Back to Stories

Brokaw Opens Up To A Young Big Sky Journalist

In The New West, Todd Wilkinson interviews Joseph O'Connor about his interview with Brokaw on topics ranging from Trump to journalism and nature

Young journalist Joseph O'Connor interviewed Tom Brokaw recently at his place east of Livingston. The photographer in the lead who was enlisted to  shoot photos for the profile was Thomas D. Mangelsen of Jackson Hole, best known for his nature photography and a longtime Brokaw friend.  Joining O'Connor was his boss, Eric Ladd, magazine and newspaper publisher based in Big Sky.  Photo courtesy Sue Ewald Cedarrholm
Young journalist Joseph O'Connor interviewed Tom Brokaw recently at his place east of Livingston. The photographer in the lead who was enlisted to shoot photos for the profile was Thomas D. Mangelsen of Jackson Hole, best known for his nature photography and a longtime Brokaw friend. Joining O'Connor was his boss, Eric Ladd, magazine and newspaper publisher based in Big Sky. Photo courtesy Sue Ewald Cedarrholm

By Todd Wilkinson

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. (Mountain Outlaw is a journalism collaborator with Mountain Journal). The winter 2020-2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw 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  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 in love with Greater Yellowstone and whose reporting and insightful news reading reached millions of people every night, coast to coast. 

Yes, it’s more than uncanny that Brokaw, who currently enjoys emeritus status at NBC News, left his mark at the same network where another Montanan—Chet Huntley, born in tiny Cardwell, Montana and who first had the vision that led to Big Sky—rose to prominence. Late last winter, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was arriving in the US and then spreading rapidly, I reached out to Brokaw and asked him what he believed America most needed to do in confronting the virus. 

As a student of history who wrote a best-selling book, The Greatest Generation—that celebrated the contributions and personal sacrifices made by citizens from all walks in life in enduring both the Great Depression and then defeating Germany and Japan in World War II— Brokaw was unwavering. He presciently said what was needed most in March 2020 was leadership and a call for national unity from the President, the same way that Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to hold the country together. You can read that Mountain Journal story by clicking here

What O'Connor has done with his story is ask Brokaw about significant events that have transpired since, from Covid to the national election, and from the role of journalism to thoughts about his spending much of the year in Montana and becoming a more committed conservationist. 

Enjoy this conversation, below, with Joe O’Connor about what a young journalist felt whenmeeting a sagacious veteran of the Fourth Estate. Make sure you pick up a copy of Mountain Outlaw and, if you're not in the Northern Rockies you can find it digitally right here.
Three Brokaws in Montana—Meredith, her husband, Tom, and their daughter, Andrea.  Photo courtesy Mountain Outlaw and Thomas D. Mangelsen
Three Brokaws in Montana—Meredith, her husband, Tom, and their daughter, Andrea. Photo courtesy Mountain Outlaw and Thomas D. Mangelsen

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.

TW
By 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.
"...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."  —Joe T. O'Connor, articulating what he heard from a legend in American journalism
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
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

SUPPORT US
SUPPORT US