"The Brokaw Files" premieres on Military Channel May 30 at 10pm. The first ep features NBC archival footage from his 2003 visit to the USS Stennis Aircraft Carrier. He also revisits Ronald Regan’s final interview while in office.
Tom Brokaw’s achievements as a purveyor of network television news are unparalleled. But as those of us working in the fields of television and journalism well know, there is always more to the story. In his new series “The Brokaw Files” on Military Channel (premieres May 30, 10pm), the former NBC Nightly News anchor is enjoying the opportunity to present more in-depth coverage of stories and events from NBC’s archival footage. CableFAX spoke with the legendary TV anchor about what to expect from the series (produced by NBC News’ production arm Peacock Productions) and the state of journalism today.
What inspired you to do this show? Did Military Channel approach you?
You know we’ve had kind of a dotted line—by we I mean NBC and me—to the Discovery complex because I’ve done a couple of hours for them earlier on climate change. And then David Zaslav… was at NBC and we had a good relationship… But we were always constantly looking for opportunities to put our archival material on other places, so this is perfect.
Why is Military Channel the right network for this show?
My impression is that they believe that History and some of the other channels that are ostensibly taking a look at American history, which includes military history, have forfeited that. They said to me, you know, you’ve done a lot of work in this area, why couldn’t we put that on the air? But it won’t be just about the greatest tank battles or the greatest generation—I’ve got the last interview that Ronald Reagan did, a profile of how he became Ronald Reagan, a day-in-the-life of President Bush 43 when he was going to war, but also Bill Clinton when he was first elected President. So it’s a pretty rich menu of choices about contemporary history.
Did you ever conceive of the archival footage as short, documentary films, or was it always for TV?
I’m a child of television. And I do think you get the most eyeballs with the platforms that both Discovery and NBC can provide. I’ve been involved in helping other young people do film documentaries for theatrical and it’s been pretty frustrating. It’s a very tough field. But from my point of view, and also from NBC’s point of view, one of the continuing frustrations of being in this business is that you put something on the air—for example, the first [episode] that we’re going to do is [about] the [USS] Stennis. I spent 48 hours on the carrier [in 2003]. That ran at 8 o’clock, as I remember, on an early summer night, and it didn’t get the audience that we thought it deserved, because it was still daylight and people were out doing things. So this is a wonderful opportunity to give that a second airing at 10 o’clock at night, and it’s going to be the lead-off one. It’s still a very exciting piece of documentary journalism, because we were just ramping up at that point to the war in Afghanistan.
What is it about the stories featured in the show that make them compelling to revisit in hindsight?
Well, I think that history always does teach you a lesson. And one of the things that comes through on the Stennis is something that I’ve been talking about a lot around the country: the extraordinary cooperation/coordination of a 5,200-person crew on that ship. And they come from all over America—they’re everything from flag-rank admirals down to the lowest seamen, but they make that ship go 24/7. And they were on active alert while we were out there, living in tiny little bunks, deep in the bowels of the ship. Their whole social media space is one card table [laughs]. And they work together.
I came away from that deeply impressed and I’ve used that as a metaphor for how the country ought to learn, from the crew of the USS Stennis, on how to keep the ship going in the same direction, by everybody in effect doing a job and doing it well. They don’t ask the guy next to him when he’s loading the weapons on an F-14, “Are you in the Tea Party?” Or, “are you from a Blue state? Are you from a Red state?” They just get the job done. So it think there’s that lesson.
Do you think the media today is doing a decent job in covering the military and informing us about the wars our country is fighting?
I think that we have taken our eye off that ball. I said on “Morning Joe” the other day, after the President made his last speech—which was a big policy speech—that there has been no national debate about national security recently and about the use of military. A lot of it has been put before the country in a kind of ad hoc fashion. I say on television, or to an audience before which I appear, that we have turned these wars over to less than 1% of our population, all volunteers—nothing has been asked of the rest of us. We didn’t even have to think about those wars. There’s something not just unjust about that—but there’s something fundamentally immoral about that in a democratic society.
The role of a news anchor in network news today is quite different from your time. In your view, what are some challenges unique to journalists today? What is your take on social media’s role?
One of the things I’ve said—not entirely in jest—is that when I got into network television news, it was a duopoly. ABC was not yet a player. Just NBC and CBS. I liked that! [laughs] We didn’t have to worry about the competition. Now the screen has got a thousand different parts to it all day long. And it’s not just a television screen—it’s the screen on your iPhone, on your personal computer or your iPad. And what you have to do is determine what your part in all that is—and do that job extremely well.
Twitter is primarily an early alert system, and it’s a populist tool in which a lot of people can have something to say. The same thing is true with the various websites when they say, “post comments please.” That unleashes a torrent of opinion. I do think that it’s not very constructive because in many cases it’s gotten to be… vicious language used to attack people who have an opinion on something, however innocent they may be. And this is not just on the Right attacking the Left—it’s across the board.
But I’m one who believes very strongly in free speech, so there are voices out there that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. That’s a good thing. We just have to work our way through it. There have been these changes over the years. I remember when television first came of age and the newspapers were very disdainful of it and people said it would be the end of journalism as we know it in America. Well, ask people in Moore, Oklahoma, or in Connecticut after the shooting. Television has a place because it transmits experience unlike any other medium.
What does it take for you to commit to working on a project? And what are you working on next?
I’m involved in a couple of big projects. One is coming this fall. I’ve been spending a lot of the first half of this year on it. We’re doing a 2-hour primetime documentary called “Where Were You” on the assassination of John Kennedy. And it’s not just where people were when they heard the news, but how did it affect their lives, what do they think now, what happened that day… and it’s a very engaging project for me. I was a 23-year-old journalist in Omaha. I read the news on the air as an NBC affiliate in Omaha when it came over the wires, so it’s been a part of my life forever. And that’s a big project. That makes sense for me. It’s the kind of thing I like to do. I’m going to Africa in June to work on Nelson Mandela, who’s obviously nearing the end of his life, and we want to have something that’s representative of how big and important his life was. I was there when he was released in prison and I’m going back over there to do some additional work.