryl Sandberg, current Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, Lorne Michaels and incoming U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.
“When I began, the Soviet Union was the evil empire, as Ronald Reagan described it and China was a blank spot on the map. Now, China is one of the most powerful and enterprising economies in the world,” Brokaw says.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been among his most difficult interview subjects. “I did the first interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union into the modern age. He was gregarious and responsive. Then I did the first interview with Vladimir Putin, who was not that at all. He was a creature of the old order, and very tough to deal with. He was not combative, but I just couldn’t get much out of him in terms of where he wanted to go with the country. And now we know why, because he’s led it to a more closed state, once again. He wants to restore [the country] to what he sees as the glories of Russian nationalism.”
The most meaningful story he covered; the fall of Apartheid South Africa and the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
“I’ve never seen a more charismatic figure,” Brokaw says. “He spent 25 years living in a stone-cold, hard cell on an island off the coast of South Africa and never lost his dignity or his vision. By the time I saw him, the second day he had been released, we were sitting in his garden and he was, as I say in the special, as if he had just returned from a business trip to Switzerland. He had a charming sense of humor. You could see the charisma in the man. And he was very modest, easy to approach, and he left a deep impression on me.”