November 9, 2007

Get a good education -- and then be a journalist

Check out Brokaw's advice to budding journalists at the end of the Q&A.

I especially like his comments on the need for a liberal arts education -- especially getting a solid grounding in history and economics. I regularly am a amazed at the lack of basic historic knowledge by many of my students. (But then again, maybe I should not be amazed. Teaching history for standardized tests doesn't make for interesting lessons.)


10 Questions for Tom Brokaw
Wednesday, Nov. 07, 2007
By Carolyn Sayre

Why write about the '60s now?Arthur Rice, Westerville, Ohio
It's the 40th anniversary of 1968 next year. And all but one of the presidential candidates—Barack Obama is the exception—are people who came of age during that time. That decade was the first full-throated roar of the baby boomer generation.

Why do we constantly compare today's youth and today's politics to those of that decade? —Jo Ann Douglas, Gulf Shores, Ala.
We're at war. It's an unpopular and divisive war. Again, the élites have the privilege of avoiding military service because it's an all-voluntary military now. We have a much bigger drug culture now than we had then. The recreational use of drugs [then], some of it was quite benign. Now it has given way to vast criminal empires that are ravaging the inner cities of this country.

Do you think America will ever regain the honor and prestige of our "Greatest Generation"?Debra Sexton, Bethel Island, Calif.
Within every generation there is greatness. What you don't want to have America do again is to go through the tests that made the Greatest Generation: first the Depression, and then World War II.

How did growing up in the Midwest influence you? —Eric Jennings, Charleston, S.C.
I pledged allegiance to the flag, joined the Boy Scouts and ran for student office in school. I married a young woman I had known since we were 15. Courtship was confined to parked cars in those days. We got married and suddenly there was a sexual revolution in America.

Who was the most influential person of the past 40 years?Heath Urie, Boulder, Colo.
Mikhail Gorbachev, internationally, was critically important. Ronald Reagan had a big impact on American life. So did Osama bin Laden. You can't ignore that.

What was your most memorable interview?Terry Rainey, Chandler, Ariz.
The most memorable interviews for me are folks whose names I don't know: young civil rights leaders in the South showing great courage as they walked into a town in the dark of the night; a doctor working for Doctors Without Borders in Somalia, operating by kerosene lantern in a tent. Those are the kinds of people that linger in your memory.

How did you react when you found out a letter with anthrax was addressed to you in 2001?Luke Metherell, Sunshine Beach, Australia
Here was somebody trying to kill me by sending me an anthrax-laced letter, and maddeningly, it was intercepted by my secretary, who got cutaneous anthrax. It was a very disquieting time.

Do you think it's a problem that fewer Americans now get their news from traditional sources?Max Jacobson, New Haven, Conn.
We're better off. We have so many more choices. What happens is, of course, that the squeaky wheel continues to get attention. I have a little tool at my house—you should get one—it's called the remote control. You can go from those channels that are showing too much of Anna Nicole Smith to, say, BBC News.

Infotainment like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show blurs the lines between news and comedy. Do you think it meets a need that more traditional media do not?Anthony W. Creech, Richmond, Va.
What it does is bring in a new, younger audience to the political arena. It provokes them, I hope, into paying more attention to what is going on, and to be not just amused by it, but to be engaged in it.

What do you think of Katie Couric on CBS?Christina Paschyn, Cleveland
Katie, God bless her, was the first woman to go out there and become a solo anchor. It's not worked out as well as she would have liked it to. That's the result of a combination of issues. [But] we have female ceos, females in the Senate and a prominent female running for President. I think the country was ready for a female anchor. I don't think this was a gender thing.

Are there any social or political parallels between the '60s and today?Daniel Kolich, Aliquippa, Pa.
There's no linear view of the '60s. There's no consensus. When I wrote The Greatest Generation there was a common idea of what that generation was all about. You mention the'60s and you start an argument.

How do you think the role of the news anchor has changed over the years?Kathy Crawford, Ossining, N.Y.
When I first got into the business, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were the only three people who were doing the evening news at the time. There were no all-news cable on CNN, MSNBC or FOX. Most of these journalistic enterprises were organized by and run by white middle-aged men from the Eastern seaboard. That was the prism through which the rest of the country saw the world. That's changed considerably now. The evening news anchors are competing with the internet. They're competing with the all-news cable channels all day long. They're also competing for the attention of a younger audience that doesn't go home at night and sit down at the dinner table with their parents and watch the news.

Carl Bernstein recently said that celebrity news—and the public's desire for it—has led to the decline of good public affairs journalism. Do you agree?Andrew Lee, Berkley, Calif.
That is a little unsettling to me, how much we have become a celebrity culture country. I was recently back out in the Midwest and because the world is flat in a lot of ways, as Tom Friedman would say, if you go into Sioux Falls, South Dakota and you see the young people, they look just like the young people who are dressed in Beverly Hills or or the West Side of New York. There was a time when celebrity journalism was completely stage managed. The Hollywood columnists were fed morning, noon and night by the studio publicists and wrote mostly mythology. Now you have it going the other way.

How do you keep the hopelessness and depression factor of most news stories at bay? —Carol Ruhl, Pittsburgh, Pa.
I guess I'm always the person to see the glass as half full. There's always good news in every news report. If you're going to live in a society, you need to know the underside as well as the bright spot so you can be prepared for dealing with them.

What would your advice be to to up and coming broadcast journalists? —Jen Ayres, Columbia, Md.
Get a broad base of education. I'm not a big fan of journalism schools except those that are organized around a liberal arts education. Have an understanding of history, economics and political science—and biology, these days—and then learn to write.

For more from Brokaw read these extra questions. To subscribe to the 10 Questions podcast on iTunes go to

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