Tom Brokaw spent his career reporting on what was new in the world. Now, Brokaw has turned his attention to history—and he’s partnering with the University of Iowa to help preserve it.
The legendary NBC newsman and one-time University of Iowa student announced last month he was donating his collection of papers and artifacts to UI Libraries’ Special Collections. The collection spans 50 years and includes the notebooks, videos, correspondence, and mementos he compiled as a TV news reporter, Today Show host, and anchor of the NBC Nightly News.
Brokaw, who attended the UI as a freshman in 1958-59 before graduating from the University of South Dakota in 1962, returned to campus the weekend of Nov. 11-13. Between various engagements, Brokaw sat down to talk with student journalists from the Daily Iowan and staff from Iowa Alumni Magazine.
Here are a few highlights from that conversation, edited for length and clarity. Look for more coverage of Brokaw’s collection in the January issue of Iowa Alumni Magazine.
Brokaw on the details behind his donation to UI Libraries:
“I’d been thinking for some time about, gee, do I have stuff that might be useful? It was kind of out of sight, out of mind. I had great cartons of materials stored away in different places. I would get things and say, ‘This is worth saving,’ and then I wouldn’t go back and look at it. So when the university came to me, I was very skeptical about whether I had something that was worthwhile, and I was curious about what their plans were.
“Then I went back and started looking at my material. We’d open one carton and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s really something.’ The interview with Mikhail Gorbachev when the Soviet Union was on the cusp of coming apart. The interview with Nelson Mandela two days after he was released from prison. The first documentaries that were done on the digital world and Bill Gates—a documentary called Tycoon, when nobody quite knew who he was yet and what he was all about. I did a documentary called AIDS Country, because I had a friend who was very active and and frustrated that AIDS wasn’t getting the attention that it should. There were letters of all kinds and my reflections on election nights.
“It turns out to be, immodestly, a fairly impressive body of work. I thought, well this could be helpful to new generations of students or people who are merely curious. I have letters from everyone from Charles Barkley to the president of the United States to David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Those were fun to see, as well.”
On revisiting his old papers and recordings:
“It was nostalgic, but it was also reassuring, because I got it mostly right. And when I didn’t get it right, I said, ‘I don’t have that one right.’ But if I look back on my reporting, I’m pretty proud of how it happened.
“Broadcast journalism is a team sport. I couldn’t have done it on my own. [The NBC News staff] are good friends of mine. We’ve been everywhere in the world together under very difficult circumstances. I couldn’t have done it all on my own; I had to have them with me. It becomes a form of camaraderie … because we’d keep saying, ‘Why the hell are we here? What could happen to us where we are?’”
On the changing way people get their news:
“There are so many sources of journalism now, beginning with the traditional one—a printed newspaper. It’s hard to see how 100 years from now, or even 50 years from now, it will still have the robust influence that it has had.
“And then you have television journalism, broadcast journalism, the part that I’ve devoted much of my life to. We have an older audience, it’s an aging audience, and it’s still very important to them at the end of the day to find out what’s going on. But between the Today show in the morning and Lester Holt on the evening news, people now can turn on other forms of television news, which is cable. And it’s there twenty-four seven—the genius idea of Ted Turner to have access to news all day long. So it’s not segmented the way that it once was. You had to wait in my day to see David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. Dan [Rather], Peter [Jennings], and I probably had the last great run of broadcast journalism because we had portable satellites and we could go anywhere in the world in a hurry and get on the air. And we still had an audience that wanted to watch what we had to say.
“Even my children, for example, they don’t make an effort every night to see the news. That’s the continuing conundrum for us, quite honestly—how do we stay viable? And then something comes along something like the election or 9/11, and America turns to television news in its traditional form to find out what’s going on. But we need a linear strength; we need to be stretched out over a long period of time to make sure that we’re still relevant to the people who need to get the information they do.
“And the way to do that, I think, I feel very strongly, is to do more original reporting. There’s too much on television now that’s just kind of holding up the mirror and reflecting whatever went on that day.”
On embracing social media:
“I’m the old dude at NBC but I’m always turning over the rocks and finding out, ‘What is new here and what is going on?’ I’m particularly interested in the new electronic age, the digital age. And often younger people come to me and say, ‘My God, you know more about this than I do.’ Well, that’s because that’s the business that we’re in. What’s new? What’s different? What do people need to know?”
—Josh O’Leary, Iowa Alumni Magazine
— Hawkeye Sports Prop. (@Iowa_Learfield) December 2, 2016
— U Iowa Alumni Assc. (@uIowaAlumni) November 12, 2016