Tom Brokaw by Scott Gries/History Channel
You didn't need reality TV in 1968. The evening news provided one cataclysmic unscripted event after another, as assassinations, riots and the Vietnam War kept viewers transfixed every night. Former NBC News anchor
was working at KNBC in Los Angeles at the time. His new History Channel special
1968 With Tom Brokaw,
(debuting Dec. 9 at 9 pm/ET) combines his own reflections with compelling interviews of witnesses and participants of the era. Brokaw, also on the bestseller list these days with
Boom! Voices of the Sixties
, told The Biz why what happened in that tumultuous year still matters today.
TVGuide.com: Why is 1968 the hot year right now?
So much of who we are now was formed in that year. The FDR coalition became unraveled. The Republican Party reorganized itself in a way that allowed it to win six of the next eight Presidential elections. You had the rise of the modern conservative movement, which had a profound effect on American politics. You have an enormous impact on American culture in language that was used publicly. The entrepreneurial ship grew out of the 60s - the young people who were smart learned how to organize political rallies then turn around and said, "What can I do for me?" and became economic entrepreneurs of one kind or another. Television secured its place in terms of what the public looked to when it needed a quick fix on what he had going on. Women began to push back on what was institutionalized suppression of their hopes and dreams. It was a real Petri dish.
TVGuide.com: The show includes a clip of that Walter Cronkite moment in which he said on his newscast that the U.S. could not win in Vietnam. Would you say that was the birth of the so-called liberal media?
No. We were getting beat up during the Civil Rights movement, in some ways worse then we were in Vietnam. The New York Times was called Pravda in the South. I remember getting led across a public square by necktie by a fireman in Americus, Georgia because of something he read in the
that morning. And I was working for NBC. We were all in the hopper together and wildly suspect as Communist agitators in effect.
TVGuide.com: Unlike today, young people were watching the news in 1968.
Oh yeah, they did with their parents.
TVGuide.com: Do you think 18-year-olds being drafted into the military was the reason?
No. The reason was our culture was organized in a different way. Parents came home at night and had dinner with their families. It was organized by this phenomenon called the evening news - which was not that old. There were these big events surrounding our life. It goes back to the civil rights movement. What happens is, as the result of television, the North understood what was going on in the South for the first time, while ignoring what was going on in its own backyard racially. Andrew Young and all the early people in the civil rights movement said they worked very hard to keep close relations with all the television network reporters because they knew they were important to them. Television was reasonably new in terms of the evening news and its impact.
TVGuide.com: We were also watching because there wasn't much else to watch.
That's the other thing. It was a duopoly. You started with the
in the morning. You didn't have anything on ABC or anything else. You didn't have anything for another 10 hours.
TVGuide.com: What would 1968 have been like if we had 24-hour cable news back then?
Oh God, I don't know. Could it have been more unhinged then it was? I'm not sure. It was pretty damn unhinged.
TVGuide.com: When you were in the center of this - you witnessing these changes as an American, not just a journalist - did you think the country was coming apart?
When Bobby Kennedy was murdered after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the bitterness about the war was growing blacker and deeper everyday, I was concerned. I remember saying on the air in August that year when the Czechs were invaded in the Soviet Union, "It seems like this year is going on forever and it's just half over." You had the feeling that everything you believed in was becoming unraveled. Members of the Greatest Generation were bewildered by a lot of this. Others that were grown-ups and should have been stepping forward and saying to the kids, "Hey wait a minute, you're going too far here," were not doing that. They were like deer caught in the headlamps.
TVGuide.com: What's your most lasting personal memory of 1968?
I had been working with [Olympic gold medalist] Rafer Johnson at KNBC. He was a sportscaster who became a very close friend. Bobby Kennedy was trying to get him to go work for him on the campaign. I said, "I don't think you ought to do that. You have a pretty good career going here and you would not be able to come back to it." About five days later Bobby was at the studio, and I was getting ready to interview him. He was huddled in the corner with Rafer and it was clear to me that they had this brotherly love. I went over to them and I said, "OK, I was wrong." Rafer resigned and went to work on the campaign and was of course the one who wrestled the gun out of the hands of [Robert Kennedy's assassin] Sirhan Sirhan. We talked about it recently - I'm so glad he was there to spend those last few weeks with a man that he clearly loved.