Less than a day after covering the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Tom Brokaw braved a snowstorm to travel to the Sundance Film Festival. The veteran newsman wasn’t there to report on the indie film market. He touched down in Utah to promote “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman,” a Discovery Channel documentary he narrates about a group of Red Staters who become global warming believers as they try to stem the effects of climate change.
“It’s about citizens who become environmentalists and who become political activists for the right reason,” Brokaw told Variety, as he sat at a steakhouse table that offered up a tableau of the winter storm blanketing Park City. “They do it because it’s their life. It’s their livelihoods. It’s their legacy. It’s what their families have done all their lives.”
It’s an issue and a way of life that resonates with Brokaw. He grew up in South Dakota, in the heart of America’s agricultural center, and he returns frequently to a ranch he’s owned in Montana since 1989. There he’s raised sheep, cattle, and other animals, and put easements on his land to keep it preserved.
“Tom’s connection to the story was unique,” said Rich Ross, president of the Discovery Channel. “We wanted someone who had a connection to these type of people.”
Brokaw’s interest in conservation dovetailed with Discovery’s recent focus on shows and films that deal with environmental issues. Last year, for instance, Discovery bought the documentary “Racing Extinction” out of the festival and debuted it on its channel. As part of the premiere, the channel created a social advocacy campaign designed to educate Americans about animal species that could be eradicated by human behavior.
“Discovery is a purpose-driven company and we have to be a moral voice for a lot of these issues,” said David Zaslav, president and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications, and a former colleague of Brokaw’s at NBC.
Even half-a-continent away from D.C., politics loom large at Sundance. Brokaw sat down with Variety an hour after 8,000 protesters marched through the streets of Park City in opposition to the new president. The former NBC News anchor acknowledged that Trump had done little in his inaugural to temper his pugilistic message or to reach out to his political foes.
“It was much more of a campaign speech than I expected,” he said. “I thought he might make some transition. On the other hand, I’ve been talking to people inside the organization and they were pretty clear that even if he had changed his rhetoric, they’re not going to change what they intend to do or his style. It’s a big roll of the dice.”
Brokaw said that Trump’s political stock will never be higher than it is right now, but he stressed that the working class discontent he harnessed to get into the White House cuts both ways.
“The best political strength he’s got right now is his message that he’s going to turn the country back to you, but he doesn’t have forever to do it,” said Brokaw. “People at some point are going to say, ‘okay, show me the money.'”
On the stump, Trump has stressed a series of protectionist policies he claims will bring back the automobile industry and the manufacturing sector. Brokaw sounds unconvinced.
“Working class people are losing ground, not gaining ground,” he said. “But the answer, I believe, is to make a much greater investment in new work programs and in community colleges to train people for the new economy. We’re not going to have big steel companies in Ohio again. That’s not going to happen.”
Trump’s ascent could be problematic for the ranchers and farmers in the Discovery documentary, and for others feeling the effects of a warming planet. The president has expressed skepticism about climate change, at one point tweeting that it was a hoax perpetrated by China. Brokaw thinks that at some point, despite his dismissals, Trump will become a convert.
“The president’s going to hear from the military, because they think it is a potential conflict issue,” said Brokaw. “The water gets higher, countries lose ground.” He adds that he talked to a Trump economic adviser who told him, “he’s very enthusiastic about Trump, but he said he’s going to have to get this.”
Brokaw believes that Trump’s election was also a repudiation of the mainstream media, and noted that in the wake of his upset victory NBC News had committed to sending more correspondents out into the middle of the country.
“There are lessons to be learned from the media in all this,” said Brokaw. “They’re also voting against us. People in fancy suits who think we have all the answers.”
With shows like “Gold Rush” and “Deadliest Catch,” Zaslav and Ross say that Discovery gets the concerns and aspirations of the people who fueled Trump’s rise. That’s not to say the company didn’t take stock of their programming in the wake of the country’s rightward lurch.
“If there’s any programer in America who programs to Middle America it’s Discovery,” said Zaslav. “But we did have a number of meetings where we said are we hearing that voice enough? Are we telling enough of their stories? Are we talking about every day Americans living a life that people can relate to, fighting to get the best life that they can?”