News

Tom Brokaw's Lesson for the Information Age – Stay Smooth

Tom Brokaw is in an unusual position of being a newsworthy newscaster. After 17 years as NBC’s News Anchor he is a household name, a ubiquitous presence on TV screens and more recently best seller lists. He has developed prodigious knowledge of world affairs, a presidential manner, and by the dreamy looks radiating from the Harvard co-eds, a fairly robust fan club. Niceness shines through every pore, he walks around in a bubble of cheerfulness, and it is hard not to join him inside.

Brokaw has covered every Presidential campaign since 1968, conducted the first one-on-one interview with Mikhail Gorbachev and was the only US anchorman to report from the Berlin Wall as it fell. He was in town to deliver the annual Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, and he chose the theme – So Much Information, So Little Time. News has changed considerably since he was a cub, both in substance and volume. Complex race and gender issues, health issues such as cancer, and more remote destinations such as Asia have been brought to our screens. For Brokaw, it was the fact that Elvis’s death made it to the top item on all news media that was the turning point – modern news reflects society more accurately, for him an improvement over the ‘Eat Your Spinach’ forerunner.

A tidal wave of information has hit the media in recent years. As availability has skyrocketed, individual’s demands for it have followed closely. One illustration – when Brokaw started with NBC back in 1968, the average politician’s soundbite on the evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, this had shrunk to 7 seconds. Similarly, the average Presidential quote on the front page of the New York Times was then 14 lines; in 2000 it was just six lines. The tension between providing high quality, in-depth news coverage and analysis, and supplying an insatiable audience creates many questions. To lesser men they may create headaches, but Brokaw thrives on this stuff, seeing it as a wheat-meet-chaff test of journalistic integrity.

Two dangers of today’s information availability manifest itself in the threshold of a good story dropping, and the facts get missed. Hot pursuits on California freeways are the apotheosis of the former, and the premature announcement of a winner in the 2000 election an example of the latter. Today’s rapid information cycles mean that today’s media is vulnerable to a kind of ‘mob theory’ journalism – which he describes as Brokaw’s Law – stories getting sucked into a black hole of demand. Major stories arise out of nothing other than whispered gossip and self-fulfilling feedback, and fact-checking is often overlooked. Referring to the 2000 Election embarrassment, Brokaw quips, ‘It wasn’t egg on our faces, we were draped in omelette.’ The upside? This preternaturally buoyant Weatherman of the World rarely fails to find the silver lining, and he points to the speed with which the mistake was rectified as, in itself, a good thing.

Having spent more time than most immersed in the complexities of foreign and domestic travails, Brokaw is not short of ideas about how things could be better. His clarity of vision and all-embracing enthusiasm provide a colourful alternative air to the grey politics we suffer daily.

On what Harvard should do with its $19bn endowment:
‘Take just a small part of that, and establish, in this very room, a permanent Office of Presidential Pardons.’
On eradicating global despots:
Would Hitler have been around in modern times of information availability?

On privacy:
On the one hand, ‘Anyone who comes to power in journalism should be subject of a major story – just to see how it feels.’ But on the other, ‘We know too much about Bill Clinton’s sex life, and not enough about John Kennedy’s.

On election reform:
Turn it into a Superbowl of Politics: keep polling stations from Washington to Honolulu open for a full 36 hours, vote electronically with your ATM card (much safer than at present), and celebrate the results as they come in with pomp and fanfare.

Like a Spangler Banana&Strawberry Smoothie, Brokaw provided a colourful interlude, and was gone all too quickly.

March 5, 2001
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