deck of their Montana ranch in October 2020. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
Legendary newsman Tom Brokaw sits down to talk journalism, climbing with the Do-Boys and what Montana can do to preserve itself.
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
Tom Brokaw was, for a half-century, one of the most trusted news anchors in the history of American journalism. He was the first Westerner to conduct televised interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. He was the only reporter in the world to tell the story from the top of the Berlin Wall when the Soviet Union fell. He’s reported from every corner of the world and anchored the nation during Watergate and through the 9/11 attacks. He was the only anchor to host all three of NBC’s news programs: The Nightly News, Today show and Meet the Press. He’s won every major award in broadcast journalism and in 2014 Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Today, Brokaw relaxes with his family on the porch of their Montana ranch east of Livingston. Legs crossed in the sun, he wears the half smile of a man who knows secrets he’ll never tell, not even to his dog, Red, lying at his feet. Sitting between his wife of 58 years, Meredith, and his daughter Andrea, visiting from Geneva, Tom Brokaw appears content. He still hunts and he still fly fishes out the back door of his ranch on Big Timber Creek. As the great Montana fishing writer Norman Maclean wrote in his masterpiece novella A River Runs Through It, the days of getting the big fish—or the big interview—are fading into something simpler, perhaps more beautiful:
“Now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”
Brokaw tours me around his ranch property and over to the river he was fishing not a week earlier with longtime friend, Patagonia owner Yvon Chouinard. And the sun is beginning a slow decent behind the Crazy Mountains and dusk will soon settle. The conversation is as easy as the river waters meandering through his backyard. But that voice.
Mountain Outlaw: Thank you for sitting down with us, Mr. Brokaw. Are you in Montana full time now?
TOM BROKAW: No, not full time. We came in mid-July. We’re going to leave and go back East right after Thanksgiving. We’ve been coming here for more than 30 years.
M.O.: It sounds like you’re staying busy. You’re still talking to NBC.
T.B.: This is the modern technology. We’ve got a picturesque house and converted it with Zoom into a kind of a television studio. Today I did something on the two most dramatic presidential elections of my lifetime, which is when Ronald Reagan swept the country, and then the George Bush and Al Gore “Florida, Florida, Florida” situation. I can stay tuned in here by doing it right from my living room.
M.O.: That’s amazing, isn’t it?
T.B.: It really is. It’s a lot different than when I first began.
M.O.: So, you’re from a small town in South Dakota. How is Middle America different now from when you were growing up?
T.B.: South Dakota is a much more conservative state now than it was when I was growing up. And I tend to be suspicious of modernity. I’ve been paying attention to what’s going on with COVID, for example. It’s very unsettling because the governor didn’t take it seriously at all. And now it’s on fire. [South Dakota] always used to have a real mix of representatives and governors, and now it [has] a very conservative point of view. And I don’t think it’s good for one party or one philosophy to dominate the state. Whether it’s liberal or conservative, it’s better to have a mix.
M.O.: There’s an exclusive club with Chouinard, the late conservationist and The North Face founder Doug Tompkins, and climber Rick Ridgeway, and you’ve trekked all over the globe. Tell me about the “Do-Boys.”
T.B.: It stands for “doing me in” (laughs). Ridgeway was on the Today show with me right after he climbed K2. I was in really good shape—I’d been running a lot— but I’d never climbed. He said, “Come on, we’ll teach you to climb.” So, I went out there finally to Jackson. I didn’t have any equipment or anything. And they got me a pair of climbing shoes and I had cut-off pants and we climbed Baxter’s Pinnacle. We were down in South America. Yvon went with us to Central Asia outside of Tibet and did a big trek there. And we did a winter climb here up above Yellowstone. It was really gnarly.
M.O.: You purchased your first ranch near Livingston in 1989 after visiting on assignment. In times like these, what does Montana mean to you?
T.B.: Montana’s always interested me because it’s a mix. It has the great labor tradition in the mines. It’s elected more Democratic governors in recent years than it has Republican governors. It’s found a way to kind of divide political power. I’m a huge fan of [former U.S. Senator] Mike Mansfield. I actually got to know him during Watergate. And I always thought he was the quintessential Montanan. He was a laconic guy, great common sense, served his country militarily and also politically. There are still people like that in Montana.
M.O.: That’s a difficult one, especially with so many people moving here for various reasons.
T.B.: Yeah, I know. A lot of our friends around the country say, “Do you know any good buys in Montana?” And I say, “You’re on your own.” (laughs)
M.O.: Mountain Outlaw is based in Big Sky. Chet Huntley is the founding father of Big Sky Resort and was NBC’s anchor from 1956 to ‘70. What did you learn from Huntley, and what does he represent in your eyes?
T.B.: I always felt a kinship with him. He was the quintessential Westerner, which I always appreciated. When we moved out here, I began to have a greater appreciation for his roots. He was always happier when he was out here on a horse and in a pair of Levi’s than he was in New York or Washington, D.C. He was an iconic character when he was twinned with David [Brinkley] and that was the most successful breakthrough. They created the modern evening news.
M.O.: These incredible parts of the world need an eye on them. In order to protect some of the special places in Montana and the West, where does conservation fit in?
T.B.: It’s a big part of why we care about Montana. I tell my friends on the East [Coast], there are two parts of Montana: you’ve got the crowd who believes the cows should have anything they want whenever they want it. And then there’s this other crowd—the Montana Land Reliance and the others—that are doing the right thing. You may be aware of this, but Bozeman is on fire.
M.O.: The growth is explosive. What can we do in the face of this exponential growth we’re seeing?
T.B.: I think you get the right people who invest and talk to them about values. I’m just rereading Lewis and Clark and it’s so evocative for me because what they were seeing and what they were able to do is astonishing to me. But mostly what I find is that once you expose people to it in the right way, they come with the same conclusion: we’ve got to preserve this. And it doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It means you use it wisely.
M.O.: You once said that for people to get a handle on climate change, we all need to “step up.” As a journalist, how concerned are you with objectivity while at the same time not ignoring the science?
T.B.: It really is a matter of the science. I did a lot of documentaries on the science of global warming and was working with the best scientists we have. I came out here to Glacier [National Park]. You can track what’s going on with the loss of glaciers, what’s going on with the greater floods that we have, the more violent weather that we have every year. And there are some people who just don’t want to believe that. But the consequences are beginning to be very expensive.
M.O.: And you see America shifting away from traditional fossil fuels?
T.B.: I do. Fossil fuels will be with us for some significant amount of time. But we ought to be able to have the kinds of discussions that are going to be necessary so we can move into the future together. Look, when they first invented the internal combustion engine, a lot of people said, “No, no. We’re happy with the horse and buggy.” Now you have new automobiles that are coming on and are using different kinds of locomotion. All the major brands are looking at how they can do that in a way that’s good for business, but also good for society. What’s always driven any society is innovation.
M.O.: You were one of the most trusted anchors in broadcast news. What has been the damage to the country in this age of misinformation?
T.B.: I think it’s one of the most significant developments of my life because there’s so much. And anybody can be a commentator or pass themselves off as [influential] with a keystroke. It’s a vast universe out there. So, it makes it all the more important for consumers of all that information to make sure they’re getting the right stuff, not just what matches their mood at the moment. It really requires everybody to be vigilant.
M.O.: So, in part the onus is on us as media consumers.
T.B.: When I was in the middle of Watergate, that was a very volatile time. I had friends who were Nixon fans, and they were not happy. I remember one longtime friend called me up and said, “Just because you got a fancy suit and you can stand on the White House lawn doesn’t mean you have to betray your country or your president.” I said, “I’m not betraying them. I’m asking the questions that need to be asked on behalf of all of us.” You have to have a stiff spine. And you also have to understand that it’s not about you. It’s about the subject that you’re dealing with.
M.O.: Of course. The story is not about you as a journalist. After the success of your previous books, including your bestseller, The Greatest Generation, though, how difficult was it to adjust to writing your memoir, A Lucky Life Interrupted, about your battle with cancer that started in 2013?
T.B.: It wasn’t that hard because I made it clear from the beginning that this was about me and it was very personal. I also made it clear that what I went through might be helpful to people who are going through similar ordeals. And it was very gratifying to hear from cancer patients … And a number of my scholar journalists said to me, “Tom, I think that was your best book.”
M.O.: You’ve always done things a bit differently. One might say you’re an outlaw in the ways you’ve succeeded in your life and career. Tell me about your success in journalism by taking a nontraditional path.
T.B.: I think I succeeded in journalism in part because I was in the right place at the right time. I came out of high school a real whiz kid. Everybody thought I was going to shoot the moon and I went off the rails, you know; party hearty for two different schools, two years. And then I thought, “God, this is not who I am.” I sat in front of a television set the night John F. Kennedy was elected. I thought, “That’s what I want to do with my life, so I better get with it.” It was a succession of good breaks, which is also important in life.
M.O.: You built your career on hard work and luck. A friend of yours once said, “Tom, you’re always in the right place at the right time.”
T.B.: It’s been a lot of hard work but that’s hard to measure. Probably the best example of being in the right place at the right time is that I was the only correspondent in the world who was in Berlin the night the Berlin Wall came down. We had a worldwide exclusive on that. And it was a development that will live forever because the Cold War effectively ended on that night. Another example is when Tiananmen Square happened in China. I ended up having this huge exclusive in which I had a very embedded cameraman who taped the camera behind a bike in a cardboard box. And we rode to Tiananmen Square with me behind him. The Chinese didn’t quite know what was going on, but I was getting these exclusive photographs of Tiananmen Square and doing a narration at the same time. You make your own good fortune.
M.O.: I watched that footage and it blew me away. What a risk but also a brilliant way to get the story.
T.B.: The only one that wasn’t happy with it was Ted Koppel (laughs). We were friends and he was coming in to [China] after me. On the airplane, it occurred to him with his camera crew that they would get a bike and ride around Tiananmen Square. And when they got off the airplane, their office said, “Sorry, Brokaw’s already done that.” (laughs)
M.O.: You were the first American journalist to interview both Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. Looking in the rearview mirror, what would you ask Putin if you interviewed him today?
T.B.: He was a tough one. I’m not sure I’d get a straight answer.
I think the question is doing an analysis of his policies. It’s clear that Russia is not the empire it once was: his economy is propped up because they’ve got lots of natural gas and fuel that western Europe needs. He sees the West as a rival, and he’s played Trump pretty perfectly it looks like. He’s a canny guy. Remember, he was a KGB agent. The night the Berlin Wall came down, he wept because he was so saddened by the fact that they no longer have the control they once did. That’s who he is.
M.O.: You and your wife Meredith have been married since 1962.
T.B.: We’ve been married 192 years. (laughs)
M.O.: She must have been a major support system. What has Meredith meant to you throughout your career?
T.B.: We went to high school together. I was a working-class kid and my first job was in Omaha, in which I was making no money. I was kind of stuck there for two years and she was teaching school, but she told her sister that she was going to marry me because she thought it would always be exciting … After two years in Omaha, I got picked up by the biggest station in Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement. I was 25 and all hell was breaking loose. After nine months, NBC said, “Come work for us in California,” so I went from Omaha to Atlanta to Los Angeles within a year and a half. That was a big break.
We loved California. It was in a late ‘60s, early ‘70s. You could buy a house for $45,000, gas for 30 cents a gallon, four people could go to a great dinner for like $65, and there are a lot of young people coming in at the same time we were. We just caught the wave. We were lucky.
“What we have to do is find a way to work together; that’s the greatest single test before the country. And it’s not a matter of who’s left and who’s right, it’s really a matter of what their values are for the country.”
M.O.: 1974. Watergate. The entire nation is watching. NBC sent you east from California to be its White House correspondent and President Richard Nixon was claiming executive privilege in withholding White House information during impeachment hearings. You asked him flat out if he was misleading the American public. Looking back, what did that moment mean to you?
T.B.: Well, it was really the question at the stage we were in. There was a lot of pressure on us every day because there was so much at stake. It was a pretty dramatic moment: a big convention in Houston, to which White House press corps had been invited to participate in questioning Nixon. I was sitting on what I knew was a dynamite question. They got Dan [Rather] up … and he had a really sharp exchange with the president. And what’s funny, he said, “Dan Rather, CBS News.” And Nixon said to him, “Mr. Rather, are you running for something?” and Dan got his back up and said, “No, sir, are you?” So I was next and I asked the question you just cited. And as I walked off, I’ll always remember, Dan stood up and said, “Hell of a question, champ. Hell of a question.” And it was. And by the way, that was the last one Nixon answered in public under any circumstances.
M.O.: Watching that moment as a journalist, what strikes me is the poise and, frankly, courage it took to ask that question.
T.B.: Well, that’s what we’re paid to do. But the important thing is to get it right. And ask in a way in which it doesn’t appear that you have a personal involvement; that you’re just doing it to be a smartass. That’s why we work so hard at getting it nailed down in terms of the correctness of the question.
M.O.: What is the role of journalism today, specifically local journalists compared to national reporters, and how has that changed since the heart of your career?
T.B.: One of the things that’s changed is that there are fewer local newspapers covering communities across America. And there are some very good local reporters, very good local newspapers, but they’re struggling to survive. And that troubles me because journalism just can’t be from the top down, it’s got to be from the bottom up as well. There are tough economic circumstances now. That’s why online journalism is so important. But you can’t diminish the standards for online journalism just because you’ve got it in the palm of your hand, you have to play by the rules.
M.O.: What advice do you have for local journalists today?
T.B.: The best stories are in your backyard. There’s nothing uninteresting about any community in America. You could drop in by parachute into the middle of Utah or in the middle of Kansas and I’ll find a story within half an hour that’s important to the community. I look at the obligation of local journalists as: Don’t just look over the horizon. Be looking around you about what the community needs to know.
M.O.: You’ve been in journalism for more than five decades, but you’re more on the outside now looking in. When you look in on media in the world right now, what do you see?
T.B.: I see a lot of great work being done. Just take NBC as an example: We have a whole new cadre of young women. And they’re not there because they want to be glamorous or they want to be famous. They’re there because they want to be journalists. And they’re excellent at what they do. I’m just so proud of them. And it’s true for the young men as well.
M.O.: How does this era today of division and racial inequity and a worldwide pandemic compare to other historical moments in your career?
T.B.: This is the most complex situation politically, culturally, scientifically, that America’s ever been evolved in. I think you have to go back to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to find a time that was as traumatic as the time we’re going through right now. This is a great, great democracy. We’ll find a way to manage this because it’s the essence of who we are. What we have to do is find a way to work together; that’s the greatest single test before the country. And it’s not a matter of who’s left and who’s right, it’s really a matter of what their values are for the country.
M.O.: Tom Brokaw, you continue to live a storied life. Looking back on your career and accomplishments, what are you grateful for?
T.B.: I’m grateful that I married Meredith. When I was going off the rails, she helped straighten me out. She has an extraordinary gift in a lot of ways. A lot of people say, “We only care about you because you’re married to Meredith.” (laughs) And I’ve been through some harrowing situations and escaped uninjured and escaped alive. But most of all, I’m just grateful to be an American who can pursue what he wants to pursue. I’ve had great fortune of raising three fantastic daughters, none of which is a journalist, by the way. They love what they’re doing so I’m grateful for that.
Joseph T. O’Connor is Editor-in-Chief of Mountain Outlaw magazine and VP of Media for the Outlaw Partners.