Tom Brokaw in Hershey, Pa., on Sept. 22, 2014. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Media critic

When Tom Brokaw got himself into a bind on Sunday, he was playing a well-worn role for NBC News. On “Meet the Press,” Brokaw riffed on how folks around the country view immigration: “The fact is, on the Republican side, a lot of people see the rise of an extraordinary, important, new constituent in American politics: Hispanics, who will come here and all be Democrats,” said Brokaw in a discussion moderated by host Chuck Todd. “Also, I hear, when I push people a little harder, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.’ I mean, that’s also a part of it. It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.”

The 78-year-old former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” is identified on network broadcasts as a “special correspondent,” a beat that includes a few strains: (1) nostalgia, as when he looks back on huge news events — Watergate, 9/11, the late President George H.W. Bush; (2) analysis of election events; and (3) occasional interpretation of America.

In January 2018, Brokaw appeared on Todd’s daily show on MSNBC (“MTP Daily”) and opined on how President Trump’s supporters viewed him in light of revelations associated with the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. “Well, I remember being in [a] small town of Wyoming this past fall. I was doing some reporting. There was a fellow out there,” said Brokaw. “And a woman came up to me on the street, a big Trump admirer. She said, the Russians, I know, yes, they’re probably involved. Why shouldn’t we think they were involved? But I don’t think it made any difference in the election. And walked away. I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Several months before that, Brokaw was commenting on the tumult stemming from Trump’s dreadful, racist remarks regarding the August 2017 protests in Charlottesville. “Last night, I was at an event in Bozeman, Montana,” Brokaw told the hosts of the “Today” show. “And it was a tribute, really, to the ability of citizens to work together. It was a big ranching issue and the use of land, it was farming in Kansas and also fishing in the Gulf Coast. And it was a demonstration of how citizens, from the ground up, can come together and solve the problems that are important to them. And I think the country really does have to rise up.”

And in November 2016, just before the presidential election, Brokaw did a story from Sioux Falls, S.D., which is just down the interstate from his native town of Webster, S.D. “Sioux Falls is a small city with a big reputation. It makes all the lists for quality of life and economic opportunity, but it has a problem. Unemployment is so low, just 2.1 percent, there aren’t enough workers, especially for the tough jobs,” reported Brokaw. In the report, an immigration attorney tells Brokaw that 36 languages are spoken in town. “What about assimilation? Are they fitting in?” asked Brokaw.

The topic of assimilation takes us to the second, and more problematic part of Brokaw’s commentary on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” After reporting that many folks across the country are worried about “brown grandbabies,” Brokaw shifted into editorial mode, signaling that he would now be stating his own opinions: “I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” said Brokaw. “That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. You know, 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. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

Spoken like a man with more than five decades' worth of experience trying to broaden the audience for NBC News: Whenever you can blame both sides for any problem, do so.

It is here where the first part of Brokaw’s NBC News role — nostalgist, that is — conflicts with the third part, as interpreter of the national mood. Implicit in Brokaw’s critique is the idea — peddled by immigration hard-liners all the time — that immigrants these days don’t assimilate into U.S. society they way they did in the olden days. The longtime NBC News personality even alighted on language acquisition, and on this front we have data to rebut Brokaw. A Pew Research Center study found that “fully 89% of U.S.-born Latinos spoke English proficiently in 2013, up from 72% in 1980.” The research shows that as immigrants settle in the United States, they and their kids embrace English, though perhaps not to Brokaw’s satisfaction.

The findings are ho-hum: Proficiency in English in the United States, after all, is a precondition to economic and social advancement. Contrary to immigration conspiracy theories, there’s no separatist Spanish-speaking state seeking to dethrone English-speaking America. Ride a city bus sometime, Brokaw — you may just hear immigrant parents speaking to their children in Spanish, and the kids responding in English.

We contacted Brokaw for an interview, and he responded, “I made my comments last night.” That was a reference to a string of tweets revisiting the moment on “Meet the Press.” It included a reference to Yamiche Alcindor, a fellow panelist and PBS journalist who said, “The idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America, is, in some ways, troubling.”

We checked back with Brokaw, asking about the extent to which his reporting on American political attitudes involved discussions with immigrant communities. This time, he provided extensive feedback. (Excuse the abbreviations — these remarks came off Brokaw’s mobile phone.)

from the days of cesar chavez in ca up to and including our current latino distribution i’ve stayed in touch with and covered those communities  

i still hv contacts in east LA from my time there. during the iowa primaries i’ve done stories on the  hispanic presence in that state as a result of labor needs in food processing. (mexican mkts in downtown marshalltown iowa )

my home state of SD, same story 

when i left NN I did an hour on the hispanic population west of aspen, how it filled the hardest construction jobs and volunteered to work 7 days a week while living 3 families to a home

i hv similar stories from ks. the mayor of emporia, a car dealer, told me hispanics were his most reliable customers and he was worried about  cut backs at the chicken plant

almost all the stories were a tribute to their resourcefulness and family values 

only the gang element in LA deviated from that norm. 

because of cultural differences it is always hard to get the hispanic families to engage - which is one of the reasons i referred to assimilation on NN

I’ve heard the phrase “brown grand babies “ in  mt and colo from white families who are afraid of  assimilation even as they admire the work ethics of the hispanics

in short my experiences were on the ground and up close - not drawn from social media

In any case, on Sunday morning, Brokaw angered the left by launching an errant critique of an entire immigrant population. On Sunday evening, he angered the right by expressing regret and praising the great tradition of American diversity. He has landed right in that mainstream-media sweet spot: the middle.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Tom Brokaw blew it on assimilation. But we can get it right.

Linda Vester: Why I revealed that Tom Brokaw harassed me

Erik Wemple: Say it ain’t so, Tom Brokaw. Oh, you already did

Erik Wemple: Tom Brokaw pens vicious attack on accuser

Erik Wemple: Tom Brokaw rips media for misreporting his involvement in Brian Williams case