NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd: 'The media is flat; we're all sort of equal'

NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd used to be anti-Twitter. He saw it as a site where people posted uninteresting tidbits about their daily lives, and he didn't think it had any news value.

But the more he used Twitter, the more he depended on it as a personalized wire service that he could use to diversify his sources of information. Now he uses Twitter as his primary news source and regularly tweets anecdotes that he thinks will be of interest to political junkies.

Todd explained all of this during a recent Elections Assistance Committee talk about using new media to manage an election. Intrigued by some of his comments, I interviewed Todd by phone to find out how he thinks social media is changing political coverage, why he thinks blocking people on Twitter is anti-First Amendment, and why he thinks “the media is flat.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Mallary Tenore: You mentioned in your EAC talk that "the media is flat." That's a really interesting concept, and one I hadn't heard before. Can you elaborate on what you meant?

Chuck Todd: Essentially, everyone has the ability to become influential. The world is flat. Everybody has built-in advantages. The built-in advantages that the mainstream media used to have are disappearing. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have some advantage -- branding, access to stories, eyeballs. But when it simply comes to breaking news stories, the media is flat. We’re all sort of equal.

Look at the influence of an Andrew Breitbart or a Matthew Drudge. Arianna Huffington bought her way into influence. That’s not necessarily the case with an Andrew Breitbart.

It’s an evolving landscape that allows easy access. You have to ask, "OK, who’s the media?" Guys who only used to be on AM radio on the upper end of the dial suddenly have an equal voice. Sometimes they’re not reporting facts, but they can get traction as if they were the mainstream media. …

There’s a lot infotainment people who just read what they agree with and put it out as facts. Some of those people have a huge following. That in turn can create this ability to start a firestorm pretty quickly. That’s the reality of the world. I’m not lamenting it. For the most part I think it’s better, not worse, but I think the role of the mainstream media is changing.

You also said in the EAC talk that you think blocking people on Twitter is anti-First Amendment. Can you say more about this?

On Twitter, I’m representing my persona as a working journalist. That’s why I have a Twitter handle. Yes, I talk about personal things. It’s hard, and people are vicious. I just think I don’t have time to monitor who I should block. It’s par for the course. The whole idea of Twitter is that you get to eavesdrop.

To me, the best part of following people on Twitter is you feel like you get to see their thought bubble, and that’s what makes it interesting and fun to me. If I want to use it as that, then I can’t sit here and sensor out people who want to thought bubble me right back. Some of it is just nasty, vicious stuff -- but that, to me, is up to Twitter to police.

So if you don’t like what someone is saying you’ll just ignore them?

I’ll ignore them. I’ll reply to somebody if I think they’re not a regular crazy, or if they come across as having a legitimate beef or a legitimate question.

You have more than 135,000 followers, but you're only following about 630 people. What's your philosophy on following people, and what makes you want to follow someone?

I’m looking for information and interesting analysis. I’m following people who got our (“Daily Rundown”) trivia questions right. If somebody asks me a legitimate question and they want to send a direct message I’ll follow them. Occasionally, someone will ask to direct message me a question about a job. I try to be open. If someone messages me and says, "Hey I’m looking to break into the world of media," I’ll send them back a message.

Most of the people I follow are people who help me maintain a wire service. The number one part of Twitter for me is that it’s my news and opinion wire. It’s better than anything the Associated Press or NBC News could have put together.

After the shootings in Arizona earlier this year, several media outlets incorrectly tweeted that Gabrielle Giffords had died. When you hear breaking news on Twitter that you haven't had a chance to verify, how do you respond? Do you retweet other people's tweets, or do you hold off until you can get more information?

I’m aware that if I tweet something, or if I retweet it, I might be sending the message that NBC News has done this. On something like that, I wait; I don’t do anything. I’m very careful about that because I don’t want to confuse people and make them think NBC is confirming something like that. If NBC News is reporting something, it’s just important to get that across.

Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent for NBC News, during an on-air appearance in the East Room of the White House on July 20, 2010. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

With my Twitter feed, when there’s a big piece of breaking news around the world, I’m not going to say "NBC has not confirmed" something. I won’t do anything with it until we have it or I have it on those big stories because just simply retweeting and saying, "I have to check that out" doesn’t work for me. I feel like the NBC News brand is too big, and I don’t want to be accidentally speaking for it on something like that.

I know other reporters -- not at NBC -- do that. Other news organizations open-source their tweets and say, "Oh wow, I’ve got to check this out." I get it, but that’s just not how we do things at NBC. I think all of us associated with going on air with breaking news have to use our best judgement.

How is Twitter changing political coverage?

It’s making everything reactive. It’s made politics more anecdotal and on the one hand, it’s great. I love some of these anecdotes on a fast-moving story. On the other hand, sometimes you push so hard for the anecdote that you forget the context. People on social media enjoy the anecdotes.

140 characters is a great way of sharing the anecdote, but you can sometimes be drilling down so far that you forget the big picture. That, to me, is a concern. I think that’s the nature of this change in the way news is covered.

For me, I feel like it’s expanding not just the diversity of voices; it’s giving me geographically diverse sources. I’m in the DC/New York bubble and want to do my best to know what’s going on in all 50 states. Twitter helps me do that. We cover 50 state elections, not just one presidential election.

As a journalist, are you guilty of tweeting more anecdotal information and sometimes forgetting the big picture, or is that just something you’ve seen other journalists do?

I know I can fall into that trap. I always try to figure it out. I take a breath and pause before I tweet. I have a job description that forces me to do both (to offer anecdotes and the big picture). On the "Daily Rundown," I can offer anecdotes. On the "Today Show" and the "Nightly News," it’s about putting this speech in a bigger context and remembering you’re talking to 10 million people.

I’m lucky in that my job forces me to stop getting into the personality back and forth -- which matters and which is interesting -- and to say, "OK, what does this mean on the larger scale of XYZ?" I’m lucky I have that constant pull in both directions.

What excites you most about covering the upcoming elections?

The tough part of this cycle is that the issues are so big that sometimes it is hard to enjoy the "fun" of a close election when the stakes are so high and so serious. That’s just the devil and and the angel on my soldiers.

What role do you think social media will play in the upcoming elections that it didn't play in the last elections?

Simply sharing information faster. We joke about instant analysis. I think we’ve already seen it. I think what has been interesting is that I do believe social media has been able to flatten out the barriers to entry for a presidential candidate.

Herman Cain’s following in cable television, combined with grassroots efforts, combined with social media has all helped. He probably won’t win a single delegate, but it’s social media and grassroots reporting that gave him an actual following and helped him start popping up in public opinion polls. He’s earned his place. Before social media, Herman Cain would not have been able to get the type of traction he’s gotten that would have allowed him to be in the presidential debate just four years ago.

In what ways has Twitter given you a better sense of what your audience wants, if at all?

I’m not going to pretend that the 135,000 followers I have are reflective of my audience. I haven’t considered whether they’re a true snapshot of everyone who watches. I think you have to be careful of that.

I assume people who follow me are totally into American politics and are junkies for it. So I do share more anecdotes on Twitter and second-level details that I might not put on air. I make the assumption that my Twitter audience wants fast information and more information -- something they didn’t know or learn from TV.

Would you say Twitter has helped you write and think more succinctly as a broadcast journalist?

I think Twitter is made for TV. My challenge is I have 10 seconds to set up a shot that I have narrated, and I have 15 seconds to spell it out before I put it back to Brian [Williams] or Ann [Curry]. Having that ability to be succinct and deliver what you hope is meaningful analysis and reporting is crucial. Writing in 140 characters constantly is pretty good training for television, especially when you have a finite amount of time.

I love how organically Twitter is developing within news organizations. Nobody has asked me about my Twitter feed at NBC, other than, "Can you promote this?" Nobody has ever edited me or said, "You can’t say that." Hopefully this is because I haven’t raised any red flags.

"Transparency is the new objectivity." Twitter helps with that.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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