When old journalists should fade away

For the past few hours, it’s painful watching what’s become of Tom Brokaw, the once esteemed NBC News anchor who got into an online mess when he suggested Hispanics have an assimilation problem.

Brokaw, 78, proved his age when he fumbled through a segment on “Meet the Press” on the border wall and the fears of people that people will have “brown grandbabbies.”

“They ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities,” he said. “And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

“And the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always a part of America, is, in some ways, troubling,” panelist Yamiche Alcindor of PBS countered.

“We as a community are creating the new America right before your very eyes, Mr. Brokaw,” the Latino Rebels web site said. “Sorry if it doesn’t fit your perceptions of what America should be like. That future is bilingual, bicultural, at times in English, other times in Spanish. Our community is defining this future. Not you.”

Two thirds of Hispanics in the United States were born here, it said.

Brokaw’s subsequent apology was as clumsy as his original comments.

NBC News had no comment on the controversy and edited out the comments when it posted online video of the “Meet the Press” segment.

Meanwhile, people apparently scrambled to determine what Brokaw was talking about.

  • Nick Hansen

    Bob – What are your thoughts on Dan Rather? He seems to have navigated the social media age much better than some of his compatriots.

    • I don’t pay much attention to him. I’m generally tired of hearing from the same old people saying all the things I’d expect them to say after 40, 50 years of listening to them.

      I liked the “Drinking with Dan” idea, though.


      • Gary F

        i remember back in my U of MN days in the mid 80’s when Morley Safer was on some journalistic forum on campus completely bombed.

        • Rob

          And your point would be…?

          • Gary F

            I wonder if Dan has had John Hinderaker or Scott Johnson on his new show?

          • RBHolb

            I think he wants to limit himself to interesting guests.

          • do they drink?

    • X.A. Smith

      I’ve seen him pop up on Rachel Maddow occasionally; she usually brings him on to discuss something in history that he was there to cover, etc., and he usually does OK, for an old white guy.

      • Nick Hansen

        I usually see a lot of my Facebook friends liking/commenting/sharing his posts on Facebook. I don’t see that with a ton of other newsmen. I like his perspective as a newsguy who can see the long view, but I also agree with Bob that fresh voices are critical.

  • boB from WA

    So part of me wants to agree with you. That folks (in whatever occupations they may be in), when they reach that certain age (whatever THAT may be) should be asked to leave or politely shown the door (if they themselves cannot realize that their time is past), so that they may live out the rest of their lives with grace and dignity. However, even as you have pointed out in this forum, there are those who also live to the end of their lives bringing wit and wisdom to their professions ( I think of Bill Kurtiss in this particular case). In addition they have a connection to the past that gives them a perspective on what is happening today. Maybe it is time for Mr Brokaw to retire (and I do hope that he does this of his own volition), but I also think (per your headline) not all journalists should “fade away”

    • TV panels, particularly Sunday panels, are typically the same old people saying the same old things. This is true in the news business too — the so-called “golden rolodex”. It’s why more and more newsrooms are undertaking “source tracking” to correct the problem. The nation is not clamoring to hear more from the same old white guys.

      • Joseph

        What is “source tracking”?

        • Auditing the sources used in the news to find a pattern of use and , probably, bias. And then adjusting accordingly.

      • Jim in RF

        I know it’s not your responsibility, Bob, but MPR wasn’t any better about this than anyone. It used to be that there couldn’t be a story about airplanes or airports without consulting Terry Trippler, or mentioning a runny nose without asking Michael Osterholm. It was almost like radio bingo.

        • Larry Jacobs and politics for example. Don’t forget the harrington guy up in White Bear for matters of home sales etc. The golden rolodex is an institutional problem everywhere.

          • Jim in RF

            Along with David Brooks, I’ve never heard anything from Jacobs that I didn’t already know. He’s a human news aggregator. Someone should build a list of these overexposed quote machines.

          • Jim in RF

            Damn, am I grumpy today.

          • Rob

            Cokie Roberts also.

          • Rob

            Slight amendment to “the golden rolodex of white guy sources.”

    • Rob

      I’m thinkin’ a mandatory retirment age of 65 would be good.

  • Erik Petersen

    I’m going to tread on this like we can actually talk about it. I don’t think, arguably, that Brokaw’s is a ‘terribly’ racist observation on its face. Its wrong though, its incorrect, its not a proper observation of reality. Cuz Hispanics / Latins don’t have an assimilation problem in this country. They assimilate quite well. If one is out there participating in the world here, they can observe this.

    • Mike

      Agreed. There’s nothing wrong in principle about expecting immigrant groups to assimilate to some extent (being functional in the dominant language, etc.). But in my experience, Brokaw is factually wrong about the lack of assimilation. If the first generation doesn’t, the second and third always do – or at least they have in this country. It’s something we’ve always done very well compared to many other nations.

    • Rob

      So, if Brokaw understands that there isn’t an Hispanic assimilation problem, why do you suppose he’s making these remarks about assimilation and the need for Hispanics to speak English and be “codified in their community?”

      • Erik Petersen

        But he doesn’t seem to understand that there IS NOT a hispanic assimilation problem….

        The nut of the problem here is he’s going on Sunday morning TV trying to sound wise, and he’s not wise… but he’s trying to talk in the parlance of some conventional wisdom…

        • Rob

          Hence the compelling argument that he needs to put himself out to pasture.

      • Jim in RF

        I wonder how much mixing a guy like Brokaw does. Is he popping into Home Depot for a faucet repair kit or stopping at the tire place much? What the hell does he know about assimilation?

  • Jay T. Berken

    There are three things that I set as goals for my kids growing up: 1) learn a second language 2) listen to MPR/BBC/CBC 3) enjoy and love the Green Bay Packers.

    So far I am par for the course.

    I wanted them to at least be set to understanding that English is not the only language spoken in the world at a young age and to get an ear for different sounds/tones. Secondly, I want them to have a base of good conversations/arguments to listen to, and that there are more points of view then AMERICA. Third, they will grow up in Minnesota; I want them to have a little of my roots of growing up.

    Now, this is while growing up; when adults, I hope they carry each goal on.

  • Rob

    Regarding Brokaw’s feeble and wrong-headed apology attempts: As my dear sainted mother used to say, ” When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”

  • AL287

    Swedes, Germans, Italians, Czechs, Norwegians, Hungarians, Nigerians, Congolese, Somalis, etc. all had to assimilate (learn the customs and laws of their adopted country). Learning the common language is just one part of it. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon your ethnic traditions.

    I truly think that is what Tom Brokaw was referring to.

    I think the social media outrage machine needs to apply the emotional brakes.

    As a society, it’s become far too easy to attack another online whether it is justified or not and it is ripping this country apart.

    No immigrant HAS to learn the normal and customary language (in Canada they must— English or French, take your pick) but their experience of life in the United States will be narrowed and diminished as a result.

    Try demanding that your server in, let’s say Germany or France speak to you in English. You won’t even get basic service.

    When in Rome….

    • jon

      I don’t know about France, but my brother-in-law is in germany, and despite speaking german fluently is still frequently given the english menu… and when he first moved there struggled to find people to practice speaking german with because everyone wanted to speak to him in english so they could practice with him.

      I know several people who have visited Rome without speaking italian, and have been able to get around and order food just fine…

      • Jay T. Berken

        A number of years ago, my better half wanted to spiffy up on her French and started Skype conversations with a lady from France. My wife felt that they talked more English then French. The lady from France wanted to get “free” English lessons for business.

      • AL287

        You’re probably right. The annoyed looks I saw happened 26 years ago when I was in Austria and Germany close to when the wall fell.

        The European Union eliminated the isolation but then brought back the anxiety when the refugee boat lifts started and ISIS got a foothold in the Middle East.

    • According to the Cenus, the USA won’t be a majority white European country in the near future. So at that time, all the white Europeans will have to “assimiliate.”

      The entire “assimiliation” discussion is code.

    • lusophone

      You don’t need to demand your server to speak English. All you have to do is say hello and they will instantly reply in English. Many times you don’t even have to open your mouth. They are better off knowing multiple languages.

      Those Swedes and Germans you refer to didn’t instantly learn English when they got here and I bet many of them, the 1st generation immigrants, never learned much English at all. Their kids, however, were bilingual. I just don’t understand why we think Hispanic immigrants have to somehow be better than those other groups.

      • AL287

        I can’t speak French, German, Spanish, or Italian but as a professional musician I had to learn to pronounce them all for singing them.

        I can use Google Translate and get by fairly well. Unfortunately it didn’t exist 26 years ago, the last time I was in Europe.

        My own father, a first generation Finn didn’t speak a word of English until he started public school but his mother did pick up some English when she came to live with us when I was a pre-schooler.

        • lusophone

          So your firsthand experience regarding my comment holds true, right? The Hispanic immigrant’s experience with English is very much the same. One large difference is the proximity of Mexico to the US. You would expect Spanish to have much stronger roots in the US, southwest in particular. The only other main difference between groups similar to your ancestors and Hispanics? It’s pretty obvious that the racial difference has a large bearing on this discussion of assimilation.

    • Barton

      Germans didn’t assimilate until around 1916, even though they had started to arrive in large numbers in the 1830s. The reason they finally assimilated? World War 1. There were a significant number of towns from Minnesota right down through Texas where all business was done in German, the churches preached in German, and all the newspapers were in German. Until it became treasonous to be associated with Germany.

      And every time I go to France and speak French (& my French is fairly decent) every one – especially the servers – want to speak to me in English. Every single person.

      • lusophone

        I know very little French, just hello, thank you, that kind of thing. One restaurant that we entered, I said good evening or something and the server replied in French with something completely over my head. When he realized I didn’t speak much French and spoke English, he was a bit miffed and quipped something to the effect of why didn’t you just start off in English?

      • RBHolb

        “And every time I go to France and speak French (& my French is fairly decent) every one – especially the servers – want to speak to me in English.”

        Gallic arrogance? Or courtesy to a foreign visitor? I’ve never been able to make up my mind on that one.

  • Brian Simon

    Is it his age, or the transition from newsreader to ad hoc opinionator?

  • jon

    English is pervasive.

    If you don’t speak english, and you plan on learning a second language, it should probably be english. If you live in a country where english is the main spoken language and you don’t speak english, then english is definitely the language you should learn.

    Something like 20% of the world’s GDP is from english speaking countries…
    3 of the G8 countries speak english as the primary language.
    in nearly all of the G8 countries you can get by speaking only english.

    While we can argue the merits of the language itself… it’s among the most spoken languages on in the world (mandarin being the only serious competition, but while that has more first language speakers, english has more money behind it, and more total speakers when second language speakers are counted.)

    So I can appreciate the sentiment of ensuring that your children learn to speak english, particularly if you are near a majority english speaking country, and I can certainly appreciate trying to get it into a statement like that and having it come out wrong.

    But I can also see the value in learning to speak spanish, particularly if you are near a spanish speaking country…

    • Guest

      Exactly. Learn English while in the US as a second language if needed. I would also advocate anyone also take Spanish as a very useful language to know for getting ahead in in the US.

    • lusophone

      But Brokaw is just plain wrong or clueless if he thinks Hispanic immigrants aren’t learning/speaking English. He’s clearly out of touch on this issue. I have many friends who speak limited English if any and all of their kids speak both Spanish and English fluently. Many of them are attending 4 year colleges like St. Olaf, Augsburg, etc. His comment just makes no sense at all.

      • jon

        Or he said something that was both poorly worded, and interpreted to feed the outrage machine (the internet)

        • Which he prefaced by saying, “I’ve been saying this for years.”

          So, no.

          The third or fourth thing to go in old men is the ability to filter.

    • RBHolb

      Linguistic assimilation happens on its own. One pop linguist I read a few years ago cited a study showing that, worldwide, immigrants tend* to speak their native language as much as possible, in any situation. Their children speak their parents’ language at home, and the grandchildren of immigrants learn their grandparents’ language as a cultural or heritage endeavor.

      *I say tend, in deference to anyone who wandered over from the Pioneer Press site. Those commenters are all descended from people who became fluent in English immediately upon reaching Ellis Island.

  • jwest8

    Isn’t is just possible that his cancer and the drugs they give him have some role in fumbling? My mother, who had the same cancer, fumbled and flubbed just like he did. Watching him was deja vu all over again.

    I’m not excusing what he said but he certainly appeared to be “off”. And should probably avoid public punditry from now on.

  • QuietBlue

    If anything, the Latino Rebels web site isn’t thinking big enough; they’re right but they need to take it further. Not just bilingual and bicultural, but also multilingual and multicultural.

  • Jerry

    Assimilation is not just newcomers changing to be like the dominant culture, but the dominant culture changing to be more like them.

  • Al X

    If we all need to assimilate, I say we start going after those lutefisk suppers! My father only spoke German until he went to kindergarten in 1932. His family had been here almost 100 years by then. A little patience and a little grace might be in order. BTW…wish he had been able to hang on to that language and pass it on to me!

  • Al X

    Also this: By 1896, official voting instructions were offered in nine different languages in Minnesota: Czech, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, and Swedish.

    • crystals

      Funny, people don’t seem to care as much when the other languages are spoken by white people. Same as it ever was…this is about race and preserving whiteness.

      • lusophone

        So true, you never see a viral video of someone berating a white European couple for speaking German or French here in the US.

      • John

        At this juncture, I think that’s true. I think historically, there were some pretty clear national biases against white people who were from “the wrong places.”

        For example, back when the Finns were immigrating to the iron range, here in MN, there was a pretty significant backlash against the drunk, lazy Finn. I remember reading some interesting newspaper articles from that era (I can’t remember if I was in St. Paul or in Virginia or if it was something I saw online about the early 1900s on the range).

        Today, it’s more about color than language, but it was definitely a thing back then too – just different ridiculous criteria about who you’re supposed to hate/fear.

    • RBHolb

      Now, we regard that as quaint and charming (“Like Grandma would have said, uff da!”). In 1896, there would have been many who would have regarded multi-lingual voting guides as proof that real Americanism was in danger.

      Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech about there being no hyphenated Americans was directed at communities that were celebrating Syttende Mai or Oktoberfest.

      • Erik Petersen

        Midwestern Scandinavians were fairly successful in maintaining their own enclaves until a fair amount lost their farms in the 20’s and 30’s. Then they finally dispersed a bit into the broader urban neighborhoods of Irish and Germans, intermarried…

  • lindblomeagles

    The real problem with what Brokaw said is that a lot of white people his age, and slightly to moderately younger, feel the same way he does even though we live in an era where you can learn how to speak Spanish simply by using the Google Translator Ap. on your Smart Phone, which a lot of people Brokaw’s age (and profession) OWN! It isn’t a bad thing speaking two languages either. The European Union is a bilingual business community, and China sends students to the U.S. every year to learn English. What Brokaw and his ilk suggested we do, which is require Latinos to speak English, reduces American brilliance. We’re a great nation, the greatest in the world, allegedly. Surely, we can confidently learn how to speak Spanish and English simultaneously.