Tom Brokaw on his career, the rise of fake news and Donald Trump's uncertain presidency

Tom Brokaw has a theory about covering politics that can be summed up in three letters: U.F.O.

The basic idea is this: If something unforeseen can occur, it will. That's why, when asked what the biggest news story will be one year from today, he gave an honest answer: "I don’t know."

"We don’t know what’s going to happen with Donald Trump," Brokaw said. "We don’t know where his first test will come from."

Brokaw's remarks came during Poynter's second annual Bowtie Ball, where he was presented with the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida, in front of a crowd of about 450 people.

During the ceremony, the former "NBC Nightly News" anchor discussed the rise of fake news, Trump's unexpected presidential win and a 50-year broadcasting career that took him to some of the biggest news events in the last half-century.

Throughout his career, as in politics, the unforeseen has occurred over and over.

Who would've thought, for example, that a green broadcaster in Sioux City, Iowa, would eventually become the host of "NBC Nightly News?" And what are the chances that Brokaw would find himself at the Berlin Wall as it was beginning to crumble?

In both cases, it turned out, Brokaw was in the right place at the right time. He began his journalism career during a boom in broadcasting, when it was relatively easy to find an entry-level job. And when the pressure cooker of East Germany was bubbling over in 1989, Brokaw — by then the host of "NBC Nightly News" — was pointed toward the story by a helpful colleague, who arranged a covert flight and satellite coverage.

He had another piece of luck just before he went live for coverage of the Berlin Wall. He'd only brought a scruffy, backcountry jacket with him for coverage of the story — a terrible getup for a worldwide exclusive. Fortunately, his colleague, Mike Boettcher, was nearby and boasting about a handsome topcoat he was wearing.

"I looked down at myself about five minutes before we went on and said, ‘this is going to be on TV forever,” Brokaw said, "And I said, 'Mike, give me your damn topcoat right now.'"

Boettcher did, Brokaw went live, and the shot became well-attired broadcasting history.

The unexpected struck again last month when Brokaw was covering election night with his colleague, "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd. Although Brokaw says he sensed the country was "angrier" than it had been in previous years, he still thought Hillary Clinton would win. During the runup to Election Day, Brokaw said, he assumed Trump's unpredictable demeanor would cost him the race.

Then, as votes started coming in, he began to realize Trump could win. His colleague Katy Tur, who'd spent months covering the election, believed he had a chance the whole time — she'd been to Trump's rallies and saw firsthand the sizable crowds he was drawing.

"At about 7:30 or 8:00, Chuck (Todd) and I looked at each other and thought, 'he could really win,'" Brokaw recalled.

After Trump's unexpected victory, Brokaw began discussing with colleagues when the enormity of the election would sink in for the president-elect. When would he really feel like the president? Brokaw predicted Trump won't feel the weight of the office until after Inauguration Day.

“He’ll know he’s president when he sits down in the Oval Office and they’ll give him the overnight security briefing about what happened around the world," Brokaw said.

But he drew a parallel between Trump and President John F. Kennedy, who was elected just before Brokaw's career started. After the 1960 election, many assumed that Kennedy would usher in the best and brightest into his Cabinet, and the United States would be in for smooth sailing.

Then, shortly after taking office, Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba, which was an unqualified disaster. After that, he sat down with Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a terrible meeting from which he emerged shaken.

With Kennedy, the unexpected came to pass quickly, and his presidency was mired in controversy early on. Then, during 1962's Cuban Missile Crisis, he salvaged his reputation.

“That’s a perfect example of the expectations that go in different directions," Brokaw said.

During the night, Brokaw was asked by WFLA anchor Keith Cate what he thought about the rise of fake news, especially during the election. Brokaw said social media — where fake news finds its widest audience — is one the most important ways people get information. But he cautioned that news on social networks is hit and miss.

“It’s not very reliable," he said. "There’s a lot of room for mischief."

Although he's loath to forecast the future (remember the U.F.O. theory), Brokaw did make a couple of predictions Friday night. He says Russian President Vladimir Putin will test the Trump administration somehow ("I don’t know what Putin’s going to do, but he’s going to do something"). And no matter what happens, he expects one constant in his career to remain true.

“What I also know is a year from now, this country will still be the greatest country in the world," Brokaw said. "We’ll still do things from the ground up that no one else can do."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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