Tom Brokaw, "Life Is Not Virtual” - Compton Lecture

Search transcript...


HOCKFIELD: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture. I want to do a couple of things before our speaker takes the podium. I want to give a little bit of context for the lecture. And then of course, I want to provide some kind of introduction to today's speaker.

The Compton Lectures were established more than 50 years ago in 1957. And they were established to honor one of the MIT's presidents, Karl Taylor Compton, who had died just three years before. Karl Taylor Compton guided MIT for almost a quarter of a century, from 1930 until his death in 1954. His first role as president from 1930 to 1948. He then served as chairman of the Corporation, our board of trustees, from 1948 to 1954.

As you all know, that quarter century was a tumultuous time in the United States. It included the Great Depression. It included a World War. And then it included an economic and intellectual transformation of the country of which we are the great beneficiaries today.

Compton was a transformative figure in MIT's history. He was-- I like to think of him as a constructive revolutionary. He transformed MIT. And frankly, he transformed engineering, and engineering education and practice everywhere, with his passion for uniting the physical sciences with engineering. I'd like to believe that he would have really loved what's going on today between the life sciences and engineering. And in fact, he actually used the term biological engineering, though very briefly, for our Department of Biology. But that really is a story for another day.

The Compton Lectures honor his wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity. And they were begun-- let me quote from the establishing documents, "To bring to MIT some of the great minds on the world scene." Since 1957, this lecture series has brought to campus voices in science, technology, public affairs, education, and the arts. From the physicist Niels Bohr, who gave the first Compton lecture, to our senator, Edward Kennedy, who spoke just last year.

Our speaker this afternoon will touch on the transformative power of technology. It would be hard to choose a subject that would have pleased President Compton more. In 1937, Compton gave a speech that was entitled, "The Electron, its Intellectual and Social Significance." Now remember, that was 70 years ago. It was two years after the invention of the FM radio and four years before the first commercial television station was commissioned in New York.

Yet, Compton saw in vivid ways the potential. As he put it, "No instance in the history of science is so dramatic as the discovery of the electron, which within one generation has transformed a stagnant science of physics, a descriptive science of chemistry, and a conventionalized science of astronomy into dynamically developing sciences fraught with intellectual adventure, interrelating interpretations, and practical values." Today, 70 years later, the electron and its countless progeny have so colonized our consciousness that it's impossible to escape their presence.

So we are especially grateful for the perspective of our speaker today, who will remind us that life is not virtual. Tom Brokaw, our speaker, has such iconic status in American life that one can hardly imagine introducing him in any serious way. His wide-ranging accomplishments have moved in intriguing directions and to extraordinary depths.

As the longtime managing editor and anchor of the NBC Nightly News, he was truly an anchor for the nation. A wise, unwavering, trusted voice that helped us make sense of the world, from NATO airstrikes in the former Yugoslavia, to the vagaries of our presidential politics, to the incomprehensible facts of September 11. Yet while sounding the voice of constancy at home, he's also been an agile and world-hopping war correspondent, peripatetic, seen everywhere around the world.

He was the first to conduct a one-on-one interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, and later, with Vladimir Putin. He reported from the scene of the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the Oklahoma City bombing, and from the tragedy of TWA flight 800. He may be the only person to have earned a place in both the National Academy of Sciences and the Television Hall of Fame.

He is the forward-looking journalist who pushed America to examine questions like affirmative action. He is the bestselling author who also helped us to stop and look backward to appreciate what we owe the Great Generation. And he is a deeply committed environmentalist. He continues to be the most popular news popularity-- news personality in the United States. And he's also one of the most thoughtful voices in America today. Please join me in welcoming to MIT, Tom Brokaw.


BROKAW: Thank you. Thank you. That was very nice. Thank you. Thank you very-- thank you very much. Let me just say at the outset, truth in advertising, these are the only circumstances in which I would be admitted to MIT, I can assure you of that.

When I graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in political science after a rather rocky beginning, there was a legendary political science chairman there by the name of Bill Farber, who was a kind of academic godfather to generations, mostly of young men in those days. He looked after us in large ways and small, and turned out Rhodes Scholars, and governors, and senators. And when I left the institution, I'm not sure what he thought my future was going to be.

But I got some insight into it when I arrived at a certain station in life and began to be awarded honorary degrees. And when Washington University in St. Louis called Bill to get some background as they were preparing my proclamation, he said, well, quite honestly, we thought the first degree we gave him was honorary.


Let me say at the outset what a privilege it is to be here on this campus. I was worried that I may have to also make an appearance across town at that lesser known institution, where at Harvard, I have to speak more slowly and use shorter words when I address the student body.


I was actually, as a high school student, recruited by Harvard, as part of their effort to have geographic distribution, I'm sure. And after the tedious application process, Harvard, in its wisdom, decided that I was not worthy of the financial aid that would be required to get me through four years. And so as I have often reminded audiences at Harvard, fair Harvard, I have been forced all these years to wander in that wilderness reserved for those who do not have a Harvard degree, wondering what may have happened to me, if only I could have gotten into Harvard and earned a degree.

And I pointed out to those audiences, well, that along the way, I've encountered Harvard dropouts. And we have commiserated, Bill Gates and I, what might have happened to him if only he had stayed there for a while.

I'd like to take some time today and have more of a conversation with you, I suppose, than a formal lecture. I am in awe of this Institution, and the young people who are admitted here and study here under this extraordinary faculty administration that you have, and the work that you're doing, not just for the Institution or for the students, but on behalf of the nation.

And I know that you, especially at MIT, are in the intersection of this exciting new era that we're all sharing in the era of information technology, the power of the personal computer, and the reach of the internet. But let me, if I can, offer some observations that may help us all keep it in, I hope, some context. Let me be clear about something at the outset. I'm not here to write new code, to design new apps, to build a network, or even wire this room.

While I am a prolific user of IT, and have been since its inception, the inner workings remain an opaque mystery to me. I approach it as I do my primary medium, television. When people ask how the picture gets from the studio where I work to their home, I answer, it's a miracle, and I leave it at that.

However, as a journalist, and as a person of a certain age, I was just smart enough and astute enough to recognize that the introduction first of the personal computer, and then the many faceted software programs that drive it, and then, of course, the explosive expansion of our reach through the internet would fundamentally alter my time and the world. And so it has. We are living in the midst of the most transformational technology that I can possibly imagine.

Moreover, what is particularly intriguing to me is that we are at the dawn of this new age, on the cusp of this era of technology. We're in the seminal stages of what I call the second Big Bang, when a new universe is being formed, just as our physical universe was formed by the first Big Bang. We are still, at this moment, trying to determine which planets will support life and which won't.

We've already seen some that have drifted too close to the sun and burned up. Others have merged, or hope to, to become more than the sum of their considerable individual parts. Some have grown from a small, almost unnoticeable presence to a powerful force in this new life form that we all use.

And through it all, the expansions and the use of this new technology have been advanced not by a small collection of monkish wonks working in a secret lab, but instead, by a vast and ever larger population of inventive teenagers, laboratory scientists, physicians, academicians, business executives, merchants, farmers, public servants, military analysts in the Pentagon, and their grunts in the field, environmentalists, and geologists, journalists, and librarians, NGOs, and multinational corporations, people of faith, and people who do not believe.

Every day, with the power at their fingertips and in the bowels of their servers, they know that their world is limited only by their imagination. Historians will look back on this time as a truly transformational age in the long history of the world. A time when our planet got much smaller, and the possibilities much larger. However, the test of our individual and collective place in this time is not yet complete, for life is not a virtual experience.

If we develop capacity and leave out compassion, what is the reward? What are the consequences if speed overruns reason? When I talk to young people these days, I am inclined to remind them that global poverty will not be eliminated by hitting the Delete button. That climate change will not be stopped by hitting Backspace. It will do us little good to wire the world if we short circuit our souls.

When I am asked, as I was just today, who are the most memorable people that I have met in my more than 45 years in journalism? Most of them expect me to say all the presidents since John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Fidel Castro, Golden Meir, Jonas Salk, Steve Jobs, Fellini, Pavarotti, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen, Mia Hamm, and because all politics is local, Ted Williams and Tom Brady. These are some of the big names that I have had the privilege of encountering in my wanderings around the world.

But in fact, the most memorable people that I have encountered as a citizen and as a journalist are those whose names I never knew. Brave young black and white civil rights workers in my youth, who went to the South determined to end the moral hypocrisy that all people in this country are created equal by putting their bodies, and their hearts, and their minds in front of racist, redneck, law enforcement officers who beat them, and hosed them, and turn dogs upon them. But they could not be deterred because they were led by the great, courageous leader and the advocate of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King, who was cruelly assassinated 40 years ago this week.

I remember as well a young man from Oklahoma. A member of Doctors Without Borders. At the height of the anarchy in Somalia, middle of the night, we were under mortar fire. He was in a surgical tent operating on a Somali child badly wounded by fragments. And I said to him, are you afraid of being here? And he said, of course, I am, Mr. Brokaw. I said, then why are you here? And he said, well god gave me these abilities. I got a mountain of medical school debt back home. But I thought I should use these talents as best I can during these years to save poor children like this little girl who is on my operating table now.

A young Chinese student who stopped me in the back alleys of Beijing as the time of Tiananmen Square and eloquently described the hopes of his generation for human rights and fundamental political rights in that country. A New York fire captain that I encountered in the bowels of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero, just eight days after those twin towers were brought down. His face was etched with fatigue and caked with clay. He was looking for the men who had worked for him who had given their lives that day. And he'd been working ever since the attack, 18, 19 hours a day.

He stood in front of me for a long time without saying anything. And finally he said, I read your book, The Greatest Generation. I said, thank you very much. He said, I didn't really understand my father or his generation until I read that book. And I'm eternally grateful to you for doing that. I said, thank you very much.

And he said, I learned so much about my dad. And I learned something about you. And I looked at him and I said, you used to think I was a Communist, right? And he looked at me unblinkingly and said, no, just a liberal scum. And turned and walked away.

These are young and old, men and women, representing a wide range of ethnicity and interest, unhinged from the comfort of their homes, willing to put their boots on the ground, and put their hands in the dirt, and spend their nights in scary places to make this precious planet a better place for all of us. Now when I encounter those unrecognized and modest heroes around the world, as I did last year in Rwanda, and the year before that in the earthquake-ravaged mountains of Northern Pakistan, I do find that they have new tools to go as their quiet courage and their personal commitment.

In Rwanda, where a program of national reconciliation is underway following the devastating genocide of 1994, when neighbor set upon neighbor and cruelly hacked to death children and old friends over a three week period, in which the world simply stood by. Radio in Rwanda remains the primary means of communication for the population. But for the people who are trying to put this country back together again, computers and databases give them a common road map to the next stage in that mountainous country of primitive communication and transportation infrastructure.

NGO workers in Africa can now visit remote villages and instantly transmit their findings to a central collection center so rapid response teams can be dispatched to deal with a health crisis at hand. In Pakistan, I spent the night in a cargo container with a group of American aid workers. They had been spending six months hiking to distant and devastated mountain villages to determine health, sanitation, housing and other needs. They were boots on the ground in the most fundamental sense of that phrase.

But their fingers, when they got to the end of the day were on a keyboard, to speed the process of rebuilding in a much more efficient fashion. And by the way, to make a lasting impression on those poor souls who believe that the world has forgotten them, especially the Western world, it is one of the intersections, after all, of that we hold dear here in the Western world, and Muslim fundamentalism. These are new tools that require a human face as we attempt to diminish and lower the temperature of Islamic rage.

A physician that I know in New York, a specialist in new forms of restoring hearing to the profoundly deaf, will soon program the cochlear implant of a child in East Africa from a computer at New York University. A farmer friend of mine in the Great Plains now calibrates his annual planting program by tracking world market conditions on a daily basis on his computer, and by eliminating so much of the guesswork that he is now one of the many helping revive the agricultural economy in that central part of the United States.

Those people that I have encountered are not found on page 6 of the tabloids or on the evening entertainment shows. However, they are the defining generation of our time because they have learned how to twin the uses of this technology with their own personal commitment. They are, in many ways, the same as their grandparents, and in some cases, their parents, who came of age in this country in the Great Depression and then went off to save the world in World War II.

They were the defining generation of their time as their offspring, the Baby Boomers, became the vanguard of liberators of people of color and women in our society, and the inventors of this astonishing new technology. In their use of it, and their vision for the future, they also recognized a fundamental truth. It takes a guiding hand and imaginative approach, and most of all, a good heart.

Think of another time when the frontier of technology was advancing at warp speed, the turn of the 20th century, when manned flight was now a possibility. When the first vehicles began to replace horse-drawn buggies. When the telephone changed communication in America. When medicine began to do more good than harm to the patients. My god, the possibilities of that era, when everyone was proclaiming the 20th century, the American Century. The age of technology, and industrial power, and political goodness, as represented by the American way of life.

My god, the possibilities and the horrors of that century, which gave us the two greatest wars in the history of mankind. The introduction of the nuclear age, genocide on an unspeakable scale in the heart of Western civilization, but also in Africa and Asia. The rise of communism in the cruelest and most oppressive form. New plagues, and old feuds along ancient sectarian lines.

Now we do live on a smaller planet with many more people. We have been witness to the limits of military power. And we worry about the widening and potentially volatile gap between the haves and the have-nots. We see temperatures going up, ice caps and rainforest disappearing, and energy becoming more scarce and more expensive. We have the technology to deal with all of these life-altering developments. But we can never forget that we also need the will and the people who will use that greater technology for the common good.

Moreover, these challenges require an attention span and a patience longer than the conventional post on a YouTube, a commitment that goes beyond a quick date on It is not just the content of a post in the blogs that require our attention. It is also the source and the integrity of that which shows up on the small screen.

As a journalist with roots deep in traditional media, but with a realistic understanding of the seismic changes now underway in the manner in which we get our daily news, how it's gathered, distributed, and consumed, I am an outrider for the masses who rely on mass communication. My message is this. Beware of the unidentified matter that emerges from the outer reaches of a blogosphere. It may have the weight and shape of reliable and useful information, but how do we know?

As an extension of the second Big Bang that I described a few moments ago, the air these days is filled with small meteorites cascading through the skies and onto the air and screens of personal computer users everywhere. By midday, much of the heretofore unheard of matter takes on the characteristics of time-tested material. But it could be nothing more than the product of a rich imagination. It could be simply mischievous, or more ominously, it could be malevolent.

The means of how we receive the oxygen of a free people, credible information about their government, their culture, and their commerce, it is undergoing a historic transformation. What has not changed is the requirement of society anywhere in this world to be best served by information that is gathered and assembled by trained professionals with a keen eye and a skeptical mind, who go out the door, and into the streets, and into the records, and into war zones, and into impoverished areas to report firsthand what they are witnessing.

Personally, I, of course, welcome the small d democratic characteristics of the internet and the blogosphere. It has vastly expanded the range of opinion, insight, analysis available to even the most casual user. When I was a young man growing up in a small town in South Dakota, I would get up on the morning with my mother who was an avid news watcher.

And before she went to work and I went to school, we would watch the Today show. And I would come home at night and there would be a family appointment around Huntley-Brinkley-- Walter Cronkite in some households, but we were Huntley-Brinkley household-- on NBC. And we would get a not very good daily newspaper delivered at the end of the day.

Now if I were a young man in that same community-- and I still have friends. There they get up in the morning and they log on to the BBC, and they have a wide range of cable offerings on their television set. They exchange messages with their friends, not just in their community, but around the world. And during their school hours, they can stay abreast of what is going on by going on to their computer as well.

And when they get home at night, they can read The New York Times if they so choose, or the London newspapers, or they can read specialty publications. They can go on to the MIT website and find out what you're doing with the Energy Initiative, or with cancer research in this great institution. Times have changed. The possibilities are limitless for good. But they are equally great, we must always remember, for distortion, fraud, and anarchy.

At the end of the day, in this breathtakingly exciting time in which we're living, most of all, what is required of those of us who live in this privileged society is a recognition that we have a moral and intellectual commitment to leave this precious planet a better place than we found it by putting our boots on the ground, our hands in the dirt, and spending our nights in scary places on behalf of our fellow citizens around the world who are not as privileged as we are.

We can all have cell phones, PDAs. We can all be wired or go wireless. But these tools, after all, should always be an extension of our hearts as well as our minds. And they should be an extension of the legacy that we want to leave. We serve our time and our fellow citizens around the world best by loving our mother-- Mother Earth. Thank you all very much.


Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Now I never again will have the opportunity to stand in the well of an MIT space, looking about-- out on these young people whose SAT scores were probably twice and maybe even three times what mine were, and attempting to answer questions. We have some microphones set up. I ask only that you speak up and state your question clearly. Or if it is not a statement, try to put a question mark at the end of your statement, if you would do that please. Yes, ma'am. If you'd go to the microphone, that would be helpful. It's right there, I think.

AUDIENCE: It's great to meet you.

BROKAW: Pull it right down.

AUDIENCE: To be this close to you-- can you hear me?

BROKAW: You have to put it down.

AUDIENCE: I can just stand up. That's OK.

BROKAW: Somebody--

AUDIENCE: It's all right. I just wanted to ask you if you've thought about running for president.


BROKAW: Now I have two answers to that. One is that I'm running for cover, I'm not running for office. And the other is I've-- you know, it's been flattering. I'm happy to report that I've had inquiries from both parties from time to time, as well as from several deranged friends, suggesting that I ought to think about running for public office.

And my answer-- the first serious response is that I chose this profession, journalism, because I think it's honorable and important. And I have worked hard at doing what I hope is an acceptable job. And I think it's important that I stay on that side of the fence. And the second answer is, I'm not going to run for office because I don't want my family to move to Canada, which they would do if I were to run for office. Yes, ma'am. Back up there.

AUDIENCE: Hi. I just came back from Rwanda. I'm doing my thesis work over there--

BROKAW: Can you pull the microphone right up so everybody can hear you.

AUDIENCE: I just spent a month this past January, and a month last January in Rwanda, doing work on water and sanitation in developing countries. And I was wondering what your impressions of the people were over there. I don't know what year you were there, and how close it was the genocide, but your impressions of the people and how you felt. Not the higher-ups, not Kagame, but the local people.

BROKAW: OK, I'm having a little hard time understanding that.

HOCKFIELD: Your impressions of the people of Rwanda.

BROKAW: Oh. Have you been there? Yeah.

AUDIENCE: Yeah. Sorry, I just spent two months over there.

BROKAW: Yeah. Yeah. It's one of the most remarkable places I've ever been in terms of how they're trying to come to grips with the enormous challenge before them. And to do that within the confines of their country. You know the unspeakable horrors. And then when you go into a small village in a remote area, and you find the genocidaires, as they call the people who committed these unspeakable acts, sitting in their prison uniforms at a table across from someone, who they completely eliminated their family. And they're having this dialogue about how they can work out their common future.

It's at once inspiring and slightly disorienting, frankly. I work with something called the International Rescue Committee, a big refugee organization. And we did a lot of the database stuff of collecting what attitudes were. And I came back kind of transformed, frankly. I've been at this a long time, I'm pretty hard-shelled. But I was deeply moved by what I saw there.

And my wife was with me at the time, and our family's involved in a lot of humanitarian efforts. And our youngest daughter we thought was natural to go to Rwanda. So we told her that she should go. And she went on a Woman to Woman program. She's going back again shortly. And it has had the same impact on her life.

My concern about Rwanda is-- to take you a little deeper into the story-- my concern about Rwanda, it's a landlocked country. It doesn't have a lot of natural resources. So the economy and the economic revival there is a big task. They don't have the kind of tourism that other African countries. Have they have a guerrillas in the north-- not a lot of them. They have coffee, and they're working hard at improving that as some kind of an economic growth engine for them.

The president is very impressive and-- Kagame-- and he has been coming to New York and Seattle a lot in hopes that he can make Rwanda into a kind of Switzerland of Africa, a financial center, because they're trustworthy-- and their institutions are not corrupt. So I hope that it will work out.

I also think it probably will be an object lesson for NGOs in the world. Certainly, we have looked at this at IRC. We can't just deal with the effects of these cataclysmic events that happen, like genocide, or terrible storms, for that matter, or war. We really have to start dealing with the symptoms of it. And we got behind in Darfur. I say that in a collective sense. That went on too long. And now it's very hard to put that one back together again.

And the other thing that's happened in this country-- quite honestly, there's Africa fatigue. People are kind of worn out about hearing about it, because the problems are so monumental at the moment. And there's enormous work being done that's productive and it's making progress. But there's a lot more to be done. And in this country, we're distracted by our presidential election, by the economy, and what's going on. So that's going to be on the agenda for a long time. Anyhow, thanks for asking about that.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.

BROKAW: Thank you. No other questions? Are there any answers, actually? I think we have one coming here. Then why don't you come in and stand right behind him right now?

AUDIENCE: Hi, Tom. My name is Martin Holmes I'm a senior in aerospace engineering. And I to ask a quick question. Science and technology play an integral role in society and world affairs. And yet, a lot of society seems to take technology for granted. And the government seems to put less funding into science and basic research than it did in the past. So I'm wondering what you think MIT as a university can do to help improve the situation? And what you as a member of the media can do to shed light on this issue?

BROKAW: Well, we actually talked about that-- and to some degree, earlier today in a session that I had with some students, and then with faculty members who were working on the cancer project and also on the energy project. I think we're going to have to think across the spectrum in institutions like this, and in our government, in a more stateless way. And that the problems that we are now all here thinking about and talking about don't stop at the water's edge.

And we cannot live in the Western world-- in the Western industrial-- world with a sense of security, I think, if we don't begin to do something about the undeveloped world and help them become a rising tide. And so I would hope that there would be a greater effort across borders in a stateless fashion to deal with a lot of these-- you can't deal with global warming by just developing United States policy. That's a small example of it. And the same thing with a lot of global health issues. We're already seeing that with AIDS.

So I think the new administration-- politically, whoever it is, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat, institutions like MIT, and the role the media will have to rethink how we approach a lot of these intractable problems and get the technology that is available, available out there. We're doing a much better job. But in a lot of these countries, they're happy when a light bulb turns on, much less being able to have what we take for granted on a daily basis.

It's happened quite swiftly in this country. It was not that many years ago that the personal computer-- in our case, in our family, when our kids were small, we have a little early Macs, you know, upstairs. And it was pretty primitive and they were playing Pong. And I remember thinking, god this is going to change the world in some ways.

And the head of IBM at the time came to visit NBC. And I said, what do you think of the personal computer's future is? And he said, ah, my wife does some-- writes her invitations of parties on it, and so on, but I don't see much of a use for it. And that's the reason that Bill Gates is one of the richest men in the world today, by the way. So that's what I think. We do have to think in a new way, in a new form. Let's take her, and then take you, OK?

AUDIENCE: Hi. I'm Sheeva Azma, a recent graduate in brain and cog. But I'm kind of curious about your comments on how the internet will affect TV journalism. I know there was a shift from radio journalism to TV journalism a long time ago. And I was wondering if you could comment on how you think the internet will be affecting what our existing TV--

BROKAW: I need help with that again, because I'm hearing-- I'm losing it up here on the--

AUDIENCE: The effect of the internet on journalism.



We'd like the internet to go away, so we can-- so we can go back to being a monopoly again. Listen, it's just hard for me and for most of us who grew up in traditional media, and I think for even for new users of it, to understand the impact of it and where it's going. It's limitless, in my judgment. And we're racing as fast as we can to try to keep pace with the changes that are going on, trying to deal with something I touched on here earlier-- where does this stuff come from? And how useful is it? And how much can we trust it?

The quick answer is in television, in broadcast journalism, we hope that we can take the smaller screen, the computer or the PDA, and marry it to the slightly larger screen, the television. And out of that, we'll have something that will work for you and work for us. Newspapers have a larger problem at the moment. There's a story today about The New York Times, and they're under assault again. They're losing revenue at an alarming rate because people are going onto the internet to buy things and to advertise things.

It's expensive to gather this information from around the world, which brings me to my last point. The internet has grown up with an audience that thinks that everything is free. One of the early pioneers, Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, said information should be free. Well, that's fine, except it costs a lot to have a bureau in Baghdad, and to run the satellites that come out of the political campaign that we should all know about, and to have people staffing that on a 24/7 basis. And so we all have to have a think about that new model.

I like this small d democratic part of it. I like hearing these new voices that are out there. And there's some brilliant new analysts and commentators from all over the country that we wouldn't have heard from without the internet. I like the speed of it and the reach of it. But what I do worry about is how we can at some point always be able to rely on people who are trained to gather this information and put it in a usable, engaging form, to vet it, if you will, so that when you get it, however you get it, it's reliable and useful to you. That's the test.

And by the way, you have a part in that it's not just up to us. You're the consumers. And you have to apply the same principles to that that you would to anything else that you're using that plays a critical part of your life. And so we're all in this one together.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.

BROKAW: Yes, sir?

AUDIENCE: Hi, Tom. My name's [? Alan. ?] I'm curious, you mentioned the honor of the profession of journalism. Do you feel that it has remained generally an honorable profession? Or what needs to happen if it has slipped to regain some of that honor?

BROKAW: That's a many-part question. And I get it a lot, with good reason. What has happened is the spectrum has widened so much. There are so many more parts to it. And typically, it's like-- as I often describe it-- you go on a 300 mile car drive-- or road trip-- and everything goes fine, and it goes splendidly, then you see a three car pile-up. And that's what you want to talk about when you get to the destination.

And when people look at the 24/7 cable coverage, they're more inclined to settle on that part of the day or that moment when the wheels came off in some fashion, one way or another, in which there was something that was irresponsible or outrageous that was said on the air. I actually like the idea that we have expanded the spectrum. And I think as consumers, you have to be a little more aggressive about what you look for and how you find it.

I personally have found that we have a lot of good people that still want to come into journalism. I was just at Columbia last week at the journalism school, and Nick Lemann, who's running it now, has really changed the model, so he has them working a lot harder in areas like the academy, and sciences, and liberal arts, and making sure that they get a very broadly-based background. But I did look at these bright young students and wonder where they're going to work at some point.

So I think it's still by and large honorable, but that there are some egregious examples of people who abuse the privilege of being a journalist. That's always been the consequence of having a free press. Look, the early pamphleteers in the 18th century were pretty wildly irresponsible. And if you want to look at some political coverage, you ought to go back and look at 19th century political coverage, when the papers were extremely partisan, and they would print or say anything to advance the cause of their particular candidate.

When I first started in the business in the 1950s, here in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, most major metropolitan areas had news racks filled with tabloids all day long. They were simply the print version of what you see on a lot of cable television now. So again, it's up to each of us to develop a filter of some kind, and say, oh, that person is worth listening to, that one is not. The outrageous stuff that you see is on the air in part because people are drawn to it. It's kind of a commercial compact that doesn't make me very happy.

We had an amusing, but unsettling experience from Los Angeles. We sent out a new news director to out Los Angeles station, a very wise woman who was determined to do only the right thing in Los Angeles, and cover City Hall, and cover state politics, and so on. And not cover those mindless car chases on the freeways that we've all seen. So she'd been there about two weeks, big car chase develops on the 405. Every station in town-- right at the height of the news hour. Every station in town switches to the car chase.

She said, not us. We're going to stay with the news. The ratings dropped to zero. They went-- plummeted all the way down. And it was a big object lesson for her about how you're going to have to manage that. So we all have a part in it. Over here. Can we make the last one? Is that OK?

AUDIENCE: I'm impressed by your poise in dealing with these bigger picture issues, and it's very inspiring. I think it was Al Gore who said, in reference to dealing with the environmental stuff, that it's very easy to move from denial straight into, essentially, a place of fear. I wonder if you can comment, because it's clear that you've spent so much time in front of so many big, scary things, how do people of lesser strength and lesser sort of perspective-- the common people-- how do we deal with these issues? Do you have any sort of insight for that? Because I find that I'm often in either a place of denial or fear around some of the bigger issues in our culture.

BROKAW: Well, to begin with a very personal perspective, part of my role which was unanticipated when I stepped down from Nightly News at the organization now is I am what they call the designated hall monitor. I go up and down the hallways, and say, now, children.


Let's start paying attention to this. And Chris Matthews, did you have to say what you just said? Can we just run that by us-- everybody again? Yeah. It's a concern because everything now has a breathless urgency about it. And part of that is driven by the need to fill up all this time. We've got 24/7 cable, we've got to fill it up with something.

I commented earlier that I had hoped I spent a lot of last year looking at this model, and I was told by everyone that it would simply not work, and that would be a premium news channel. An HBO of news, in which you'd have a consortium of The New York Times, NBC, maybe the Financial Times, there's a couple of other traditional outlets. We'd put together this consortium and we charge you.

You would have a dedicated website and a dedicated news channel. And that cost you a few bucks. But you're probably spending that money now on newspapers that are delivered to your door and magazines that you get on a regular basis. And everybody that I talk to, including Ted Turner, who is an enormous advocate of getting more information out there-- I mean, CNN was not just a business proposition for him. It grew out of his strong sense of a public citizen that we needed to have more information.

And he said, it won't work because the cable systems won't carry it. And they don't want to take a chance on that kind of expense. And you have all come to believe it's yours for the taking. I have a daughter-- we're, in our family, in two diminishing businesses. I have a daughter in the music business and I'm in the news business. And it's a lot harder for her. She's got a very senior position at Warner Records. And all day, every day, she gets migraines trying to figure out how they're going to make a buck out of these artists and what they're going to do. So it's tough.

I really have enjoyed this. I hope I can come back sometime and see you in smaller groups. Thank you all very much.