|NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw called the lightning speed with which news can spread—from a single mention on an obscure talk show to network and cable television news programs, for example—the Quantum Physics of the Modern Media Age.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
During a recent visit to Fordham, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw said the explosion of 24/7 news coverage on cable, the Internet, websites and news blogs—what he deemed the “big bang of news media”—has created a pack mentality that has news organizations chasing stories that originate from obscure, and sometimes dubious, sources.
“You get a fragment of information that enters the dialogue on an early morning talk show in Detroit,” said Brokaw, who will retire later this year. “It gets picked up throughout the day and then it has some weight. This gives [NBC Nightly News producers] a migraine. We have to track down who said it originally and determine if he or she has an agenda. If we can’t track it down, then we don’t put it on the air.”
Legitimate news organizations have a responsibility to distill this “bad” news, Brokaw said during “An Intimate Conversation with Tom Brokaw,” held Sept. 13 in McNally Amphitheater on the Lincoln Center campus. Sponsored by the Center for Communications at the Fordham Schools of Business and the National Academy of Television, the event preceded the academy’s 25th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, where Brokaw received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Brokaw spent 90 minutes at Fordham being interviewed by veteran TV newsmen and an audience of more than 200 Fordham students and guests, including Neil Shapiro, president of NBC News, and Brokaw’s successor, Brian Williams. Conducting the interview were William J. Small, vice chairman for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards at the National Television Academy and former dean of Fordham’s Graduate School of Business Administration, and Av Westin, executive director of the Foundation of the National Television Academy and a former executive producer of ABC Evening News and 20/20.
Far too many media outlets are willing to broadcast or print rumors that have not been fully investigated, according to Westin, who said those organizations are driven more by ratings or political agendas than editorial quality. This race for audience has created what Westin called the “Foxification” of news, where the line between opinion and objectivity has blurred—and in some cases, disappeared altogether.
In response to Westin’s comments, Brokaw said, “People can sort out who’s spinning the news and who’s not. If they choose to view a certain channel, it’s because they find some comfort in what they’re hearing.”
This “opinion packaged as news phenomenon,” he added, is fed by the wide schism along ideological and political lines that’s been exposed by U.S. involvement in Iraq and by presidential campaign strategists.
“War and peace, the economy, how the United States uses its power in the world, we are a deeply divided country on these issues,” said Brokaw. “That’s in part due to the modern strategy of the Democrats and the Republicans. They have hired operatives whose job it is to divide the country along ideological lines, on taxes and social issues.”
Brokaw believes there’s a longing for an authentic public servant who recognizes that there are, and always will be, differences, but who also acknowledges that there’s much we agree on.
Healthy debate is after all a bedrock of democracy, Brokaw said, and journalists have an obligation to ask difficult questions of those on both sides of a debate. The media didn’t ask enough questions in the run-up to the war, Brokaw admitted, and failed to give enough voice to skeptics during one of the most pivotal moments in the country’s history.
“What we can never lose sight of is that this is a country of vigorous and robust debate,” said Brokaw. And in an atmosphere of “‘you’re for us or against us,’ journalists have to stand their ground and present as many points of view as possible.”