MeatEater, a popular hunter-focused entertainment company started by outdoorsman and writer Steven Rinella, was purchased by a rabidly anti-gun Democrat financier late last year in a move that has raised alarms among hunters and gun-rights activists. The Chernin Group, a California-based investment fund run by wealthy Democratic activist and Hollywood producer Peter Chernin, purchased a controlling stake in Rinella’s MeatEater in 2018.
The left-wing, anti-gun political activism of MeatEater’s largest investor, as well as political commentary and activity from some of its key partners and sponsors, complicates the company’s expansion plans given that such a large percentage of hunters in the United States — who comprise MeatEater’s core audience — staunchly support both gun rights and Republican political candidates. Chernin’s company announced the investment in MeatEater and its hiring of a new CEO for the company via a press release last October.
Chernin, who has donated nearly $500,000 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2015, has repeatedly attacked gun rights and Second Amendment activists over the last year. He retweeted comedian Michael Ian Black’s attack on the National Rifle Association as a “terrorist organization” and a separate Hollywood personality’s attempt to force FedEx and Visa to sever their ties with the NRA.
In addition to endorsing calls for a ban on so-called “trophy hunting,” Chernin also signed a petition backed by a Michael Bloomberg-funded gun control group demanding a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons.
MeatEater’s ties to left-wing causes and candidates don’t end with Chernin, however. Ben O’Brien, a former marketing manager for YETI Coolers who now serves as the editorial director for MeatEater, was behind YETI’s controversial elimination of discounts for NRA members, a move that blew up in the company’s face. Following YETI’s announcement, NRA members videotaped themselves filling the pricey coolers with explosives and blowing them up, shooting them to pieces, and crushing them in vises. O’Brien responded on his Instagram page by attacking the NRA, where he used to work as a web editor, characterizing the gun-rights organization as bullies.
O’Brien also all but endorsed Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) via the MeatEater podcast during the heat of the 2018 campaign. Tester defeated Republican challenger Matt Rosendale by just 18,000 votes.
“I found him to be credible and believable,” O’Brien said during the podcast. “I found Senator Tester to be credible, and to be pragmatic, and a straightforward dude.”
Matt Rosendale, the Republican candidate, was never featured on the podcast.
In his write-up of the controversial Tester podcast, O’Brien didn’t do himself any favors. After stating that “We like our guns,” O’Brien wrote that it was a “problem” that the NRA supports Republicans.
“The biggest problem here is that the NRA supports a large number of Republican congressmen and these folks can sometimes be predisposed to political stances that go against federal control of public lands, not to mention sound management of wildlife populations and their habitats,” he wrote.
O’Brien then shifted to a defense of pro-gun control Democrats who had received failing grades from the NRA.
“For those who received poor grades from the NRA, the gun control stances are nuanced,” he claimed.
Rinella was hit with a barrage of criticism about the interview on his Facebook page after he announced the podcast.
“So if you’re gonna have the Democrat, you’ll surely have the republican right?” one commenter asked. “Since you’re so unpartisan and all. Doubtful. Very sad to see you get in bed with people who are fundamentally against your beliefs.”
“I’m tired of all this crap,” another wrote. “I’ll be glad when this election is over. Steven Rinella… can we stick to the meat and leave the taters out of it?”
“All I see this as a publicity stunt,” wrote another. “Show me a hunt you all did together in a nonelection year.”
Chernin, whose fund now owns a controlling stake in MeatEater, donated $5,400 toward Tester’s re-election last year. On his Instagram page, O’Brien lashed out at those who criticized his handling of the Tester interview.
“[I]t seems that a number of folks didn’t think at all before commenting or attempt to read anything,” he wrote.
His detractors, however, may have had a point, given O’Brien’s close connections to long-time Tester political operatives. That’s because O’Brien also serves on the board of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a non-profit run by Land Tawney, a Montana Democratic operative and former Obama presidential campaign surrogate. In 2012, Tawney ran the Montana Hunters and Anglers PAC, which spent seven figures to defeat Tester’s Republican challenger at the time.
According to Federal Election Commission Records, 100 percent of the expenditures from Tawney’s PAC–nearly $1.2 million–were used to oppose Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, Tester’s opponent. The BHA chairman, Ryan Busse, served as a formal Tester campaign surrogate during the Democratic incumbent’s 2018 re-election campaign. Critics of BHA derisively refer to it as a “green decoy,” an organization that presents as pro-hunter but actually exists to push conventional left-wing environmental policies.
“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) represents itself as good-ole-boy outdoorsmen who simply want to hunt and fish and be left alone,” the Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA) writes on the website GreenDecoys.com. “But don’t be fooled. As evidenced by both its sources of funding and current leadership, BHA is nothing more than a big green activist organization pushing a radical environmentalist agenda.”
O’Brien’s BHA “claims to represent hunters,” a video from EPA states, “but gets most of its money from three liberal foundations and even supports massive federal land grabs.”
In contrast with Chernin and O’Brien, Rinella comes across as relatively apolitical and singularly focused on his passion for hunting. With a natural gift for explaining the history and importance of hunting and an infectious love of the outdoors, Rinella has tapped into a large and devoted niche of followers eager for content that celebrates their hobbies.
Whereas personalities like rock guitarist and outspoken hunter Ted Nugent often made hunters seem like blood-thirsty savages, Rinella has worked to soften the public perception of the activity, mixing it with a reverence for nature, a desire to protect the habitats of his prey, and a deep respect for the animals he harvests to feed himself and his family. The result has been a product that attracts both lifelong hunters from the sticks and urban hipsters.
“New and emerging hunters make up a big segment of our viewership,” Rinella told the Star Tribune last July. “The food aspect of the show speaks to them in a big way.”
A journalist by training, Rinella in 2008 published his first book, “American Buffalo: In Search Of A Lost Icon,” to much critical acclaim (it won the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award) and followed that up with several successful books on hunting and cooking. By 2011 he had his own show on the Travel Channel. In 2015, he launched the “MeatEater” podcast in what would eventually become the foundation of his most audacious and successful venture yet. He now has his own show on Netflix and a lifestyle and entertainment start-up flush with cash from a major Hollywood producer and investor.
While Rinella has generally avoided politics, he appears aware of the danger of going off the reservation regarding gun control while depending on Second Amendment enthusiasts for an audience. In a 2007 column for Salon.com, Rinella tackled the subject of Jim Zumbo, a once-beloved gun writer whose career was undone when he wrote on his blog that AR-15s, the most popular rifle platform in America, were “‘terrorist’ rifles.”
The response to Zumbo’s comments was devastating. In an instant, Zumbo lost his sponsorships with major gun manufacturers, his hunting show on the Outdoor Channel, and his audience of once-loyal fans. Despite profuse apologies, Zumbo was undone by the incident.
“It’s hard to overstate the gun-owning community’s backlash over Zumbo’s remarks,” Rinella wrote at the time. “Armed with blogs of their own, firearms advocates labeled Zumbo a traitor and generated rapid-fire e-mail campaigns that poured thousands of complaints into the inboxes of Zumbo’s associates and sponsors, ranging from High Mountain Jerky, a Wyoming mom-and-pop producer of specialty wild-game curing spices, to the firearms giant Remington Arms Co.”
But Rinella started tip-toeing toward the gun control danger zone in a 2011 interview with NPR, in which he refused to say whether he opposed a federal ban on so-called assault weapons. Instead, he told the host that not only does he not hunt with an AR-15, he doesn’t hunt with anyone who uses an AR-15. When pressed further, Rinella volunteered to the host that his own brother “just made a radical departure” from his ostensibly pro-Second Amendment views on the issue of a federal ban on semi-automatic rifles and was “rethinking this whole issue” in light of recent mass shootings.
In an e-mail back and forth with The Federalist, Rinella firmly stated that he has never supported any weapons bans.
“I support the Second Amendment and have never supported or endorsed any bans on classifications of weapons,” Rinella wrote while out on a hunt for Coues deer in Sonora, Mexico, that will be showcased on a future episode of his Netflix show. As to not hunting with AR-15s or other popular semi-automatic rifle platforms, Rinella told The Federalist that it was purely a matter of personal preference, rather than political principle.
“I personally don’t use them, as I prefer bolt-action rifles and probably always will,” he wrote, echoing his 2011 comments to NPR that his “definition of a hunting rifle is fixed on a specific image” of the old-fashioned yet reliable bolt-action rifle.
He also told The Federalist that Kevin Sloan, the former Sitka Gear president whose appointment as CEO of MeatEater was announced concurrently with news of Chernin Group’s purchase of a controlling stake in the company, both owns and hunts with AR-15s. In his conversation with The Federalist, Rinella also rejected calls for global bans on so-called “trophy hunting,” noting such bans would be “catastrophic to funding structures that are necessary for wildlife management and recovery.”
Rinella forcefully pushed back against suggestions that he would allow Chernin to hijack MeatEater in order to push his left-wing, anti-gun political agenda.
“While I may disagree with some of Mr. Chernin’s personal views on policy issues, the idea that he would try to exert influence on the content of MeatEater, Inc. strikes me as preposterous,” Rinella told The Federalist. “Any review of his track record would back me up.”
“By design, all our content is publicly available,” Rinella wrote. “There’s no need for anyone to wonder what we think or what we’re doing. It’s right there, in plain sight.”
As MeatEater expands — it now has primary content contributors plus Rinella — Rinella’s big challenge will not be in maintaining his own brand, which is well-established, but in building that of his new company and its slate of personalities in a way that speaks to both long-time and not-yet hunters without alienating the pro-AR-15, pro-Second Amendment base that forms the critical mass of his audience.
Building a successful business that bridges those cultural and political divides is a tougher undertaking than cultivating a personal brand, especially if new personalities decide their pet political issues are a bigger priority than the company’s standing among its listeners and viewers. How Rinella navigates that path, and whether he can avoid the political minefields surrounding it, may be the determining factor in MeatEater going the way of Jim Zumbo or establishing itself as the go-to place for everything hunting.
Assuming past is prologue, it would be foolish to bet against Rinella and MeatEater. If there’s anything he excels at as an avid hunter and outdoorsman, it’s looking downrange, keeping his sights on target, and reaping the harvest.