As 'Meet the Press' turns 70, Chuck Todd reflects on the high-stakes pressures journalists face
It now seems so remarkably quaint.
Back in the 1990s Chuck Todd, the young and maniacally sober editor of what was a Daily Racing Form for politics junkies called the Hotline, would surface on C-Span for 20 or 30 minutes and exhibit an almost confounding micro-knowledge of American elections.
He knew about this congressional race in Florida and that race in Idaho, as well as how much money was being spent, the names of consultants and what the issues were. He got to speak for minutes on end about a race or a candidate. He delved into minutiae that was engrossing but — or so I thought — certainly not for a broader audience beyond a small universe in the nation's capital.
And imagine this: You could get his handiwork, which was the brainchild of a serial entrepreneur named Doug Bailey, messengered to you in downtown Washington and even later by fax machine! Further, it would include summaries of political stories from just a day or two earlier in faraway newspapers in Omaha, Dallas, Seattle and Albany. Wow! No need for snail mail to learn about unrest in Georgia's 4th District.
Fast-forward and NBC's "Meet the Press," now hosted by Todd, is celebrating its 70th birthday and asserting a claim as TV's longest-running show. He's a multi-platform presence, with Sunday's top-rated morning show the hitching post. And the data crunching, and references to stories elsewhere, which seemed novel, even a tad obscure, is now a pro forma part of mainstream political journalism.
And so are journalists' obsessions with campaigns and candidates, which can come at the expense of understanding the country. Then there is the media's penchant for the provocative and a wicked internet-driven competition that can stymie even the most sober of reporters, leaving precious little time to step back and actually think.
And, of course, there's the Trump Factor, meaning an unceasing stream of news (some bordering on National Enquirer crazy) that can dominate a news cycle. It can devour a reporter or editor unless one exhibits Herculean self-discipline. Otherwise, you can risk being consumed by it until the next Trump trek to the bizarre threatens to sideswipe your morning, afternoon or night.
It all constitutes a very different landscape for a high-profile Washington news star who unavoidably must service a buffet table of platforms, not just captain a single Sunday broadcast or, in Todd's case, a daily MSNBC cable show, too.
It brings fame, yes, but also frustrating perils of being a fixture of the much-reviled "mainstream media." As he conceded, that means dealing with a steadily growing, Trump-inspired flow of gratuitous critiques from every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jane and Sally in an expense-free online universe where facts are overridden by unfounded suspicions and free-floating, visceral venting of a road rage sort.
It can make more difficult the very act that brought his rise at the Hotline — the ability to step back, think, and systematically and precisely detail actual news. He knows it and yet does pull off impressive juggling of tried-and-true ways and unavoidable professional imperatives.
So, then, what are the biggest creative challenges of doing a Sunday morning show in an era of dramatically greater competition, 24/7 cable and the confounding velocity of news about and created by Trump? Todd's Sunday predecessors could figure out things by a Wednesday, maybe Thursday and not worry at all about a show's topics or guest lineup when they headed to Friday cocktails. No more.
"I think it is this issue of trying to feel urgent but having the discipline to not cover something just because it just happened," Todd, 45, said during a good and self-reflective chat the other day. "The biggest challenge for Sunday is deciding what not to do. I want Sunday to be what mattered."
During his tenures at the Hotline and NBC News, he's had a wonderful perch to view the bumpy recent evolution of American political change. That includes the rapid-fire, impassioned responses he gets to his own work. It can be pretty personal — a change, he says, from just three or four years ago. And booking potential guests, especially Republican lawmakers, must surmount the hurdle of their own anxieties (or spinelessness) about somehow "messing up," maybe even rankling their party chief, the irascible Trump.
"I would say it's more personal," he declared. "People don't just send a critique, they have to demean you." There is now an American culture in which "people are conditioned to say whatever they want. Three years ago the emails were much more polite."
As for prospective guests, without naming names, he knows well that an increasing number of politicians, especially Republicans, are scared to come on. "They fear Trump, he knows, and fret about the personalized attacks from him."
Then, too, there are the realities of even seemingly benign comments being twisted and going viral. You can ask, or give a thoughtful response to, a question, Todd said, and one small phrase may miff somebody, somewhere, and get twisted and tweeted. It has impact.
"If they use one phrase in an odd way, that can be used as such a sledgehammer," he says. Thus, many lawmakers say no to the show simply out of fear. It's the Trump era.
When Todd himself was doing a meritorious job with the Hotline — in an age, remember, before the Internet and prior to cable news competition becoming so maddening unceasing and economically high-stakes — the Sunday shows had a distinct, arguably slower pacing. Imagine, some guests might take up an entire "Meet the Press."
Yes, the whole hour-long shebang. We joked about author Michael Lewis being on C-Span recently for a three-hour interview. Can you imagine?
"That's the thing. The biggest difference between the Tim (Russert) era and now is the length of the interviews. " It was not all that unusual for a panel-less show with a single guest. "Mike Huckabee, Dick Cheney for the hour. They were compelling and thorough."
But the viewer doesn’t expect (or tolerate) that now. Indeed, he or she might start getting antsy if such a structure were repeated. They are habituated to a different pacing, which explains why Todd in his own way tries rather valiantly to meld those viewers' expectations with trying to be weighty but not pedantic or ponderous.
That means Todd valiantly trying to curb "the potpourri" interview of old with a U.S. senator in which the politician would be hit with a laundry list of queries, inspiring the likelihood that one response would inspire a boost for the show via an Associated Press bulletin. Yes, it wasn't that long ago, too, that the AP would shape larger perceptions about what happened Sunday morning in Washington while much of America was at church, a Little League game or a yard sale.
So now Todd will often try to explore one issue for a more limited time period. It's a change in philosophy born of personal preference and market reality.
We spent time discussing his old home, the Hotline, which Bailey would eventually sell to National Journal. I would watch him as the young editor appearing on C-Span in the 1990s and be blown away by his insider knowledge of, say, of all those individual congressional races. It was a look behind the curtain into a universe of political mechanics and campaign spending.
And, yet, even though there's a new generation of Todd-like political journalists — many largely chained to desks, consuming Twitter feeds and crunching data — one can at times come away feeling both privy to tons of unprecedented information and somehow less informed.
Todd wonders whether, in a fashion, he contributed to the problem. At the Hotline, he helped to "surface the importance of data and strategic decisions, like polling and media buying. Process became more important."
Meanwhile, some of his own generation of journalists, who were craving more than all that, became smitten with what might be deemed the Richard Ben Cramer School of Journalism. The brilliant late journalist wrote a 1,047-page book, "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," about the 1988 campaign, that become a bible. Its exploration of personal character verged on the intoxicating, even it that perspective had its own shortcomings.
"I look at a whole generation of us who read Richard Ben Cramer and said that's what I want to be." The book was about what made the various candidates tick. "For a whole generation of us, that was our North Star."
But both the look at mechanics and personal motivation were different from an older school of journalist, which was arguably personified by the late Washington Post reporter David Broder. That professional reflex was all about going out and talking to real folks. Todd knows full well the crucial importance of just getting out and understanding the country, not just the candidates.
It might have meant fewer errors in assessing the Trump campaign. Todd recalls his getting out on the road last year and running into a Trump sympathizer who told him, "I know who Donald Trump is but he's my middle finger to you," namely the media.
The voter wasn't getting personal with Todd himself but he was revealing a screw-Washington impulse that underscores, Todd said, why you need to just talk to folks. If there's an upside to the 2016 election, and the many self-criticisms of the press, it might be that a new generation may realize they have to get out and "talk to voters again."
That means, he says, perhaps neither glamorizing process nor even the thrust of Richard Ben Cramer, namely figuring out the personal idiosyncrasies of candidates and what drove them to the inherently odd and frequently humiliating act of running for president.
And what about Trump? How does he impact the professional life of the host of a species — the Sunday morning show — that doesn't have the cachet of old but is editorially sharper than ever and still lures millions of viewers each week? In watching Todd, John Dickerson of CBS' "Face the Nation" and George Stephanopoulos, it would be a mistake to mythologize what came before. They do well.
The first important thing — really, an act of discipline, Todd says — is to not take his attacks on the industry personally and fight back in a personal fashion. Don't even do it, he says, when your own integrity is challenged.
Remember the 1984 movie, "This Is Spinal Tap?" There's the film's "outrage meter," whose volume is at one point set at 11. "We're at 10," Todd says of the country and press. Will we wind up at 11 or 12?
His Hollywood reference is apt because he thinks that, media outrage over Trump aside, his own show would be smart to continue to "cherry pick" when it fact-checks him. But it's also smart to spend more time on "why he is deflecting. Be a bit more explanatory… Explain the deflection." Don't just get righteous, proclaim that Trump is bending the truth and leave it at that.
I groused to Todd about Trump's latest claim that the murder rate in Chicago remains staggering (true) despite having the nation's toughest gun control laws (false). He responded that one has to explain Trump's real likely motivation, namely invoking "Chicago" as a symbol (to his base) of inner-city disarray. It's about politics, not intellectual or policy argument, for Trump, Todd correctly counseled.
But there's also no doubt that this is a wearying time for many Washington journalists. No, it's not akin to the perils of logging or a meatpacking sweatshop. But most of the best in the trade are really better off when they have time to think — and that’s perhaps the biggest professional challenge.
"I beg for a day to read. I have to schedule reading time. The beauty of the Hotline was that we would cover 10 percent of 100 things but only covered the 10 percent you needed."
"There is so much stuff. I read 1 percent of 1,000 things and can feel so unfulfilled."
It's a dynamic that is ultimately unappreciated by the public, namely lots of very good people trying really hard to do a good and fair job and confronting the primacy of speed that is cherished by consumers, whether fans or critics of the press.
It's why, Todd readily concedes, mistakes are getting made. It's part of a very tricky balancing act for his ilk. "We are risking our reputations more than ever."
"I think of this all the time. Every day is like a high-wire act without a net. Wondering about something I uttered, things blowing up in your face. Organizations like ours have a target on our back. The pressures at the bigger news organization are immense."
"You can't tell me that doesn't have an impact. The unintended consequence is becoming more risk averse in our reporting, out of fear."
But, so, too are the very elected officials whose actions are the core of "Meet the Press" at it begins its remarkably durable 71st year. They, too, get nervous about saying and doing things.
The great irony, of course, may be the one that Todd concluded with: Do those nervous-Nelly politicians not realize that there's a guy in the White House who was elected in large measure because he said precisely what he felt?
It's a simple insight about the state of the nation as Todd and counterparts try to make sense of what's around all of us each Sunday morning.