Tom Brokaw, NBC News Anchor
March 24, 2986
Television News in a Changing World
Thank you all very much. I am really honored and flattered to be included in this distinguished lecture series which honors, of course, the distinguished American, Governor Alf Landon. There is a possibility that he may be watching today, and I want to extend my warmest possible greetings to that great American. I know that he has represented this state and this nation honorably for so long, and it truly is a great privilege for me to be able to share this platform today. I want to also offer my congratulations this morning in this setting to one of the other great institutions of higher learning in your state, the University of Kansas, of course. We wish the Jayhawks well in the Final Four in Dallas this weekend. And congratulations to all of you. You have a new president of your institution, Kansas State. I know that it won't be easy to replace Dr. Acker, but life goes on, so does his life. He'll be able to make contributions in a much wider world now.
Some of you may not know this, this is a kind of a fresh development this morning, but I thought that I would share with you. Some of you may not know it but Ferdinand Marcos was also a candidate for the post of President of Kansas State. Actually, Mr. Marcos and Imelda made a clandestine visit to your campus recently, but at the end of their tour, he told the Presidential Selection Committee that he would not be able to accept the job because Ahearn Field House simply was not large enough to accommodate her wardrobe, so they thought they would go on back to where they were. Now, of course, the Marcos have nowhere to go. They have been turned down, as you have probably heard, by Panama and I can understand that. Given their record in their own country, if you take in the Marcos family in Panama, you'd have to change the locks on the Panama Canal.
As some of you have heard this morning, my roots are in the Midwest, so I feel as if I am on familiar turf here. Given where I now live, I feel as if your community, Manhattan, after all, is a reflection of both my past and my present life. If I could, however, before I leave today I'd like to arrange a kind of sister city relationship between your Manhattan and my Manhattan. You may not like all the terms that I have in mind, but I thought I would share them with you. You get our prices, our congestion, our noise, our potholes, our muggers, and George Steinbrenner, in that order. From you we take your peace of mind, your fresh air, and your open space. There's only one thing that worries me about this exchange that could unsettle it all. I'm reasonably confident that those of you who live here could handle Times Square, but I'm not sure that New Yorkers could handle Aggieville. That's the only thing that worries me.
It's always a little worrisome to be identified as someone who is familiar on television because it doesn't always work that way. I was on the air in Los Angeles, it was indicated here a few moments ago, for a long, long time. And I was a kind of familiar face in that community wherever I went, and I grew accustomed to the idea that people would know who I am. But it also reminded me from time to time that not everyone had a true fix on my identification. I remember vividly one day going to a Los Angles Rams football game where the action was hot and heavy for the entire first half. No one moved from their seats, so at the halftime everybody rushed to the restrooms that were located down in this large cavernous stadium there. And, as I entered this men's restroom in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which is an affair almost as large as this auditorium, it was absolutely filled to the brim a lot of men in there, the air was filled with smoke. As I came through the swinging doors at one end, a man obviously who had been imbibing for most of the first half, kind of came staggering through the swinging doors at the other end of the room, and he looked across this crowded gathering and kind of fixed on me. I could see him pointing and then saying very loudly, "Say, aren't you Johnny Carson?" Well, with that every man in that room stopped whatever he was doing, in midstream so to speak, and turned to see if he could see Johnny Carson there in the restroom with him. And so I receded to my seat and spent a very uncomfortable second half of that football game. So I want you to know that I am very pleased to be here today as Tom Brokaw.
I want to share with you, if I can, some reflections this morning on our wide world and how it has gotten smaller through the medium in which I work. And what it means to your life today and what it may mean in the future.
It is fashionable in many quarters these days to denigrate the role of television in shaping the political, and cultural, and economic and general intellectual standing of society in the late 20th century. Some critics leave the impression that they believe if we ignore this unwelcome, noisy presence, it will just go awaytreating television as if it were some uninvited guest who drank too much, insulted the hostess, and then got sick on the living room rug. Well, I have some surprising news for those critics. Television will not go away. It's a fixed part of our lives now. Moreover, it is as unfair to exaggerate the bad manners of television as it is to compare all intellectual criticism with the work of, say, Rex Reed. This medium that comes in so many shapes and sizes, from five foot television screens attached to overblown saucers inhaling signals from outer space, to tiny portable receivers only slightly larger than your wristwatch, this medium truly is a window on a wider world, whatever its form. It is a powerful force and it must be taken seriously.
I hope that I will be able to talk with you about the effect that it has on our lives. I would only ask one thing when the question and answer period comes, please do not ask me to explain how the picture gets from where I work to your living room because I have frankly yet to figure that out.
It is also not my intention to examine the full spectrum of television from game shows to evangelism to ancient movies to silly sitcoms to talk shows featuring people who are known primarily because they appear on silly sitcoms. My intention is to talk about television as a source of news and information and as a forum for making choices about the direction of our lives collectively and individually.
As a medium of news and information, television truly is surprisingly young. It is now so much a part of our consciousness that it is hard to remember that it wasn't until the assassination of John Kennedy that people really began to take television news seriously. That awful, shocking event demonstrated to the nation one of the great strengths of television: its ability to instantly provide a continuous flow of information to every corner of the land. The television screen became our nation's common denominator, a central source of information and solace and continuity. There have been other events and issues in recent years in which television news programming has played a similar role, of course. The civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and very recently, the Shuttle Challenger tragedy and the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos.
But it was the coverage of the assassination of John Kennedy that was the seminal event in the maturation of television news. Between 1963 and 1968 the audience for the network evening news programs increased by more than fifty percent. Since then, by the way, the network evening news audiences have increased by another thirty percent. And despite the crowded spectrum in which we now exist we have seen some significant increases in the last year and a half or so. Furthermore, about two thirds of the country, according to a recent Roper poll, say that they get most of their news from television. I am of a mixed mind on that. Gratefully, the poll also shows that viewers also read newspapers and newsmagazines, as they must because we cannot fully understand the world in which we live and the significance of these daily events unless we reach out to a wide variety of sources of information.
These are all impressive numbers, of course. But I don't mean to suggest that television is a perfect medium through which we can create a perfect world or that it ought to be measured by quantity alone. Too often, for example, the output of television, even the speech here today this output is evanescent. It just kind of drifts away, leaving no full lasting impression. You can't pick up a piece of information from television and read it again. It often plays more to our heart than it does to our mind.
It also is a medium that has imposed on it by its managers enormous time constraints. Most television news programs represent a kind of food processor approach to information these days. We kind of like to chop, dice, slice, and grate what we have learned into easily digested bits, never serving anything whole, moving swiftly from one course to another. Now, mixing my metaphors here for a moment, I am reluctantly persuaded as well that we are too easily tempted to present confrontational theatre on television rather than enlightening dialogue. But even those confrontations sometimes fit a fixed formula. We're not much inclined to break the bounds of convention on television. Yet, even with these flaws, television has become an important instrument for the maintenance of a sovereign state, it seems to me. It is one of the great strengths of our system of government. As Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, observed in The Social Contract: "The bond of society is what there is in common between different interests, and if there were not some point in which all interests were identical no society could exist." Well, I believe that television news in contemporary American life helps define those points of common interest. Let me give you an example. The great crisis that you face out here on the prairie and the plains of America and American agriculture is something now as familiar to the people on the streets of New York and Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, as it is to any small town in Kansas or Missouri or South Dakota or North Dakota or Iowa. It is a common interest. It is something that we have to deal with. In fact, there have been some recent polls indicating that there is more sympathy on the part of the urban consumer for the plight of the farmer than there is in small town America for the farmer.
Well, let me address some of the specific complaints against television in some specific areas beginning with the political arena. Here are some of the specific complaints: television has ruined politics because all that is required now for election is the right combination of cosmetics. Indeed, a New York University professor by the name of Neil Postman has written a scathing indictment of television called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He says that television now has our culture by its throat, claiming you cannot have a 300-pound man running for president because he would look too gross on television. Mr. Postman says that we might as well amend the constitution to read, "You have to be 35 years old, born in the U.S.A., and under 185 pounds" to be a legally qualified presidential candidate in this age of television.
Hyperbole. First of all, William Howard Taft was the only 300 pounder we've had as president in the long run of American history, so it is not a category of candidates unfairly excluded from the process, it seems to me. More to the point, charisma has always been an important part of the political process in this country. Candidates have had to have some sense of charisma whether they were campaigning from the back of a haywagon in the mid-nineteenth century or from a contemporary television studio in the late twentieth century. Richard Nixon, whatever else you may think of him, was an awkward television performer at best, and yet he was elected to two terms at a time when television played a terribly important role in American politics. He's still coming to grips with this medium, incidentally. I covered the White House when Richard Nixon was there, and he would work very hard on those occasions when he would have a news conference. And sometimes, even in the worst of his self induced political crises, your heart would go out for him because he knew that he was in the hot spotlight of television when he would walk onto a stage like this. The assembled White House Press Corp would be standing, awaiting his arrival. He didn't think of us in the friendliest possible terms in those days, and so he would always try to put us at ease. But so often in attempting to put us at ease it would have just the opposite effect because there we would be standing and he would do this to us, "Please be seated" [while raising his outstretched hands]. It would always leave us not quite understanding which way we should go.
Well, let me go on, because I do have other examples. California, the land of Hollywood and sleek bodies and an adulation of youth, has as one of its senators a gaunt, bald, graying man who for all of his political skills has yet to set hearts aflutter with his cosmetics. One of the senators in the state in which I now reside, New York, the media capital of America, one of those senators looks as if he weren't in public office he would be hustling furniture in a discount showroom somewhere.
Now, yes, Ronald Reagan is the consummate politician of the television age, but it's also an insult to all of you to suggest that he was elected on the strength of his television personality alone. If he had been running on the Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale platform, does anyone believe that Ronald Reagan could have been elected President of the United States? When Walter Mondale said after his landslide defeat last year that he thought a major reason he lost was that he could never adjust to the role of television in politics, I thought that it was a subconscious acknowledgement that he couldn't adjust to the changing demands in American life period. We've been a fixture in American politics for some time now television.
As for the charge that television has destroyed meaningful political dialogue in America by reducing it to 10 and 15 second interviews, again I take some exception with that. In 1984 alone there were two full blown nationally televised debates between the presidential candidates. During the primaries, for our respective networks, Dan Rather and I moderated one hour discussions between the leading democrats. Early in that primary season, Public Broadcasting telecast a series of lively, if not memorable, discussions between all of the candidates. They were so filled with detail they set off a national epidemic of MEGO "My Eyes Glaze Over" as I watch and listen to all of this.
The national conventions were carried at great length on national television. The morning news programs regularly presented a wide range of candidates or their surrogates to discuss the issues of the moment. So I am persuaded personally that there has been an enhancement of the political dialogue as a result of television, especially since this medium is not consumed in a vacuum. Here in Manhattan, you have a first rate newspaper in the Mercury that you read as well as watch television. If you see something on our programs that interests you, you are able the next day to get a wider understanding of it through what Mr. Seaton is able to publish. You read news magazines, you read specialty periodicals. All of that is another way of supplementing the kind of information that we provide.
And consider just a week ago, for example, when the entire country was able to, in effect, participate in the debate over aid for the Contras. Any alert citizen with access to a television set or a daily newspaper could make a truly informed judgment about the woof and warp of the arguments on both sides of the debate. The follow-up came yesterday morning in the Sunday talk shows on which there was a continuing debate about where it goes from here.
I've been struck incidentally, by the kind of exchange that has been taking place between Senator Kassebaum and some operatives at the White House. As you probably know, Patrick Buchanan, the President's Communications Advisor, wrote a rather strongly worded opinion piece in the Washington Post in which he suggested that if you didn't vote for the President's bill on aid to the Contras you were automatically siding with Daniel Ortega and the Contras. Senator Kassebaum raised some real questions about the appropriate nature of that kind of observation. And I don't blame her. I have spent some time with Daniel Ortega and I don't think that if I were Senator Kassebaum that I would want to be considered part of that odd couple either.
That is not to say that I don't have concerns about the place of television in American politics. One of my primary concerns is that the television marketplace commercials the marketplace is an irresistible forum for slick manipulation, especially for candidates for lesser office who can hide from other forms of scrutiny. I worry that local television news programs pay too little attention to their local political processes and practitioners. We've had a demonstration of that recently here in Illinois in which two of the candidates for statewide office, important offices Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State are followers of Lyndon LaRouche, a man who occupies the extreme right wing fringe of American politics, a man who believes that Queen Elizabeth is the principle international drug pusher. The fact is that these people were nominated without any fair warning to the people of Illinois from the press, print and electronic. And I think that we, collectively speaking on behalf of the profession, that we let down the voters of Illinois by not paying more attention to their presence on that ballot. And we're scrambling now to catch up. It's not to say that we have to point our finger and say this is an out and out indictment of the LaRouche organization, but people ought to have the kind of information that they need to make a judgment about whether they want these kinds of people to represent them in the general election come the fall.
But when I worry about politics these days and the political process, most of all I worry about the pernicious effects of money. I know that money is hardly a new evil in the political arena, but there is a new vehicle now which makes the role of money all the more effective and all the more evil, I believe. Vehicles called in shorthand, a PAC. Some of you probably belong to a PAC, a political action committee, a receiver and dispenser of political campaign contributions that was invented as an instrument of reform following the glaring abuses of money in the Nixon campaigns and Watergate.
Now those instruments of reform have become another kind of cancer on the system. Take the U.S. Senate alone. Twenty-seven Senators are up for reelection. On the average last year, each of them raised about a $1,400,000. Fully one-quarter of their money has come from PACs representing special interests. What's more, they lead their challengers in PAC contributions by a 9 to 1 margin. In other words, the PACs are donating to the incumbents who are voting on their legislation a full year before the election.
You have an important addition to your economy in Kansas coming up. This is an election year. You have running Senator Robert Dole without, as I understand it at this point, formidable competition. Obviously, someone going to oppose him, but all the handicappers say that Senator Dole is in very favorable position. Yet he has accumulated nearly two million dollars in contributions thus far, so it is going to be very good for the likes of Mr. Seaton and the paper and radio stations across the state of Kansas. He will have a lot of money to spend. And about half of what he's raised so far, as I recall, around $800,000 the senate majority leader comes from political action committees. Now having said all this in this auditorium and on television this morning I'm sure that when I arrive back in New York later this afternoon I'll have a call from Senator Dole's office explaining to me the nature of those contributions. We have Washington lobbyists now so emboldÂ¬ened by this process that they go from the White House to the cover of Time magazine, working the telephone from the back of their chauffeured limousines.
Lawyers, selling nothing more than influence and access these days in Washington, are making veritable fortunes. Your government is for sale, and I think that's wrong. Money has often been described as the mother's milk of politics by a California politician by the name of Jesse Unruh. The problem is that it has run amuck now. Now, before you jump to the conclusion, Senator Dole, if you're listening, before you jump to the conclusion that I am charging that everyone in government or politics abuses these practices, let me hasten to say that I don't believe that. Indeed, I think the shame of the present system is that it is an unfair reflection on the honorable behavior of the many hardworking, honest people who enter public service at some sacrifice to their private lives and fortune. And to the credit of the Senator Doles and the others that are running this year, there is a full disclosure required of them. We know how much money has been contributed and from what PACs.
And that brings me to another worrisome effect of television on public life. In this case, television and print. For too many people these days, the cost of entering the public arena has become too high. They're expected, in effect, to stand naked at high noon in the middle of the busiest intersection in their community and defend every nickel that they have ever earned, every campaign contribution, every indiscretion of every relative in their family. They are the victims of a kind of a feeding frenzy that has developed around public officials. Regrettably that tendency, when it is indiscriminate, discourages and turns away the very people who should be encouraged to enter this honorable calling of public service. Yes, the press print and electronic must be aggressively vigilant about the public trust, but at the same time we cannot abuse that public trust of our own by becoming a hit and run service, so to speak. I think all this is partly a result of Watergate, partly a result of the ferocious competition for space in the electronic news cycle which now runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on radio and television. The slightest suspicion about a public person is very quickly picked up and repeated so many times so rapidly that it becomes ingrained in the public consciousness before it can be placed in a proper context or completely checked out. Simply put, those who choose to run for public office should not be judged guilty simply because they have made that choice. Otherwise all that we are doing is discouraging the best and encouraging the shameless.
The world has been converted into one vast electronic theatre with many performances continuously underway. Television technology, for better or for worse, has done that. No area, no dispute is out of reach of America's television range. More important, no performer is unaware of the extraordinary reach of television. When I arrived in Beirut last summer, I was met by a wide assortment of body guards at the embattled Beirut Airport and taken into the city through the various sectors controlled by another variety of militia, by the bodyguards of Nabi Bari, and then ushered into his office through steel gates. He said, "Ah, Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News. Nice to have you in Beirut." There is a real strong sense of who we are and what we do and how we can become, if we lower our guard, if you will, a kind of direct access for these various performers around the world directly to the American people.
Obviously, each story brings a different set of challenges to us. Terrorism, for example. A hijacking triggers strong emotions when Americans are involved. Our emotions bump up against an information spectrum that is crowded with provocative images and rhetoric. We're angry and we're confused when we see something like the Achille Lauro, understandably. Who are these people taking innocent Americans, even shooting them? A political context is very often irrelevant in those heated times. "Who are these thugs?" we ask. "Let's just blow them away and get it over with." Television in this white hot environment becomes the target as well as the messenger. "Why are you putting those criminals on the air," we're asked.
"You're only contributing to the problem." Or "Leave the families alone, for God's sake." Or "How dare you question what the President is doing. What are you? Some kind of a traitor?"
Those are fair questions, even if, as I believe, the premise almost always is wrong. Television news did, in fact, learn from last summer's TWA experience that a single story can be occasionally overplayed, that we must exercise more judgment in determining what is really new and really important to the viewer and not treat every minor development as a major change of direction. We learned as well that we have a greater obligation than the inter-network star wars that developed.
Nonetheless, it is wrong to assume that television is somehow responsible for the rise of terrorism or that if we ignored it, it would just go away. That false conclusion grievously ignores the real if misguided roots of much of terrorism that exists in the world today. Indeed, I believe the more that we know about terrorists and their twisted minds and their motivations, the better we are able to deal with them.
There is another dimension to all of this, of course, and that is the effect of the intensity of television news coverage on the Presidential decision making process during a time of crisis. Personally, I believe that presidents and their advisors have been too responsive to television deadlines, rushing their judgments to meet the evening or morning news program schedules. I think that Jimmy Carter was a victim of that temptation during the Iran hostage crisis. To a lesser degree, President Reagan has occasionally succumbed to the same temptations. His warnings to terrorists that every incident is the last incident in which they'll be able to do that those warnings have become so commonplace and so largely ineffective, I believe, that in a small way, they have hurt his credibility on this subject. Television now is a permanent part of the decision-making process. Presidents must learn to live with it and to resist its inherent pressures.
Then there is the more defensible role of my medium in the foreign policy arena, the role that was most recently demonstrated in the Philippines. I am persuaded that the enduring presence of television news and that dramatic showdown made it possible for Corazon Aquino to effectively continue her campaign. It also made it impossible for President Marcos to effectively make his argument that he was the people's choice in his country. As long as television continued to report the story to America morning, noon, and night, it was known everywhere in this land that President Marcos obviously was a despot, that U.S. Senators on site had grave reservations about the honesty of the elections, and that there was an enormous gap between the world as Marcos portrayed it and Philippine reality. That in turn meant that the Reagan Administration had to keep the pressure on President Marcos. As the Boston Globe put it quite simply in an editorial recently, "Seeing is believing." Marcos and all of his paid media specialists could manipulate a great deal in the Philippines, but in the end, they couldn't manipulate reality.
We have witnessed similar demonstrations of the beneficial presence of television journalists and their cameras in South Africa and in Poland and in Lebanon. Andrew Jackson is credited with saying "that one man with courage makes a majority." Jackson today may be inclined to arm his one man with a television camera as well as with courage.
We really have constructed a global village through the reach of television. But to construct is not enough. Those of us on my side of the camera must be willing to do more with our technology than simply point the lens and record the sound. We must be willing to deal with the difficult as well as with the dramatic. To that end, we require your help. Your determination to know more, not less, about this global village, to demand from us so that you can know more, will only encourage us.
Television, this wonderful window on the world, remains a work in progress, an unrealized potential. It is the obligation of all of us whatever we believe, wherever we live, to see that it becomes more than what Edward R. Murrow once described as a box with lights and wires sitting in the corner of the room. That was his fear, that it would become no more than that. I believe that it has been demonstrated that people of good will have taken it beyond that primal stage. But we must not stop here.
Television news requires an active, attentive audience, demanding more, not less, an audience active in its curiosity about the wider world, not indifferent, an audience willing to accept the good news and the bad news knowing that it can learn from both, an audience determined to leave, through its understanding of the world, its mark on this period of our lives, as well as the mark of Ronald Reagan or Tip O'Neill or Senator Bob Dole or Governor Carlin or whomever. I believe that we have an important part in that process, all of us as individuals. To learn from this great medium and to take what we learn and apply it to our lives and to the common good. And I invite your participation in that.
Thank you very much.