Goodnight, Tom Brokaw

Tom Brokaw didn’t cry. Not eight minutes ago, Tom Brokaw signed off the air forever and damn it, the man didn’t even well up. I dashed home from a rather pleasant wander through the darkening, windswept streets of Brooklyn and parked myself in front of a network television broadcast with a glass of wine and some nibble-sized pieces of really good parmesan cheese for nothing.

I don’t know why I was so excited to see Tom Brokaw cry. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I missed MacNeil crying when he left the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. When I heard that MacNeil cried (not that I would know which one MacNeil even was) I was sorry to have missed it. Also, while I was spending Thanksgiving weekend with my parents in Long Island, engaging in such wholesome American pastimes as watching television with a blanket over my legs and the dog at my feet, my dad and I segued from a (taped) episode of The West Wing into the NBC Special “Tom Brokaw: Eyewitness to History.” It was a smooth ride from the completely fictitious political landscape that is the product of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination to the completely fictitious political landscape that is the product of Tom Brokaw’s.

Having watched Tom Brokaw distill four decades of American history into a predictable montage of violence and unnecessarily powerfully white men, I now understand perfectly why the vast majority of the American people not only understand nothing, but seem to take a certain perverse pride in it. This is because though the evening news gives the illusion of coherence with its clanging-bell noises and simplistic graphics, it actually perpetuates a view of the world that is absurd and disjointed.

Tom Brokaw, and dare I say, the entire mainstream news industry, are perpetuating a vast conspiracy of misunderstanding. It’s not deceit exactly. It’s the notion that things are happening. Good things. Bad things. Terrible things. Wars. Genocides. Revolutions. Trials. Convictions. Evictions. Explosions. Disasters. Trends. Epidemics. Crises. Curiosities. We can watch these things, we can interview people about these things, but we’ll never really know why exactly they are happening.

We are live at these events, these wars, genocides, disasters, “elections.” We are reporting live to you, from these happenings, as they happen.

These events will continue happening after the commercial break.

These events are still happening. We are describing the images on your television screen using superlative adjectives.

We don’t know why. We don’t ask why.

And we never will.

Gee-whiz, Tom.

Aw shucks, Brian.

Back to you, Tom.

Thank you, Brian.

Isn’t that crazy, America? That sure is crazy. I’m Tom Brokaw, and I just don’t know what the world is coming to.


I always thought that news anchors were somewhat paternal figures, telling America their disturbing bedtime stories in a soothing cadence. The newscast even has its own bedtime-story ending. They end with “Goodnight,” instead of “The End.” But Brokaw’s summary of his years of news reporting revealed to be nothing so much as a permanent American boy, frozen in a moment of perpetual nostalgia for a world uncomplicated by meaningless violence. If the meaning of an event is complex or in flux, Brokaw either oversimplifies it or assigns it a meaning. Reminiscing about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he describes walking a corridor of enraged protestors and the police who were ready to beat them. “I thought to myself,” he intones, “This country is divided.”

Wow. Now that’s insight.

That’s where Brokaw’s real life as a journalist begins. In Tom Brokaw’s world, events without a simple, sound-bite-sized meaning are simply incomprehensible. Though he is not alone in his fetishization of the bygone (and ficitious) American unity of the Depression and World War II era, he took it to new heights by wrapping everyone who lived through it in the title, “The Greatest Generation.”

The American people are not encouraged to understand their world, because they are not encouraged to question their world. They are encouraged to watch a half-hour newscast at night and consider themselves informed by a man who has his face slathered with makeup in order to appear lively under very bright lights and then mumbles to himself and shuffles papers theatrically after these very bright lights are turned off.

In Tom Brokaw’s very last broadcast, his successor, Brian Williams, reported a story from the Walter Reed Medical Center, where American soldiers who were wounded in action are recuperating from their horrific wounds. Brian Williams interviewed a young soldier who lost his leg in Iraq. This soldier was in good spirits and described getting out of Iraq in exchange for his leg “a good deal.” Just before Brian Williams sent the newscast “Back to you, Tom, one last time,” he concluded his several-minute piece on just how glad these soldiers are to be alive, lost limbs and all, by saying that these young men and women might just be part of America’s “next Greatest Generation.”

No mention of the soldiers who don’t think that losing a leg in Iraq was a very good deal at all. No mention of the soldiers from either Gulf War who have unexplained illnesses, whose children have birth defects.
No mention of whether this soldier’s lost leg has any higher purpose, and if that higher purpose is really the democratization of Iraq, or if it is in fact keeping America’s SUVs running.
No mention of how the Walter Reed Medical Center, with its in-house advanced prosthetics lab and its physical therapy and taxpayer-funded means of piecing together otherwise healthy young people who have been ripped apart by (also taxpayer-funded) weapons, compares to the medical care Iraqi civilians with similar injuries receive.

That’s a little bit complicated for a bedtime story.

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