Tom’s Long Count: Brokaw Sign-Off On Bloody Night

In a way, it was like 2000. Nobody knew nothing.

But this time they admitted it. Which caused a little bit of a conflict, since the whole reason they’re there is, they’re supposed to know.

Even by nearly midnight, as Michael McCurry and Karen Hughes, surrogates for Sen. Kerry and President Bush faced off with Tom Brokaw on NBC, nobody knew nothing. They both claimed Florida, and they both claimed Ohio and played with numbers that really didn’t exist.

But it began earlier in the evening with James Carville. “I won’t have a shit-eating grin ’til I see it laid away,” said the gleaming, tense Mr. Carville, hustling down the escalator at the Time Warner Center and onto the makeshift Crossfire set overlooking Columbus Circle. That was at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, when early signs and shiny inside dope were still pointing to John Kerry as the next elected President of the United States. Oh what an exciting hour that was! Spotty exit polls had pointed that way since early in the afternoon. But even if Mr. Carville wasn’t his usual beaming jack-o-lantern, it didn’t matter: If you wanted to know what was going on, he said, you didn’t watch TV anyway.

“The big thing is, the great unwashed out there-we’re sitting here like we don’t know. What difference does it make? All the bloggers have the exit polls posted anyway, if anybody’s that interested,” he said.

On television, the election began as a slow, painful, state by state drip, clearly haunted by the specter of 2000′s bad call for vice president Al Gore at 10 minutes to 8 p.m. And so Mr. Carville spent much of the evening waiting for Wolf Blitzer to summon his on-air bark, surrounded by onlookers off the street who gawked at Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala and Paula Zahn and Robert Novak, bathing in the humid air of cable TV. Mr. Novak’s position seemed to sum it up: He was wheelchair-bound after his recent hip injury, stuck forlornly under the blaring red- and blue-hued lamps while the rest bound on and off the set to make cell phone calls. On air, Lou Dobbs declared that there was “cautious optimism on both sides.”

Nobody knew a thing.

Which doesn’t quite cut it in TV. At 8:20 p.m., CNBC talk diva Tina Brown headed up the escalator to the CNN party and she didn’t seem to need the polling data or the blogs to know who’d won: she’d just been to a party of New York Republicans at Michael’s.

“It was a gloomy atmosphere,” she said. “I was amazed at how early they succumbed to gloom.”

But ten minutes later, Mr. Carville told NYTV that national polls had George W. Bush up 51 percent to 48. But, he said, “Florida and Ohio are close. If Kerry wins one, he’ll probably win.”

He was a little bit lighter now, but not much. Still tense.

Over at CNN’s flashy election headquarters at “NASDAQ MarketSite,” on 42nd Street, Aaron Brown paced among the laptops flashing with blogs, musing on the relevance of television news. Even though bloggers were unleashing leaked polling data, he wasn’t prepared to place any bets.

“The exit polls were not so dramatic that it makes us confident to do too much business with exit polls,” he said, with a circularity, capturing in a sentence the weird contradictory difficulty of not knowing when you’re supposed to know. Audiences, he said, “look to us for something else. We are gatekeepers of information. We’re not just, excuse the expression, vomiting information,” he said.

“My gut does not yet scream,” he said.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Earlier that day, at 12:45 p.m., Tom Brokaw-the retiring NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor-had just finished casting his vote. That night, he was to anchor his sixth and last national election.

He wasn’t too wistful about it.

“Everybody else is kind of looking at me wide-eyed,” he said, “and, ‘My God, you must have a rush-of emotions,’” he said. “I don’t. You know, life goes on. This has been a wonderful run and this a great election to go out on, I suppose. You know, will I have a role in future elections? It’s impossible to say. At best, incidental.”

That day, he was wearing a burnt-umber corduroy jacket on the air, an autumnal, number, the same one he wore at the beginning of the Presidential campaign season in Iowa.

“I started the year with it and I wanted to end the year with it,” he said. “I had gotten that jacket to go out to Iowa and I thought, “What the hell, I’ll wear it at the end of the year, too.’”

Despite the epic quality of the evening, Mr. Brokaw, unlike a lot of pundits and even the candidates themselves, didn’t think we were necessarily witnessing the “most important election of our lifetime.”

“Not in my lifetime,” he said. “I think its one of the two or three most important ones in my lifetime. I think that 1968 was a big one, Joe. It was Humphrey versus Nixon, it was a big election, a parallel in many ways to this one, we were at war and there was a cultural upheaval in the country.”

For the TV media, it was a brutal election year, with everything recast in the fires of the Internet, especially network news. His rival at CBS News was dismantled by needle-nosed bloggers and Fox News aced the networks in the ratings on convention coverage. Mr. Brokaw said the blogs had altered everything.

“I think that they’re big,” he said. “I think they have changed it. Exactly what their role is going to be is still to be determined. There’s still a certain amount of hubris at this point, but I do think that they’re now a fixed part of this universe. The danger is always that you have newspapers without editors, and there will be a shakeout process, people will learn who they can trust, who’s reliable, who’s got real insights and who’s just self-indulgent-it’s very much like the traditional business.”

Mr. Brokaw, baritone and stern, had avoided any kind of Rather-like trouble, avoided the right-wing dogs of war. Matt Drudge rarely sniffed in his direction. Mr. Brokaw chalked it up to his own leathery anchorman skin. “I think I’ve developed a certain callousness to these attacks after all these years,” he said. “And you know I haven’t been a specific target. I’m sure if I had people coming after me-but I just can’t let that get in way.”

Perhaps it was because he’d always been extraordinarily cautious? “I don’t think I stay ‘extraordinarily’ cautious,” he said. “What I try to do is I try to play it straight. You know, I’m not there to impose my personal agenda on to what NBC News does. I’ve got very strong feelings about a lot of issues and what’s going on in the world, but that’s not what my job is.”

As The Observer reported in the summer of 2003, some of Mr. Brokaw’s friends, Barry Diller and Nora Ephron among them, had hoped he’d run for President himself in 2004-and on the Democratic ticket. Mr. Brokaw had immediately put that rumor-or wish-to rest.

But if Mr. Brokaw had one regret, it was what he considered an election-year slight against NBC News-by the Presidential Debate Commission, which excluded NBC from a role as moderator for any of the three debates. “The main thing, I was less concerned about my personal role than I was about the exclusion of NBC News,” he said. “I thought that was unfair…I accept, in my case, their explanation, that if we picked you, then we’ve got Dan and Peter to contend with and then that shuts out everybody else. But as for NBC News, they never really did come up with what I thought was an adequate explanation.”

The weekend before, Dateline NB C had broadcast Mr. Brokaw’s interviews with both candidates. They were respectful, statesmanlike, greatest generation interviews. “You know, I had a very vigorous exchange with President Bush the other day,” Mr. Brokaw said. “And at the end of it all, I got a note back from one of the guys there saying, Look, that was a very tough interview, but you played it straight as you always do. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”

Now that Mr. Brokaw was winding down, was he prepared to say that network news was on its last hobbled leg?

No.

“That’s impossible to say,” he said.

Mr. Brokaw was closing the deal on the last really significant chapter in the history of the network news anchor. And if he was cautious, refusing to discuss exit polls, declining to do a lot of press, he had good reason for wearing jumbo-sized kid’s gloves. He didn’t want another 2000 debacle on his hands. He was, after all, among the anchors who prematurely called Florida and thus the election for former vice president Al Gore-before the whole thing collapsed into disaster. And according to an inflammatory new book called True Lies , written by a lefty Web company called the Guerrilla News Network, or GNN, Mr. Gore has since told anyone who will listen that General Electric’s then-chief executive Jack Welch, a Republican, had pressured NBC News to call Florida for Mr. Bush-a clear case of bias, in Mr. Gore’s mind.

“We know that Welch was in the control room at NBC on election night,” Mr. Gore told the authors. “We just couldn’t get our hands on the tapes to prove it.”

According to the book, Mr. Gore was referring to purported videotapes demanded by a congressional investigation lead by Congressman Henry Waxman.

Apparently, the videos showed Mr. Welch “cheering” and “hissing” as Mr. Bush’s fortunes waxed and waned with incoming exit polls. According to the book, NBC News invoked First Amendment protections and never coughed up the tapes.

Of course, Mr. Gore also told GNN that at a fund-raiser in New York in 2000 he witnessed NBC’s Meet the Press host Tim Russert flash a Bush campaign button hidden on the inside of his jacket lapel when greeting Mr. Bush. A footnote reads: “An NBC News spokeswoman flatly denied it ever happened, telling us it was an ‘urban myth.’”

Actually, it was Al Gore’s first-person account. The GNN authors-Anthony Lappé, Stephen Marshall and Ian Inaba-heard Mr. Gore tell these stories when they met him at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about his new television news channel for young people. They enjoyed the media gossip, but after hearing his business plan they didn’t have a lot of faith in Mr. Gore’s ability to produce watchable television.

“We were trying to tell them, ‘You guys, you’re talking about a high-numbered cable channel on digital cable,’” scoffed Mr. Inaba. “We’re on the Internet, we’re already in 35 million homes. They don’t understand television.”

But Mr. Inaba did and he was responsible for producing what might be considered Mr. Gore’s unbridled id: The incendiary Bush-bashing music video, “Mosh,” by hip-hop megastar, Eminem. The video has become Fahrenheit 9/11 Jr. for the MTV kids since it premiered on Total Request Live on Tuesday, Oct. 26. A week later, it was still in heavy rotation on MTV and MTV2, having already saturated the Web and received John Kerry’s endorsement on MTV when he said he “liked” the song. (He said he saw Eminem on Saturday Night Liv e that week.)

On Friday, Oct. 29, the slight, boyish 33-year-old Mr. Inaba, wearing a black t-shirt, blue jeans and gray-on-gray camo-patterned sneakers, was sitting in a Starbucks in Times Square explaining to NYTV the secret to reaching the youngsters: “news videos,” he said, short downloadable films that mix pop music and quick-cut documentary storytelling. In the Eminem video, the man named Slim Shady, né Marshall Mathers, ritualistically dons black torture gloves and a black hooded sweat jacket and rails against George W. Bush, leading a skulking mob of hooded youth through the darkened streets of Washington, D.C., a landscape paranoid with black helicopters and jackbooted police with helmets and shields. In the opening sequence, a newspaper clip on a wall reads “Secret Service Investigating Bush Threat From Eminem” with the phrase “No Apology” scrawled over it in black ink. “Fuck Bush!” Mr. Mathers spits, his words inserted coming from the mouth of an animated American solider who learns he’s been assigned to Iraq. “Let the President answer from on high-anarchy!” says Eminem, grim and grimacing, his black hood subliminally invoking Abu Ghraib. “Strap him with an AK-47/Let him go fight his own war/Let him impress Daddy that way.”

It sounded less like “news” and more like James Carville on crack.

Ultimately, Mr. Mathers’ dark vision yields to a plea for the young and minorities to vote, not storm the Capitol for a hip-hop coup. Considering that MTV reaches into 85 million homes and that the average viewer is 21 years old, it’s not unthinkable that the video might have motivated a few voters. In the days before the election, Hardball ‘s Chris Matthews was maintaining that it was the youth vote that would determine if Mr. Kerry could win the Presidency.

“If they do get off their keisters tomorrow in the rain, they can change history!” he said on Monday night’s show.

“Yeah,” growled Mr. Imus the next morning, when Mr. Matthews gave the same argument, “but they never have.”

“They never have,” said Mr. Matthews, wistfully.

And even if they did, Mr. Brokaw pointed out, perhaps they would turn out not to be Eminem liberals, but Britney Spears conservatives. Said Mr. Brokaw, “Some of the smart Republican pollsters I know are like, ‘Look, don’t overlook the fact that this generation is still in play. The new voters, a lot of them are conservative.’”

Mr. Inaba said that when he and his partner heard the song, they “both looked at each other” and said, “‘Wow, I can’t believe he actually said all that.’”

Mr. Inaba helped augment a few of Mr. Mathers’ lyrics with conspiracy-minded flavor. When Mr. Mathers says, “This is bin Laden, look at his head noddin’/How could we allow something like this without pumping our fists.” Osama bin Laden is seen on a TV screen when a backdrop falls away revealing a film set with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld conferring behind him.

“It’s also a reference to the fact that the United States funded Osama bin Laden,” said Mr. Inaba. “So it has multiple interpretations, of which were kind of careful. You know, no one has slammed us on that yet. It’s interesting. If there was one thing, that would be the one thing. “That’s blasphemy, how can they possibly say this?’ But they haven’t!”

Michael Moore relayed a message to Mr. Inaba that he loved the video. And Mr. Inaba said Mr. Moore’s film had made it culturally (and corporately) possible for Eminem to unleash politically charged material on a Viacom-owned cable channel. He said the media, in deserved self-loathing since offering limp resistance to the Iraq war, seemed to love the video more than the kids.

“I think a lot of them were waiting and wanted something to do about that,” he said. “We didn’t know how much the media, internally, wanted to play this video. And we heard MTV watched it and, instantaneously, the people at MTV said, ‘We’re going to take this and play it through the election.’ And that’s what they’re doing. People are willing to take risks this week,” he said.