On PBS, Brokaw Says No One's Ever Found He Had an On-Air Bias

Former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw took the publicity tour on his book on the 1960's to PBS’s Tavis Smiley show, where he discussed how he was "in a rage" when a friend of his died in Vietnam, although he initially believed in it when John F. Kennedy insisted in a domino theory in southeast Asia, a premise that "quickly came apart." Brokaw agreed with Smiley that there were many parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, and also agreed that Martin Luther King is the most important figure in American history. But he also agreed when Smiley insisted no one has ever been able to detect a bias in his reporting and anchoring: "I've been comforted over the years that people on the far left and people on the far right have said to me, ‘What party are you in, anyway?’ I have never been able to figure it out."

For those who have any doubt that Brokaw fit the mold of the liberal media elite, see MRC’s Media Reality Check on twenty years of Tom Brokaw tilt.  Here’s the exchange from PBS:

SMILEY: As I sit and listen to you talk, Tom, now about all of these issues that you've covered in your career and lived through in your life, I always thought that as a newsman, you, Tom Brokaw, kept your feelings, kept your politics out of what you -- I know on paper you have to do that or you don't have a job. [!]

BROKAW: Hard. It's hard.

SMILEY: How do you do that all these years?

BROKAW: It's hard. Well, I believe that fundamentally my reputation as a journalist would depend on my integrity and as a reliable place to go and get as much of the facts as you possibly can. Truth is pretty elusive, as you know. It's got a lot of dimensions to it. So over the years, I always tried to be the one person wherever I was working that would give a fair representation of what was happening, and then I hoped a reasonable and intelligent analysis or insight into why it was happening. And I've been comforted over the years that people on the far left and people on the far right have said to me, "What party are you in, anyway? I have never been able to figure it out." (Laughter) And I'd say, "That's exactly the reaction I want you to have."

This came late in the interview. First, Tavis and Tom discussed the sad state of race relations as he grew up (South Dakota was a "pretty racist state") and the domestic struggle over Vietnam:

Vietnam was the first time that we had a war in this country since the Civil War, which deeply divided the country and more profoundly, obviously. But Vietnam was the first time in which the elites were not required to go. They could get deferments and stay in college. It was also a time when we learned the government wasn't telling us the truth and had made terrible miscalculations about why we were at war.

I believed in the Vietnam War, as a lot of my friends did at the very beginning, because John F. Kennedy said the domino theory is in play. If we don't make a stand in Vietnam, we'll lose all of Southeast Asia. Well, that premise quickly came apart and people went off to Vietnam and served honorably, a lot of them from the working class neighborhoods.

It was the rise, for example, of the integrated military in this country for the first time, but a lot of people who chose not to go could seek sanctuary in college campuses or in alternative service of some kind. That deeply divided America. And at the same time, Lyndon Johnson was determined to have guns and butter, as they described it. He didn't ask anything of those staying at home . No sacrifices were really being made. Fifty-seven thousand people died, including a very good friend of mine.

Here we go again with the "no sacrifices at home" line again – which returns again when the questions go to Iraq. But first, Tavis returns to Brokaw losing a good friend in Vietnam:

SMILEY: Two things you said now I want to go back and get. One, you talked about your friend who died. I saw you talking to Russert - Tim - on "Meet the Press" about this when the book first hit, and if I was watching closely enough, and I tend to try to watch and pay attention, you got emotional, a little choked up talking about your friend, even after all these many years.

BROKAW: Well, and in an unexpected way, because just the week before I had been back in South Dakota shooting the History Channel documentary, and I went out to his gravesite. And I looked down at it and I thought about the life that I've had and the life he didn't get to have, and how cruel and unfair that was in so many ways, and how I kind of missed him, I suppose, looking at that.

And then I remembered, it was a flashback to the day that we buried him, and it was 1968, in the fall. It was a beautiful autumnal day in South Dakota. A Marine squadron flew overhead, the missing man plane took off, and I was in a rage because I was living in California and we were living here on the edge and at the epicenter, really, of the antiwar movement.

But in South Dakota, there was a stoicism about it. They were patriots, and the grief was much more muted. So all that came back to me, and then when Tim raised it, I did get a little emotional. I talked to my friend Gene's wife, who had been my wife's college roommate, and she's remarried and had a wonderful life and her children are doing fine and everything. And he was a singular guy, and it was a loss. There were a lot of losses - 57,000 others, as well.

So what about "drawing parallels" between Iraq and Vietnam? Did Brokaw see any? Then the no-sacrifices line came out again:

I do. I think that we're in a war against an insurgency and in a country where we're not exactly welcome by everyone. The premises of the war and the promises that were made have not been fulfilled. And again, we have people who can choose not to go to war. This is now a voluntary army, and so when I go through Walter Reed on my personal visits, I always look at the hometowns. They're almost always towns you've never heard of before. Small towns in the rural South or in New England or in Indiana or the Great Plains, or in the barrios of East Los Angeles, for that matter. They volunteered to do that. The rest of us, again, are not being asked to make any sacrifices. We're not paying any more taxes or higher prices for things. So I think yeah, there are a lot of echoes for it, and the debate is increasingly bitter.

Finally, the exchange where Martin Luther King eclipses all other historical American figures, from Washington to Lincoln to the present day:

SMILEY: This special you have coming up December 9th on the History Channel, "1968," I don't know that we have ever had a year quite like it. I suspect that's probably why you chose it. I think, and my viewers know, I've said many times I regard, personally, Dr. King as the greatest American we've ever produced. That's my own personal point of view. But you think about '68, you think about King's assassination, to say nothing of Bobby Kennedy. What made that year so uniquely different than any other year in our history?

BROKAW: It was a perfect storm. So many things came into play. It began with Lyndon Johnson being forced from office, the sitting president who won just four years earlier, by a landslide proportion; the Tet offensive with the Viet Cong scoring a big psychological victory. Dr. King, and I quite agree with you, that 500 years from now historians will look back and say, "Was there ever a more important figure in American history than Dr. King, in so many ways?"

NBC PBS Tavis Smiley
Tim Graham's picture