Tom Brokaw: Dinner-Hour News Should Always Have a Place

SITTING BULL gazes gravely from a big photo on the door of Tom Brokaw's office. Mr. Brokaw raps a knuckle against the portrait and says, in that familiar voice, ''This is a real hero of mine. I come from South Dakota and have been reading about him for many years.''

The comment fits comfortably with the impression that NBC network-news viewers have drawn -- for some 22 years now -- from Brokaw's heartland personality and straight-on delivery, one that often carries the hint of a bemused smile.

During our talk, the anchor and managing editor of the ''NBC Nightly News'' speaks freely and frankly about the role of network newscasts, the proliferation of broadcast news sources, his criteria for selecting news items, and some thoughts on the future.

''It's a single place,'' Brokaw says of network news, ''where everybody in the country can turn at the end of the day and get a sense of what happened in their nation and the world.'' TV news first began to be taken seriously after the Kennedy assassination in 1963, he says. TV was ''that place that everybody could turn to and find out about a common tragedy.''

Yet haven't today's viewers seen or heard the news from a variety of sources -- cable TV, local stations, radio -- by 6:30 p.m. EST, when ''Nightly News'' is aired? Why do they still tune in?

Brokaw offers two reasons: ''If the story is big enough and important enough, you want to hear it again.'' Second, people still want to have the items credibly reported at the national level, prioritized and placed in a countrywide context. ''These nightly newscasts on ABC and CBS and NBC'' he says, ''are still the great engines that drive broadcast journalism precisely because, for so geographically and culturally rich a country, they are a common denominator.''

Too common, say some analysts. The efforts of network newscasts to retain dwindling viewership means that ''every night the news networks come on and try to do something for everyone,'' says James Redmond, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Memphis. ''In the process, they sometimes say nothing to anyone. It's become clearer in the last 10 or 15 years that we're very much a multicultural society, and there are a lot of diverse interests out there.''

One step toward bridging that diversity is a ''warming up'' of the newscast over the past few years. An easygoing on-camera style is noticeable in what Redmond -- who is also a news producer -- calls ''the toss,'' when Brokaw turns the coverage over to a reporter in the field.

''NBC has been working hard on this,'' Redmond says. In the past, Brokaw might have said something like ''Now here's chief White House correspondent Brian Williams.'' Today, he might simply say ''Brian Williams.''

''Sometimes it sounds good,'' Mr. Redmond says, ''and sometimes it makes you say 'Huh?' '' Brokaw manages to pull it off, he says.

But that is a small point in a job that calls for continuous decisionmaking and writing. Brokaw's ''managing editor'' title is no sop to stardom; he is not fronting a show put together by others. One need only watch him at work. As air time looms, there are hurried conferences about the order of items on the program, items that are sometimes rearranged at the last minute.

''The pace has certainly changed over the years,'' Brokaw observes. ''We're able to get more stuff more quickly.''

That ''stuff'' comes not only from NBC correspondents, but also from an array of sources. Brokaw cites an interview he did with Steve Fossett, the balloonist who set a new distance record by flying solo across the Pacific in February. Brokaw wanted to talk with him. ''I'm going to do it from this chair,'' he remembers saying. ''We'll have a satellite truck at that end,'' he decided, ''and put a camera in here at this end.'' That would have been impossible not so long ago, he says.

The near-total absorption by all hands in producing closely timed items quashes the notion of slanted news. The no-time-for-spins demand of the job is a theme voiced by most network news professionals over the years. ''You don't have the luxury to sit around and think, 'Now I'm going to go out and do this job on you,' '' Brokaw says. ''We're just trying to get the program on the air.''

What are his criteria for news?

Timeliness of treatment, Brokaw says, even if the item itself is not brand new; breadth of meaning to viewers; the strength of the script. ''Domestic almost always takes precedence over foreign if they are of equal weight,'' he adds.

Another factor seems sometimes to figure in: a link to some big national concern. The news of Olympic diver Greg Louganis's being diagnosed as HIV-positive broke shortly before air time.

If they'd had another 45 minutes' notice, ''we probably would have led with it,'' Brokaw says. ''It meets all the criteria.... It was both fresh and important. It is a fatal epidemic that is striking this country, and he is one of the best-known American athletes. The story had drama and meaning.''

How will network news fare in the face of 500-plus TV channels and 24-hour news coverage?

''There is an enormous appetite for news and information,'' Brokaw says, ''because it does help people make decisions in their more complicated lives. What I want to make sure is that the network-news divisions retain their prominent place; that ... there will always be room for the dinner-hour news program.''

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