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The Last Heartland Journalist

Tom Brokaw, accepts his personal Peabody Award.
Tom Brokaw accepts a Peabody Award, May 23, 2014. Photo courtesy the Peabody Awards, licensed under CC BY.

Tom Brokaw’s retirement from NBC News brings down the curtain on the era of television journalism’s “Big Three” news anchors that once included Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Or so the story goes.

Like so much news today, to the extent this narrative is accurate at all, it misses the main point – what journalists like to call “the lede” – in its facile superficiality.

Brokaw’s tenure as co-anchor, and then sole anchor, of the NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004 did, indeed, overlap Rather’s similar role at CBS and Jennings’ at ABC. Brokaw was their contemporary, but not their analog. Brokaw is, instead, a throwback to an earlier generation of newsmen (they were nearly all men) whose personal and professional roots linked them to the so-called flyover states. I call them heartland journalists.

Brokaw, a South Dakotan, reported the news in the manner of Walter Cronkite (raised in Missouri and Texas), Chet Huntley (Montana), David Brinkley (North Carolina), Edward R. Murrow (North Carolina) and Frank Reynolds (Indiana). Their audiences so seldom glimpsed their personal views that when they did – as when Cronkite commented on the Vietnam War or Murrow on Sen. Joe McCarthy – it was a major story in itself.

These headliners achieved celebrity in their own right, with the wealth, glitter and access to power that accompanies it. But they did not become estranged from the nation that produced them. They reported on America and its struggles honestly. Their newscasts chronicled the civil rights and women’s rights movements, Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises and economic malaise. But they covered these subjects with compassion rather than condescension, and with humility rather than hubris.

They never saw themselves or their personal opinions as particularly important, and they never tried to insert themselves into the national conversation. In this way, their coverage was exactly the opposite of today’s retweet-seeking missives from reporters who have been taught to “interpret” the news for the presumed benefit of an audience too dull to comprehend it.

As a result, the heartland journalists won something precious that today’s journalists have largely lost: credibility and the trust of audiences with diverse experience and viewpoints. Brokaw himself was offered the job of press secretary in Richard Nixon’s White House (he turned it down) and provided one of the eulogies at former first lady Nancy Reagan’s funeral. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Such respect from both ends of the political spectrum is nearly unknown among today’s generation of journalists.

It was not something that Rather or Jennings achieved, either. The nicest way of putting Rather’s style was “brash,” as in his famous press conference confrontation with Nixon. A more pithy way to describe him would have been impulsive in his early work, and unreliably eccentric toward the end. The Canadian-born Jennings was embarrassingly unfamiliar with this country when ABC first thrust him into an anchor role (at age 26) in the 1960s. He rebuilt his career on the strength of his international reporting, especially from and about the Middle East. It was admirable work and a significant contribution to American journalism, but it never made him an American broadcast journalist in the mold of Brokaw and their predecessors.

Brokaw and his genuine peers had their own faults and limitations. They were all white men, confined by their experience. They were also confined by the format of a 30-minute news broadcast (less eight minutes for commercials) that, due to ratings imperatives, had to appeal to the broadest possible audience. They probably covered developments in the Farm Belt and the Rust Belt with greater understanding than, say, the experiences of a nonwhite child in an inner-city public school. They held enormously unfair advantages over the women who sometimes shared their broadcasts but had to fight much harder, and perform much better, to command comparable assignments and air time.

Brokaw may be the last of his line in the modesty with which he approached his work. I hope not. Perhaps some thoughtful reporters, writers, editors and broadcasters will do what journalism schools (many of the best, like the chroniclers they produced, were from the heartland) used to teach: compare and contrast. In this case, they can compare and contrast the esteem and trust given to Brokaw and other professional forebears with their own roles today. In doing so, they may find inspiration to do better.

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