The Story Behind the Man
Tom Brokaw, a well-respected and trusted figure in U.S. broadcast journalism, is best known as the managing editor and sole anchor of NBC News. In this role, he produced and reported documentaries and extended expertise in breaking news events and election coverage. Brokaw’s distinctive style and charm made him a well-recognized star of television news through the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, he was credited from his work in various film appearances, television appearances, radio appearances, and several bestselling books. Brokaw also won every major award given in broadcast journalism, including a Peabody Award, two duPonts, and several Emmys and is also known for his charity work.
Born on February 6, 1940 in Webster, South Dakota, Brokaw was the eldest of three sons. He was the son of Eugenia “Jean” Nee Conley, who worked as a sales clerk in a post office, and Anthony Orville “Red” Brokaw, descendant of Huguenot immigrants Cathernine le Fevre Broucard and Bourgon Broucard. Brokaw was named after his paternal great-grandfather, Richard P. Brokaw, who founded the town of Bristol, South Dakota, as well as a small hotel and first structure of Bristol, known as the Brokaw House.
Brokaw’s father worked as a construction foreman at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, or BHOD. As a foreman for the Army Corps of Engineers, he helped construct Fort Randall Dam. This type of work caused the Brokaw family to frequently move during Tom’s young childhood. The family lived in a small residual community in Bristol, Igloo, as well as Pickstown, before settling in Yankton, South Dakota. Brokaw attended Yankton Senior High School where he became the governor of the South Dakota American Legion Boys State. He accompanied then South Dakota Governor Joe Foss to New York City. The duo made a joint appearance on a television game show. This appearance was just the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with Joe Foss, who would later be featured in Brokaw’s bestselling World War II veterans’ book, The Greatest Generation.
Tom Brokaw was admitted to the University of Iowa after finishing high school. Brokaw soon dropped out after he majored in what he called “beer and co-eds”. This advice came from his guidance counselor who insisted he take a break. However, he went on to attend the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Although he struggled with his studies, Brokaw went on to earn a B.A. degree in Political Science in 1964. While attending university, he married former Miss South Dakota and author, Meredith Lynn Auld. Together, the couple had three children, Jennifer, Andrea, and Sarah. His early life was a big influence on his future career.
Brokaw had an early obsession with reporting and politics, even staying awake until one A.M. as a young child to see the results of election nights on the television. This would prove useful in his career as a broadcast journalist. After graduating university in 1964, Brokaw accepted work at a broadcasting station, located in Sioux City, Iowa. This position was followed by job offers at broadcast news stations, KMTV in Omaha, Nebraska and WSB –TV in Atlanta, Georgia. KNTV offered a salary of $90 per week, in which Brokaw refused. He asked for a salary of $100 per week, which was accepted by the station.
He stated one of his primary reasons for joining the news industry was his strong desire to travel. Brokaw’s love for politics also came into play as more opportunities opened up for the young reporter. In 1965, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia to cover the civil rights movement. During this time, Brokaw was able to cover a story on Martin Luther King, while serving as anchor and editor of the Georgia station, KMTV, 11:00 news. Coincidentally, Dan Rather, future anchor of CBS News, was also covering the civil rights movement at this time.
In 1966, Brokaw joined the NBC News team, reporting from California. He also continued to anchor the 11 P.M. news for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. NBC was impressed with the talents Brokaw displayed at KMTV. Only one year after beginning his new job, Brokaw started his career as the Los Angeles station anchor. However, the acceptance of this new job was only after turning down the offer – twice. Brokaw was not impressed with his NBC assignment. He desired to work as a correspondent in Washington, D.C. From the west coast, Brokaw eventually moved to Washington where he became NBC’s White House correspondent in 1973, during the Watergate era. He also continued to anchor the Saturday editions of NBC’s Nightly News.
In 1976 and 1980, Brokaw covered the Democratic and Republican conventions as one of NBC News’ team of floor reporters. He also covered the election primaries in the race between Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter. He soon became the host of NBC’s Today Show in its 24th season. In California, he was the given the opportunity to cover Ronald Reagan’s campaign to run as president in 1980. Brokaw also had the opportunity to interview Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, earning him an Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award.
On April 5, 1982, Brokaw became the co-anchor with Roger Mudd in Washington on NBC Nightly News from New York. However, NBC News president, Reuven Frank, concluded that the duo-anchor program wasn’t working. In 1983, Frank decided to select Brokaw to be the sole anchor of NBC Nightly News. The NBC Nightly News, starring Tom Brokaw, first aired on September 5, 1983. During this time, Brokaw covered events, such as the EDSA Revolution, Challenger disaster, Hurricane Andrew, fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1982, Brokaw was the only anchor to report directly from the fall of the Berlin Wall.
By the fall of 1987, Brokaw had achieved a number of high profile successes. As anchor, he conducted the first one-on-one American television interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In December of the same year, Brokaw moderated a live, television debate from Washington. This debate included all declared candidates for the Presidential nomination from both the Democratic and Republican parties. He also moderated the first ever debate among the Democratic candidates for President in December of 1991. During the mid 1990s, Brokaw covered the Oklahoma City bombing which occurred in 1995. He later went on to broadcast from the crash site of TWA Flight 800.
From 1993 to 1994, Brokaw and Katie Couric hosted a prime-time news magazine, Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, before becoming part of the multi-night Dateline NBC program. During this time, Brokaw also created reports for 60 Minutes. From the live attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Brokaw once again joined Katie Couric and Matt Lauer at the scene. By 9:30 A.M, the group had followed the live attack on the South Tower of the World Trade Center. They continued to anchor throughout the day, until after midnight. Following the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower, Brokaw observed the following: “This is war. This is a declaration and an execution of an attack on the United States”.
Brokaw continued to broadcast until long after midnight for the following two days. Several weeks later, a letter that contained anthrax was addressed to him. This became part of the 2001 anthrax attacks that were present in the United States. Brokaw was not harmed with the anthrax-infected letter, however, two other NBC News employers were. Brokaw extensively covered the wars throughout the countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. He traveled to both areas, witnessing the NATO struggle against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the new fall elections of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In 2004, Brokaw was the first anchor to report from Normandy for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. He conducted exclusive interviews with former French President Jacques Chirac and President George W. Bush during his visit. On December 1st, 2004, with more than 21 years of broadcasting journalism experience, Brokaw stepped down from NBC Nightly News. He was 64 years of age. He was replaced with Brian Williams who became the seventh anchor of the thirty minute Nightly News television program. Due to Brokaw’s popularity, the station had a million of ten million viewers.
Over the years, while anchoring for NBC Nightly News and Today, Brokaw reported on over 25 separate documentaries. The subject of these documentaries ranged from the war on terrorism, race, AIDS, gangs of Los Angeles, literacy, Bill Gates, the evangelical movement, and immigration. These were typically made into long-form documentaries known as Tom Brokaw Reports. He also collaborated with NBC News’ Peacock Productions for Discovery’s documentary Global Warming: What You Need to Know with Tom Brokaw. This documentary landed an Emmy award. He also collaborated with several two-hour documentaries that aired on the History Channel. These included KING and 1968 with Tom Brokaw. He has also discussed his opinions on global warming during discussions with the Yale School of Forestry.
In 2006, Brokaw reported on issues of poverty and race in Separate and Unequal. The documentary was awarded a RTNDA/Unity Award. It gave an honest look at the progress made 40 years after the civil rights movement and what issues still persist today. In late 2006, Brokaw reported on the issue of illegal immigration in the documentary, In the Shadow of the American Dream. The documentary thoroughly explored the economic realities, political controversies, and social consequences of dividing the country.
Brokaw returned to primetime in 2005 for the first time since leaving the anchor desk. In his in-depth report, called The Long War, Brokaw reported on the war of terrorism. He traveled all around the war, visiting Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi, France, Arabia, and Washington, D.C. He interviewed intelligence experts, world leaders, and those who were directly affected by the events of September 11th. These reports were compiled in his documentary, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat in July of 2005.
Soon after in September of 2005, Brokaw reported on the religious revolution that was sweeping the country. This documentary was known as In God they Trust. December of 2005 brought about his fourth documentary for the year, To War and Back. This final documentary took a comprehensive look at the issues that occur when young men go to war. It examined the physical and emotional aspects of war, such as losing friends, getting hurt in war, and coming back home to family and work.
In 2003, Brokaw received an Emmy for Outstanding Interview in his report America Remembers: 9/11 Air Traffic Controllers. In 2004, he received his second Peabody award for his documentary, Tom Brokaw Reports: A Question of Fairness. This report uncovered the issue of affirmative action from the controversy that surrounded the University of Michigan, as well as the affirmative action policy. The report provided details about the continuing struggles regarding race and fairness for higher education in the United States.
Brokaw reported in several documentaries of international importance. The Road to Baghdad examined the path to a possible war between the United States and Iraq. The documentary came from the point-of-view of half a dozen people directly influenced from the center of the crisis. The Lost Boys was yet another story about the ongoing war going on in Sudan. The documentary focused on how the war forced the “lost boys” out of their villages during the 1980s. The Lost Boys documentary won a National Press Club Award.
Brokaw was awarded an Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalist for his documentary called, Why Can’t We Live Together. The story focused on the hidden realities of racial differences in the suburbs of America. In 1989, his first Peabody award for To Be an American, examined the American tapestry. It answered important questions, such as who we are, how we got to where we are now, and what it means to be a United States citizen. Along with his extensive broadcast journalism recognitions, Brokaw wrote many essays, articles, and commentaries for several well-known publications. Some of these include The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Men’s Journal, Life, and Outside and Interview.
During his 21 year span as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, Brokaw received numerous honors. Some of the most prestigious included the Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award. Brokaw was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, Tom Brokaw received the highest honor from the Association of the U.S. Army, Records of Achievement Award from the Foundation for the National Achieves, and the George Catlette Marshall Medal. He was the first journalist to ever receive such a medal.
From recognition of his devoted service of bringing exclusive news stories and interviews to the attention of the public, Brokaw was the recipient of the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award. In 2003, NBC Nightly News was rewarded with the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Newscast, representing four consecutive wins for the program in this category. Brokaw continues to work with NBC News and plans to be part of the NBC family for years to come. Today, he occasionally appears on NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, and self-made documentaries.
In 1998, Brokaw became a best-selling author with one of his most famous publications, The Greatest Generation. The book was inspired by the large amounts of mail that he received from his first authored book in 1999, titled The Greatest Generation Speaks. Brokaw’s third book, An Album of Memories, was published in 2001. A forth best seller, A Long Way from Home was published in November of 2002, and gave a reflective look of the American Heartland and how it was to grow up in such an era.
In his fifth best-selling book, BOOM! Voices of the Sixties, he shares a series of reflections from his career experiences. This gave an in-depth look at his over 50 interviews with a wide variety of politicians, artists, business leaders, activists, and journalists. The book also features remembrances of less-known figures, including Vietnam veterans, health care pioneers, civil rights activists, war protesters, environmentalists, and an interview from the daughter of a former Mississippi segregationist governor.
After leaving the anchor chair at NBC, Brokaw remained a Special Correspondent. His duties included providing periodic reports for the Nightly News program. He also served as an analyst during the 2008 presidential election campaign with NBC. In addition, he moderated the second presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama during the campaign. Brokaw created several documentaries for the History Channel and Discovery Channel during the 1990s and 2000s, including a eulogy for the state funeral of former President Gerald R. Ford.
On June 13, 2008, Brokaw announced the death of NBC News Meet the Press moderator and Washington Bureau Chief, Tim Russert. Only a week later, he announced that he would serve as an interim host for Meet the Press. In December of 2008, Brokaw was succeeded by David Gregory. Currently, Brokaw serves on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also part of the International Rescue Committee and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Brokaw serves as a member for the Howard University School of Communications Board of Visitors and a trustee of the Norton Simon Museum, University of South Dakota, the American Museum of Natural History, and the International Rescue Committee. He has also given several commencement addresses for various university graduating classes around the country.
Today, Tom Brokaw and his wife Meredith live on their 5,000 acre ranch in Montana. They also spend time in New York. Their three daughters are now grown, currently in their 20s, and have successful careers of their own. Although Brokaw is now retired from broadcast journalism, he still has a strong passion and curiosity about the world. He admits to having an aggressive journalistic style. He felt it necessary to uncover every aspect of the stories that he documented, including who was involved, where it occurred, why it occurred, and the outcomes. He remains intrigued with how events unfolded and how these events would play out with the Democratic and Republic parties.
Brokaw remains one of televisions most well-recognized figures in broadcasting journalism. His career as sole anchor lasted from 1983 through 2004. Throughout his career, Brokaw provided news readers with live coverage of important events all over the world, combining news stories and entertainment into one. One of an entirely new generation of television broadcasters on three national networks, Brokaw created change during his time on air. Even when the Internet didn’t exist, he served as a daily source of news for millions.