Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2008 | Features

Brokaw's Back

By Tina Owen
The legendary broadcaster revisits his old UI hauntsand inspires a new generation of fans.

Usually, UI adjunct instructor Charles Munro would be perturbed or even annoyed if every single student in his class abruptly and obviously stopped paying attention. Not today.

Right from the start of this "Broadcast Journalism Reporting and Writing" session, his students are antsy, nervous, unable to concentrate. Then, in the middle of a discussion about the latest news story assignments, the classroom door opens. A palpable thrill quivers through the room, and every pair of eyes darts in the same direction.

Cue Tom Brokaw.

Weeks earlier, the students had groused when Munro announced an extra, unplanned session—on a Friday afternoon, no less. Then he revealed the identity of his special guest. Some five decades after he'd spent a year as a UI undergraduate, Brokaw would be back on campus over a May weekend and he'd asked to tour the School of Journalism and Mass Communication's facilities and to visit a class.

While 50 years separate the legendary broadcaster and Munro's broadcast students, the chasm between their media preferences yawns even wider. In their multi-tasking, multimedia, now-now-NOW lives, Generation Y-ers typically relegate the staid evening news to members of the Greatest Generation. Impatient 20-somethings don't hang around waiting for end-of-day formal news round-ups. They've already seen it all on YouTube.

Nonetheless, the chance to chat with Brokaw during a private 45-minute session left Munro's students almost hyperventilating with excitement. Once the hubbub subsided, one crucial question occurred to the flip-flopped, jeans-clad undergrads: "Should we wear suits?"

In a world where a cell phone also doubles as a personal computer, camera, and Internet browser, Brokaw represents an old-style journalism that's practically passe. Viewers of traditional evening television news shows now are typically in their 60s; their younger counterparts prefer to get their news fix from satirical programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. Why, then, does a semi-retired, veteran broadcaster wield such clout with members of a generation that's virtually ditched traditional media in favor of more flexible technology?

Admittedly, Brokaw is an impressive role model: he anchored NBC Nightly News for 20 years, interviewed numerous heads of state, and earned critical acclaim for his coverage of momentous events in world history such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. He's also written for high-profile newspapers and authored a number of best-selling books. Even after stepping down in 2004 as the Nightly News anchor, Brokaw continued to carry out assignments as a special correspondent for NBC, and, following the death of his good friend Tim Russert earlier this summer, he stepped in as interim host for Meet the Press.

Another reason explains his superstar status among younger fans, though. For many young people, Tom Brokaw is the voice of 9/11, the calm father figure who talked them through a national tragedy. When their youthful optimism and sense of security came crashing down along with the Twin Towers, Brokaw was a beacon of sanity and hope.

"It was surreal to meet Tom Brokaw," says Kelly Stavnes, 08BA, a journalism and English senior when she took part in Munro's class. "Tom Brokaw is a household name, an icon. He told me some of the most important information of my life. Growing up, I heard his voice in my living room every day."

In person, that voice proves as warm and sincere as when emanating from a TV screen. Making the rounds of the high-tech Adler Journalism Building classroom, Brokaw shakes hands and breaks the ice. He cracks self-deprecating jokes, takes the students seriously, and impresses them with his commitment to his craft—and his understanding of the issues facing contemporary media and its practitioners.

No matter where technology may take the media, Brokaw tells his attentive audience, there will always be a need for the fundamentals of journalism: honest, accurate reporting and good story-telling. As he explains: "Journalism is the oxygen of democracy."

Many who meet him that day are struck by his singular ordinariness—the guy-next-door, laid-back charm essential to his hallmark style. Trim in his dark blue suit, with arthritis-swollen knuckles and a slightly weary expression, he looks like a typical overextended business traveler. He certainly doesn't project the airs and graces of a celebrity who's just flown into Iowa on a private jet and will soon be heading off to hobnob with Bill Gates. Chalk it up to his Midwestern roots, but fame sits lightly on Tom Brokaw.

He patiently writes a personal note in every copy of his books proffered for his autograph, and he smiles sincerely when asked to pose for an endless stream of photographs. After such encounters, he says warmly, "My pleasure."

Asked what it feels like to be a celebrity, Brokaw tells the class about the time soon after college when he was working for a TV station in Sioux City. One Sunday afternoon, he found himself hungry and with just $2 in his pocket to last until he got paid the next day. As he wondered how he was going to stretch his meager resources, a man and woman came up to gush that they were big fans and watched him all the time on TV. That's when Brokaw realized an important truth: fame isn't everything.

Back in 1958, when he traveled to Iowa City from his hometown of Yankton, South Dakota, Brokaw had no inkling that he'd one day become a household name. He had his hands full trying to adjust to college life with all its thrills and temptations. He recalls "daunting" winter trips across the pedestrian bridge from his room in Hillcrest, working at the campus radio station, and skipping classes to devour books on various subjects at the library.

Ask him now what he studied at the UI, and Brokaw will joke that his major was political science—but that he didn't do too much studying. For the small-town South Dakotan, Iowa City was too much of a good thing—good friends, good beer, good times.

After a year of paying more attention to the good times than his studies, Brokaw dropped out of the UI to return to his home state, where he went on to graduate from the University of South Dakota with a degree in political science.

"The university bedazzled me," he says of his time at Iowa. "It continues to be so evocative for me. I get emotional whenever I return to campus."

Since his year here, Brokaw has returned to the UI often, to present lectures and to provide voice-overs for documentaries and DVDs. He also created a scholarship fund for Native American students as a tribute to childhood American Indian friends whose lives took such a different path from his own. In 1997, the university honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Award for his friendship and support.

While his experience as "a small fish in a big pond" did open his eyes to the world and all its possibilities, Brokaw frankly admits that he squandered an incredible opportunity at the UI. "I learned that it's a lot easier to fail than to succeed," he tells students.

Such candor only deepens their respect and admiration. As Stavnes says, "It's difficult to imagine Tom Brokaw as a student sitting in a booth at the Airliner. He's living proof that it's hard to see into your future."

For many current journalism students, the future is a major concern. In an industry rocked by seismic changes in technology and audience expectations, what kind of employment prospects do they face? Brokaw offers good news.

For a start, the UI is preparing the next generation of journalists well. "The Daily Iowan can compete with the best small newspapers in Iowa—and the entire Midwest," says Brokaw, who occasionally browses the online edition and picks up a print copy whenever he's in town. "Students do a good job. It's grown-up journalism."

The UI's sophisticated facilities, especially at the Daily Iowan TV studios, are another major asset. In addition, UI journalism instructors insist that all students embrace multimedia techniques, that they're as adept at posting a video on an Internet news site as writing an article for a print publication. They'll often have to do both in what Brokaw terms "synergistic journalism."

Following his classroom visit, Brokaw gives students a glimpse of a master at work. After a brief tour of the Daily Iowan news offices, he heads to the television studios to star in a 15-minute interview and also to record promotional introductions for Daily Iowan TV and for a nonprofit group furthering a non-surgical method of clubfoot correction developed at the UI.

On set, Brokaw appears in his natural element. Even under the bright, hot studio lights—and with an unusually large crowd shuffling, whispering, and snapping cell phone photographs from the darkness behind the cameras—Brokaw looks as relaxed as if he were lounging in his favorite armchair back home.

For the two students interviewing him, it's a different matter. Perched on the edge of their chairs, Joe Augustine and Bryce Bauer surreptitiously tug at the necks of their shirts and fiddle with their ties. Bauer, a journalism and international studies senior from Audubon, has every right to feel nervous. A reporter for the print version of the Daily Iowan, he's embarking on his first-ever TV interview. Fortunately, he and Augustine, a journalism and political science senior from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who serves as executive producer for Daily Iowan TV, had prepared a few questions and practiced during a quick rehearsal.

It helps that they're dealing with a consummate professional who puts them at ease with his friendly attitude and expert answers. "Tom Brokaw was so relaxed," says Augustine. "He made it feel like a regular conversation."

That conversation touches on a wide range of topics, from presidential elections to the state of the media to the prospects for future generations of Americans. Along those lines, Brokaw offers one final piece of sincere advice: "Be a citizen every day: always give something back to your country and your community. That's how this country has always moved ahead."

From the Adler Building, the broadcaster heads on to the next appointment in a hectic weekend schedule. Later that evening, after a glittering dinner with President Sally Mason and prominent supporters of the university, Brokaw squeezes in a quick visit to the Airliner, where he's mobbed by students and surprised with a booth named in his honor.

Many of Munro's students meet up with him at the bar that night. But for now, back in their classroom, they obsessively rehash their meeting. They dissect every nuance of what Brokaw did and said, and they joke that they could get used to such celebrity guests.

As their professor points out, though, "Tom Brokaw is a hard act to follow."