The Cultural Revolution in China was in full swing the last time Tom Brokaw visited there in 1975. A few months ago he returned from his most recent trip and, although the Cultural Revolution is an episode of the past, the Chinese seem to be just as inscrutable as ever.
''Warm, but inscrutable,'' Mr. Brokaw chuckles at his own use of the cliche, during an interview in his corner office at NBC News headquarters in Rockefeller Center.
His observations and the camera work of a British company, ASH Films Ltd., are the backbone of an NBC White Paper, Journey to the Heart of China (NBC, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 8-10 p.m.)m.
Tom Brokaw is one of television's purest broadcast journalists. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, he went right into TV as a newsman on KMTV in Omaha in 1962, then anchored the late evening news on WSB-TV in Atlanta in 1965. In 1966 he moved to the NBC station in Los Angeles, KNBC, then to Washington as the NBC White House correspondent, where he remained until 1976, when he became principal correspondent, then co-anchor, on the ''Today'' show. He stayed there until the end of 1981. In 1982 he was made co-anchor with Roger Mudd of the ''NBC Nightly News.'' Then a few months ago, with NBC third of three in the network news ratings, Mr. Mudd was removed from his job and Brokaw was made sole anchor.
All this without benefit of newspaper experience, but with a high degree of hard-nosed news-gathering ability, which has won the admiration of many veteran print journalists. Whether or not Mr. Brokaw will be able to pull NBC News into shouting distance of CBS and keep it ahead of ABC is a situation being watched very careful in news circles . . . and in top-level NBC headquarters.
Now, he hesitates to make any political pronouncements about what he found in China. ''This show is not about politics,'' he insists. ''It's about how people live. In fact, I would say it is a kind of very sophisticated home movie.''
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