Q&AA: Chuck Todd talks Trump-era journalism

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Credit: Illustration by Annick Poirier

As host of NBC's "Meet the Press" since 2014, Chuck Todd has made the aging public affairs show relevant again—and not just on the Sunday mornings it airs. Under Todd, "Meet the Press" has launched a podcast, a weekday show on MSNBC and a film festival in Washington, D.C., now in its second year. Last month's event featured nearly two dozen films about issues tied to the midterm elections.

In the meantime, Todd also landed two internet-breaking interviews. The first was with senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, when she famously coined the phrase "alternative facts." The other was with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani this summer, when he said "truth isn't truth," to which Todd dropped his head in his hands in disbelief.

Todd has successfully returned "Meet the Press" to the No. 1 Sunday public affairs show, enjoying an
18 percent advantage over "This Week" on ABC and a 24 percent edge over "Face the Nation" on CBS. Since Todd took the reins, "Meet the Press" has grown its overall deliveries by 22 percent, from 2.9 million during the 2014-15 season to 3.5 million in the 2017-18 season.

Todd spoke to Ad Age as he gears up for the midterms, "obsessively" getting his head into every race possible. This interview has been edited.

"Meet the Press" has been expanding beyond its roots. What do you envision it looking like a year or two from now?

When I took over "Meet the Press" ... you can read all the clips at the time saying the Sunday shows are dying, the news cycles are killing them, blah, blah, blah. It turned out not to be true. The crazier the week is the more you need a filter to go, "What the hell just happened?" But one of the things I thought of when I took over was "Meet the Press" stands for something more than just Sunday morning. People considered it to be substantive, something that educates them. Look at how well documentaries do in general on the Netflixes and Hulus. I hope the next step for us isn't just hosting film festivals but it's producing documentaries and making our own.

What are some other opportunities?

I don't want you to think we're doing this, but the next space you're going to see a lot of media companies getting into is live events. It's going to be a thing, particularly with people who have their own following beyond the network or affiliation they have.

How are you planning for the midterms?

I'm trying to make sure we're all focused on the larger story of the election. This is going to be a nationalized midterm election. This isn't a series of local elections all taking place on the same day. Making sure we understand what's going on outside the prism of just Trump. Trump is a big driver, obviously, of the political climate, but he's not the only driver.

Todd referees the
Todd referees the Credit: NBC

How will Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court affect the midterms?

We're still in the window of the immediacy of it. If Kavanaugh is still an issue, it probably means Republicans are still going to hold the Senate. But history says voters don't go to the polls to say thank you in a midterm election. They go to the polls to say F you.

How do you view the role of platforms like Facebook in distributing news?

We have a news literacy problem in this country and it's important to try and acknowledge this with our kids first. Then we can figure out how to clean up this feed for adults. The biggest problem is that Facebook has replaced the local newspaper and that hasn't been a net positive since it doesn't have professional editors.

Looking to 2020, how much should the media allow Trump to dominate the news cycle?

Look, at the end of the day, he is president of the United States and I have the same attitude about this as I do about his tweets: It is not up to us in the press to decide when the president's words matter and when they don't. We can try to put them in context, but ultimately, it is up to the viewer, reader, voter to interpret what it means to them. This poses a challenge to the Democrats running for president, that Donald Trump is going to absolutely try to play pundit. But some of them are going to antagonize him on purpose, hoping to get his attention. This is why I don't accept the premise, "How the media is going to handle it" How are the candidates going to handle it?

So is it unfair to blame the media for—

All of us in the press covered the 2016 election as if it was a referendum on Donald Trump rather than a referendum on Hillary Clinton. We messed up the framing. Our numbers were right; our interpretation of our numbers was wrong. Every president tries to entice the media to cover propaganda in some form or another and every president wants to entice the press to cover it through their lens. This one is just going to be more aggressive about it. We in the press should at least do a better job of telling the viewer when we know they're trying to use our platform to sway you. Our job is to provide the context for what's happening, not necessarily to decide whether so-and-so has earned access to our airwaves or not.

In an Atlantic op-ed last month, you wrote it's time for the media to "start fighting back" against the anti-media rhetoric, which you suggest currently stems from the late Roger Ailes and Fox News personalities. How do you respond to critics who say your argument is a personal attack on those with whom you disagree?

They perpetuate myths and attack reporters personally without really dealing fairly. Instead of sitting here and taking the character assassination for the last decade, which I have, and many other mainstream reporters have, when I say "fight back," it means don't be afraid to show your work. Don't be afraid to explain your work. Don't be afraid to remind people if I get this wrong, I'd be fired. Fighting back doesn't mean rhetorically punching another media outlet; it means fighting back with the public to earn their respect back and show them how we do our job.

Speaking of personal attacks on journalists, what do you make of the nickname Trump bestowed on you: "Sleepy Eyes"?

There's no good answer. If you don't respond, over time it can take hold. And if you do respond, you play into this idea that you're the opposition. I guess my argument is we should just say, "We know what he's trying to do. He's trying to get us to do this. I am not getting involved in the personal." Why does he come after me? I think it's an old NBC thing. In his head, NBC is his home network and he thinks everybody who worked at NBC should love him because of "The Apprentice." I'm not speculating on this. He's said that to me. I don't think we should go back at him. I think it is a huge mistake for journalists to do that. Those that do that are usually doing it for personal gain, and that's a bad place to be with the viewer as well.

Todd interviews Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Todd interviews Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Credit: NBC

How much can political journalists maintain objectivity in the current climate? Should they?

Yes, I think you can be fair, but there's no such thing as balanced, because you can't balance the truth. That's why that expression was always a phony expression. There's no balancing the truth. There is true and false. There is fact and fiction. But there is fairness.

Who is your favorite "Meet the Press" predecessor?

Tim Russert, since I got to know and learn from him. No contest there.

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