NAB 2006: Wisdom of the Titans

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The National Association of Broadcasters, at its annual convention this week in Las Vegas, is bestowing one of its most prestigious honors, its Distinguished Service Award, on Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings.

On Aug. 8, 2005, the day after Mr. Jennings died, Larry King had both Mr. Rather and Mr. Brokaw as guests on his CNN talk show “Larry King Live.” The following excerpt from that show, which reveals as much about Mr. Rather and Mr. Brokaw as it does about Mr. Jennings, is used by permission of CNN.

Larry King: ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who brought the world into millions of American homes each night for 22 years, lost his battle with lung cancer yesterday. And now this broadcast news legend is remembered by other broadcast news legends, including the two men who, for more than two decades, combined with Jennings to make up the Big 3 of the network news, Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor, and Tom Brokaw, the former “NBC Nightly News” anchor.

Mr. King: What kind, Dan Rather, of adversary was he? Because he was a competitor.

Dan Rather: Oh, make no mistake, behind those leading-man looks, behind all of the homework-Peter was so strong for preparation-behind that smooth exterior as a broadcaster and great journalist, inside was a fierce competitor.

You never wanted to see Peter Jennings coming with a story that you were covering because he was so good. You know, someone who’s as attractive as Peter, you know, quintessential look of an anchorperson, it sometimes is difficult-and I think it was difficult in Peter’s case-to have people know where your heart is. And his heart was as a reporter. And those of us who competed against him knew what a great-and I used the word measured-what a great reporter he was. And I didn’t want to be in the same area code where Peter Jennings was working a story, because, for one thing, you could never sleep. When Peter was on a story-and I would say especially here in the Middle East-which he knew so well and he had it, in journalistic terms, wired, it was pretty hard to just stay in view of his taillights, never mind catch up with him or pass him.

Mr. King: Tom Brokaw, what was it like for you to be opposite every night?

Tom Brokaw: Well, I had the same experience. And dare say, competing against Dan was no walk in the park, either. Peter said last year at one of the gatherings that the three of us were present at that he felt that the three of us had common values as reporters and that we’d all made each other better at what we did. And I thought there was an essential truth in that. I had come to that conclusion as well. Another characteristic of Peter-not only was he a top-flight reporter in his own right but he attracted very good people. So you’re going up against Peter, the captain of the team, but also this hall-of-fame gathering that he always managed to assemble to work around him.

It was very formidable competing against Peter, and never more so than when Bosnia was going on, because he took ownership of that important story. And I not only admired him but I envied what he did there and the personal commitment that he made to that and to so many stories.

Mr. Rather: Larry-and it would be remiss if we don’t say it-that Peter had a lot of great moments, really remarkable times as a reporter, but he was at his absolute best, he was at the peak of his career and performance, in the minutes and hours and days following 9/11, particularly the morning when the two planes struck the Twin Towers. Peter’s performance, along with everybody at ABC, was nothing short of just magnificent.

Mr. King: Tom, would you agree? Because you were all on opposite each other.

Mr. Brokaw: You know, I do. I think that the role of the anchor that day-if I can remove us personally from all of this-was critically important. And Dan and Peter and I have talked about this. I don’t know whether we had any formal agreement, Dan, but I think that intuitively that we understood it … took everything that we had learned in our personal and professional lives, and at the age that we were that day, to get through those difficult hours.

I remember going home that night and thinking, “I would not have wanted to do this 20 years ago. I would not have been prepared for it.” And Peter talked about that, I think, on your broadcast, in 2003, that 35 years of experience that he brought to that anchor desk, as a correspondent, when the country needed to be knitted together, was extremely useful to him. And so there are times in America when the old clich%E9; about television as America’s hearth, the electronic fireplace around which we gather, that was never more important or true than it was on 9/11.

And I felt that, not just in my role as an anchor at NBC News, but when I had a chance to take a peek at what Dan was doing or what Peter was doing, I felt a real surge of pride in our profession and the place of electronic journalism in the lives of America, because everybody had a common opportunity to get the same information at the same time.

Caller: Oh, hi. Thanks for dedicating a full hour to remembering Peter Jennings. In Canada, we’re really proud of other Canadians who succeed. And as a communications student, we studied Peter Jennings in university. So I’m wondering … if there is anything that you learned from him the way that we did in school?

Mr. King: Dan, what can you say you learned from Peter Jennings as a contemporary?

Mr. Rather: Perhaps more than any other thing, Larry, you can’t talk about Peter Jennings without talking about his courage. This guy had guts-in the Hemingway sense, that the definition of courage is grace under pressure. Peter’s whole career radiated that. You know, on the air, he was certainly [a] gracious as well as knowledgeable presence. In life, off the air, he was unfailingly gracious.

And in these last weeks and months of his life, whatever your definition of courage, Peter was a golden example of it in this last fight.

Mr. King: Well said. What did you learn, Tom?

Mr. Brokaw: Well, one of the things I always admired about Peter was that he had strong opinions about everything that was going on around him in his life, in my life, and the lives of his children, and it always made him interesting. And you could challenge him on those opinions, and sometimes we kind of butted heads about stuff, but we always managed to work it out.

Plus, his passions spilled on over beyond his professional credentials. He loved being a journalist, obviously, but he also loved living in New York and having a cosmopolitan life. He was on the board on Carnegie Hall, for example. And he took a night off last fall from “World News Tonight” so that he could do the radio broadcast of a big benefit concert there. And when I saw him afterward, he was like a small boy who had just hit the winning home run in the World Series. He was bouncing around the Waldorf ballroom in his tuxedo. He could not have been happier than he was that night.

Peter brought to whatever endeavor in which he was involved this exceptional passion and enthusiasm and excitement, not all of which the rest of us necessarily shared, but that didn’t deter him.

(Mr. King asks a question about the future of network news.)

Mr. Rather: I’m bullish on the future of network news. Look, some-one of the Big 3, maybe more, may get out of it, but I doubt it. One reason I am is something we touched on in this broadcast earlier, that there [are] so many good idealistic, hard-charging young people in the business. Bob Woodruff, Elizabeth Vargas at ABC; Scott Pelley, John Roberts, Mika Brzezinski at CBS; Brian Williams at NBC. I think the future is bright.

Mr. King: Brokaw, future of network news?

Mr. Brokaw: Well, I-Dan and I talked about this a lot. I have strong feelings. I have not been able to persua
de my network masters that this is the way to go, but with all this emphasis on reality shows, there is no greater reality than the daily news and the stories that we can develop. I’d expand it, move it later into prime time, and I would marry it to the Internet. I think that we are treating these two … media as separate entities, and what we really ought to do is connect them, so that we can see more of the Internet and have more connectivity, between over-the-air television and the fascinating new, almost infinite universe of the Internet. But I’m not holding my breath.