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The New West: Mountain Outlaw and Tom Brokaw

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EBS and Mountain Outlaw Editor-in-Chief Joe O’Connor interviews legendary NBC newsman Tom Brokaw at his ranch in late October. Renowned photographer Tom Mangelsen walks ahead while EBS and Mountain Outlaw Publisher Eric Ladd tracks behind. PHOTO BY SUE CEDARHOLM

Inside the exclusive interview

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

If you haven’t noticed yet, American journalism legend Tom Brokaw, who proudly adopted Montana (and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) as his home province decades ago, is now featured in a cover profile in Mountain Outlaw magazine, whose publishers also print this newspaper. The winter 2020-2021 edition is available free at newsstands throughout the Northern Rockies.

What you may not realize is that it’s a damned fine read—a “good get” as we like to say in the reporting business. The person who landed the interview is a friend of mine, Joseph T. O’Connor, the magazine’s and EBS’s Editor-in-Chief. Joe is the kind of bright young scribe far too humble to compliment himself with self-congratulations, but praise is in order. He’s a journalist that people need to be paying attention to because, where talent is concerned, he’s the real deal.

I thought it would be interesting to have this column revolve around an uncommon theme—a journalist interviewing another journalist about an interview he had with a famous newsman whose reporting and insightful news reading reached millions of people every night, coast to coast. 

Yes, it’s also more than uncanny that Brokaw, who currently enjoys emeritus status at NBC, left his mark at the same network where another Montanan—Chet Huntley, born in tiny Cardwell and who first had the vision that led to Big Sky—rose to prominence.

Enjoy this conversation with Joe O’Connor and make sure you pick up a copy of Mountain Outlaw.

TODD WILKINSONWhy do you think it’s important to interview Brokaw now and hear what he has to say?

JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR: Tom Brokaw led the nation behind the news desk for five decades. People tuned in nightly to hear him deliver the news and it wasn’t ever a biased situation the way many claim the news is today. He was trusted. And that, in my mind, is the most important thing facing the nation: trust. But it can’t be blindly following whatever echo chamber that we’re watching, reading or hearing for our information. It takes critical thinking. That’s what Brokaw had to say and it’s critical for everyone to hear that.

TWWhat struck you about the affection that he and his wife, Meredith, have for Montana and its natural environment?

JTO: First off, Meredith was wonderful. She and their daughter, Andrea, greeted us at their ranch with lemonade and cupcakes—sweetest welcome ever. The Brokaws do care deeply about Montana and the West and where it’s headed. They’re from South Dakota and bring a Midwest sense of kindness and honesty to the landscape. I think that allows for a more straightforward approach to conversations about this landscape and how we can protect it. Brokaw hunts and fishes and they both hike and enjoy the beauty of Montana. Meredith loves riding horses. They not only live on the landscape, they live as a part of it.

TWBy his example, how would you describe the values of “Citizen Brokaw?”

JTO: This gets at my point about how the Brokaws were raised. Tom was born in Webster, South Dakota (population 1,886, and that was in 2010), before attending high school in Yankton. I believe the small-town American values they learned there shaped who they are today. And you could always hear it in Brokaw’s news delivery: professional, to the point. But the key, and he talked about this in our interview, was that he always kept himself out of his news reporting and anchor work. He told me that you have to know that as a journalist: the story is not about you. But he has also lived in New York and California and reported from around the world. That gives him a sense of empathy, which is so important not only for journalists but for everyone. Also, the man has a great sense of humor. 

TWDid your chat with Brokaw cause you to reflect differently on the role journalism plays?

JTO: It did. Brokaw pointed to the importance of local journalism as being fundamental to us understanding ourselves as a country. He told me “America is at a real crossroads,” and that journalism needs to have a bottom-up approach as much as a top-down. They say all politics is local. I believe that and think, in turn, all journalism is local as well. But the conversation also reinforced what I know: journalism requires the reporter to know himself or herself. If I can answer yes when I ask myself “Am I doing this story for the right reason and providing context and a fair approach to my reporting?” then I can sleep at night. You have to trust that you know yourself and you’re doing this work for the right reasons. If not, you’re in the wrong profession. Brokaw also said journalists need to have a stiff spine. And that is definitely true.

TWI don’t want you to give too many details away about your excellent interview, but offer a teaser about what you believe the punchline is.

JTO: Ultimately, we all need to live our lives honestly and with conviction. Brokaw worked hard and had a bit of luck, which is important. But also being true to ourselves and trusting good instincts will take us a long way. And we have to give a damn about the world we live in. Tom Brokaw knows that Montana is a special place. We need to recognize that and understand we play an active role in its survival.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 by Thomas D. Mangelsen. Mangelsen also conducted the photo shoot for the Brokaw interview in Mountain Outlaw.

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