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Brokaw exits as nation’s favorite anchor

Youngest of big three is first to step down
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s something to be said about going out on top, seeing that last jump shot swish through the net or the final profit report stuffed with extra zeros.

Tom Brokaw achieves the TV equivalent when he steps down as anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News” on Dec. 1. Younger than competitors Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, he’s the first to leave, and does it with the status of America’s favorite television newsman. (Rather, on the other hand, announced Tuesday he’s leaving the “CBS Evening News” while mired in last place in a three-way race.)

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

Each of those anchors has spent years on top of the ratings, and years at the bottom. But Brokaw, 64, has been the leader since 1997 and has widened the gap with Jennings after ABC’s newsman made a spirited run at him earlier this year.

“It certainly makes the ease of mind considerably greater,” Brokaw said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’d rather not think about leaving when I’m down.”

For two years, NBC has meticulously planned the transition to Brian Williams. There’s a lot at stake: the evening news anchor has always been the face of a network news division. Even as morning shows have eclipsed the evening news in profitability, the ratings at night continue to be an important barometer of a division’s health.

With the exception of Rather’s brief partnership with Connie Chung in the 1990s, there hasn’t been a change at the top since Brokaw and Jennings took over in September 1983 — a remarkable 21-year run of stability as the news business changed around them.

Already, ABC News is trying to seize on the opening with campaign-style advertisements touting Jennings’ experience.

Appeal to AmericaEven though Brokaw has homes in the New York City area and family that lives in Los Angeles, the secret to his appeal lies in his ability to relate to the vast America between those two coasts.

“Brokaw has come a long way but he hasn’t got the pretension of that status. He seems look-you-in-the-eye genuine,” said Ken Bode, a former NBC colleague who teaches journalism at Depauw University in Indiana. Bode, a fellow University of South Dakota graduate, has urged Brokaw to run for president, a notion the newsman politely rejects.

He’s not flashy, he’s “just this amiable guy,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“Even if he’s part of the media elite that everyone is suspicious of, he just has this air about him of this is the kind of guy you could invite over for meatloaf,” Thompson said.

Brokaw cemented his heartland appeal with “The Greatest Generation,” the best seller that touched a chord and gave a name to the Americans who fought World War II.

He’s the country guy next to the urbane Jennings, and is untouched by media scandal, like the ill-fated story about President Bush’s National Guard service that has clouded Rather’s final months as anchor. Brokaw’s boss, NBC chief Bob Wright, has cited his “red state” appeal.

Brokaw agrees — to a point.

“I think I have a red and blue state sensibility,” he said. “I think, having grown up in South Dakota and having spent a lot of my last 20 years in places like Montana, that I do understand these cultures and these states politically. But I also live in Manhattan and I’m keenly aware of the sensibilities of people in this part of the country. I’m a true purple person.”

Back at the ranchUltimately, it’s Montana, where Brokaw and his wife Meredith have a ranch, that feels most like home.

Brokaw also feels the less successful times in his life helped him keep his bearings, and viewers can sense that. He spent a period of time drifting in college before settling on broadcast journalism as a career path, and keeps notes on other successful people who needed time to find their way. When he was in third place in the news ratings, he dealt constantly with rumors that he would be replaced.

He avoids the word “retirement,” and his contract with NBC News requires him to produce at least three documentaries a year for the news division. He said he wants more time to think about fewer things.

Brokaw, who enjoys outdoor adventures like mountain climbing, had to hustle from a scuba-diving trip to a studio in Florida to anchor NBC’s coverage when the space shuttle exploded in 2003.

“I want to be able to go places and not be in an anxiety-induced state because I’m worried about having to get back or at least someplace where they can get me on camera,” he said. “I’ve been at it a long time and it’s time for a new generation of NBC people to have a more clear path before them.”

If not for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Brokaw said he probably would have left earlier.

“Everything from 9/11 forward has been the worst of times and the best of times,” he said. “The story has everyone’s attention and is so consequential that you know every day when you come in you’re doing something very important. You’re not just filling it up every night between ‘good evening’ and ‘good night.”’

If a story of that magnitude happens again, “I’ll report for duty,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’ll go back to what I did before. They’ll have to find a new role for me.”

In the next few months, Brokaw plans a fishing trip to New Zealand and a mountain-climbing expedition in South America.

Maybe that will help him disengage. He took two months off during the summer of 2001 and called the office virtually every day, said Steve Capus, “Nightly News” executive producer.

“Having access to the news before most people in the world is a drug and I expect there will be a withdrawal,” Capus said. “It wouldn’t be surprising to me to get a call.”

Still, he said, “there is not a part of him that says, ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to go.’ He is ready to go. He has great faith in the news division and in Brian. This is all being done from a position of strength.”

Williams isn’t new to the role — he’s been Brokaw’s top substitute for several years — but that hasn’t stopped Brokaw from offering his successor advice.

“One of the first things I said was, ‘Don’t pay any attention to the media writers,”’ he said. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down and I know what it’s like when you’re down. You have to define yourself to the audience and the way you do that is by putting your head down and doing the work.”