What NBC's Tom Brokaw learned about China
The Cultural Revolution in China was in full swing the last time Tom Brokaw visited there in 1975. A few months ago he returned from his most recent trip and, although the Cultural Revolution is an episode of the past, the Chinese seem to be just as inscrutable as ever.Skip to next paragraph
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''Warm, but inscrutable,'' Mr. Brokaw chuckles at his own use of the cliche, during an interview in his corner office at NBC News headquarters in Rockefeller Center.
His observations and the camera work of a British company, ASH Films Ltd., are the backbone of an NBC White Paper, Journey to the Heart of China (NBC, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 8-10 p.m.)m.
Tom Brokaw is one of television's purest broadcast journalists. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, he went right into TV as a newsman on KMTV in Omaha in 1962, then anchored the late evening news on WSB-TV in Atlanta in 1965. In 1966 he moved to the NBC station in Los Angeles, KNBC, then to Washington as the NBC White House correspondent, where he remained until 1976, when he became principal correspondent, then co-anchor, on the ''Today'' show. He stayed there until the end of 1981. In 1982 he was made co-anchor with Roger Mudd of the ''NBC Nightly News.'' Then a few months ago, with NBC third of three in the network news ratings, Mr. Mudd was removed from his job and Brokaw was made sole anchor.
All this without benefit of newspaper experience, but with a high degree of hard-nosed news-gathering ability, which has won the admiration of many veteran print journalists. Whether or not Mr. Brokaw will be able to pull NBC News into shouting distance of CBS and keep it ahead of ABC is a situation being watched very careful in news circles . . . and in top-level NBC headquarters.
Now, he hesitates to make any political pronouncements about what he found in China. ''This show is not about politics,'' he insists. ''It's about how people live. In fact, I would say it is a kind of very sophisticated home movie.''
Was he able to travel around the country freely?
''I was able to go to a Confucian and a Buddhist temple which were both closed during the Cultural Revolution. I went from Peking to Nanjing by train, where I got (into) a prison, a courthouse, and an apartment complex. After that Shanghai, where I went to a shipyard, a shoe factory, and a street market.
''Nothing was shut off from me. Everything we asked for, we got. The only reservation was when we shot some street scenes about their new crackdown on law and order. They were a little nervous about that, but they checked with Peking and it was OK.
''But they talk openly about things like 'the gang of four' and the Cultural Revolution. China seems to have really come back into the sunshine again after this long night of darkness. They tell tales about what it was like and how it could not happen again because people wouldn't stand for it this time.''
What are the greatest misconceptions Americans and Chinese have about each other?
''Here we believe that China is a happy, uniform worker's paradise. That the Chinese all get along. This is a country of 1 billion, 8 million people who live in a variety of provinces and villages and localities, each with their own distinctive way of doing things. I think Americans think of China as a fantasyland. It's a real place with real problems.
''Americans must learn that these are people with a long view of history. They've been through a lot of trauma in the last 35 years, but as one of the Chinese I talked to said, 'The Cultural Revolution is just a pimple on the face of China.' As traumatic as it was - maybe 800,000 people killed - they move on.
''The Chinese can't believe that our great consumer society really exists. They are just astounded by the stories of what we have, and really don't believe them. We visited one family, a rich peasant family, and they had two bicycles, two tape recorders, two radios, and every member of the family had a wristwatch. That they considered inordinate wealth. Take the poorest farm family in Iowa and they have more than that.''
Did Tom Brokaw observe many changes since his last visit there in 1975?
''Yes. It turns out that China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution then, although many Americans and outsiders just didn't know what was going on because (the Chinese) were so secretive. But it was very authoritarian, everything was very dogmatic. You couldn't engage anybody in real conversation about anything. We had a guide who spoke only in doctrinaire terms. Everything came out 'I do this only for Chairman Mao' and 'We are interested only in furthering the spirit of the revolution.' That kind of stuff. This time our guide was a man from the New China News Agency and he was quite forthcoming about the meaning of the Cultural Revolution and some of the flaws that still exist in the system.