The MeToo Movement Finds Tom Brokaw: Some Background on the Man Once Called an “Anchor Monster”

Tom Brokaw, in Email, Angrily Denies Harassment Claim

Tom Brokaw as an NBC News anchor.

Tom Brokaw, the longtime NBC News anchor, issued a pointed rebuke on Friday to a former colleague who has accused him of groping and harassing her during the 1990s, describing himself as “angry, hurt and unmoored from what I thought would be the final passage of my life and career.”

In a lengthy email message — written, by his account, at 4 a.m. — Mr. Brokaw angrily rejected the claims of the woman, Linda Vester, a former correspondent at NBC News and Fox News. “I was ambushed and then perp walked across the pages of The Washington Post and Variety,” Mr. Brokaw wrote, referring to the news organizations that on Thursday night published Ms. Vester’s account.

—New York Times, April 27, 2018

Looking through back issues of the Washingtonian for something else, I came across a story with the head “Big Bad Tom” with the deck:  “Tom Brokaw Is Bright, Hard-Working, and Talented. So Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About Him?” It was written by Barbara Matusow, a senior writer for the Washingtonian who had worked in television and written a book, The Evening Stars, about television anchors.

Aha, I thought, Barbara nailed Brokaw back in 1989 when he was the 49-year-old anchor for NBC News. Not so. He was called “an anchor monster” and likened to “a giant redwood tree who casts such a huge shadow that nothing but stunted saplings can grow,” causing journalists such as Judy Woodruff, Chris Wallace, Roger Mudd, Linda Ellerbee, Ken Bode, and Connie Chung to leave NBC News.

And Barbara quoted an NBC insider as saying, “He’s very opinionated, and he’s frequently right. But he really believes in his own infallibility.” Barbara said the result, according to many of those interviewed, was that Brokaw had weeded out contentious individuals, discouraging the kind of creative struggles out of which superior journalism is born.

How did he behave around the women at NBC? Barbara, who worked in television and has a very good b.s. detector, said:

In the brutal, ego-ridden world of TV news, Brokaw stood out as a down-to-earth, sensible guy—the kind of man who remembered wives’ names and never lets a friend down in a crunch. National Public Radio’s Cokie Roberts remembers that when her house burned down in California, Brokaw was the first person to call and invite her family to stay with him. More recently, when the young wife of a producer was dying of cancer, Brokaw made sure she got the best of medical care. He put his weekend house in Connecticut at the couple’s disposal, and after the woman died, he officiated at the memorial service.

Married to onetime beauty queen Meredith Auld and the father of three girls, Brokaw leads an exemplary family life. Even his detractors acknowledge  that he is the hardest-working person in the office, always prepared, always professional, always cool under fire.

Barbara did return to the subject of women at NBC News:

There is a tendency to blame Brokaw for everything, including the scarcity of female correspondents at NBC News. Although women have made strides as producers and mid-level managers, the network has not had a female foreign correspondent for years, and Andrea Mitchell is the first woman to get a major domestic beat in 15 years. “I have been pounding the table for years about increasing the number of women around here,” says Brokaw, who becomes apoplectic at the suggestion that he has been unfair to women. He mentions several women whose jobs he has saved and the fact that the number-two producer on his show is a woman.

While  Brokaw cannot escape a share of the blame for the lack of women and minorities on Nightly News, it’s also true that NBC, like the other networks, has a long institutional bias against women, resulting in part from a double standard. “There’s always something wrong with the women,” says one producer. “You hear so-and-so can’t write or she can’t pull a story together. Or she doesn’t look or sound good.”
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I asked Barbara today about the 1989 story. Her answer:

Of all the news media stars who have been accused of sexual  harassment, none has surprised me more than the allegations against Tom Brokaw. I got to know Brokaw when he came East to cover the White House and he did not have a reputation as a harasser or even a flirt in those days. He was the network boy scout—a hard-working guy and devoted dad who was able to conceal the depth of his ambition as he moved up the ladder.

People change, of course, and Tom certainly became more lordly and opinionated as time went by, but the one undeniable fact about Tom Brokaw is that he was, and no doubt still is, a smooth operator. I just can’t see him doing something as uncool as trying to force a woman to kiss him. Then again, I wasn’t there.

It was interesting to read the piece I wrote about Brokaw and think back to the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I had stints at both NBC and CBS.  Of course I encountered bias at both networks, but I mostly remember all the guys at NBC who seemed willing to give me a chance and who encouraged my efforts to get ahead.

One of Matt Lauer’s accusers remarked on the “toxic” atmosphere at NBC, but that was not my experience back then. It was different at CBS, where I felt people were rooting for me to fail. I was a very junior reporter getting little air time, and to make matters worse, several producers indicated clearly that they would get me on the air if I played ball. (I didn’t. And I didn’t get on the air very much.)  Nor did I  get any help from the hostile CBS film crews in New York—they can make or break you—unlike the kindly uncles I was used to working with at NBC. If the culture at NBC has changed, and it’s now “toxic” to women, as charged, it’s a pretty sad development.

P.S. I should have added that women were still an oddity in the TV newsroom in the late 60’s, especially at the network level. Often at CBS News in New York I would look around the newsroom and be the only woman out of the 20 or 25 people in the room.

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