In defense of Chuck Todd, plus a chilling autopsy report and thoughtful online comments — really!

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July 26, 2019

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In defense of Chuck Todd

I’ve been doing this newsletter for six months now and one of the trends I’ve noticed: Some people love to hate on “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. They also love to pile on anyone who praises Todd. I’ve lauded Todd’s work on several occasions, including his performance in the Democratic presidential debates, and his critics turned on me.

The latest attack from Todd’s critics came after he tweeted Wednesday, following the Robert Mueller testimony:

“On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the OLC guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.#MuellerHearings

The general criticism: Todd was ignoring substance for style, that he was shirking his journalistic responsibilities by suggesting that the entertainment factor was more important than the facts. In a harsh takedown in the Columbia Journalism Review, Maria Bustillos (whom CJR this year declared “public editor” for MSNBC) wrote that Todd’s tweet demonstrated a “basic misunderstanding of the requirements of his job.”

  

Bustillos also criticized Todd for talking too much during the Democratic debate, writing, “For Chuck Todd all the political world’s a stage, and he’s the star.”

She wasn’t done. “Politics isn’t entertainment, it is not a performance to be critiqued,” she wrote. “Reporting on national politics is a public trust of solemn importance that affects hundreds of millions of people.”

Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin did not mention Todd by name, but wrote that if there was a failure this week, it wasn’t on Mueller, rather “a country that won’t read his report and a media obsessed with scoring contests rather than focusing on the damning facts at issue.”

But Todd’s tweet shows he is more grounded in the reality of modern-day American politics than many of his critics. He understands that politics, like it or not, are partly about entertainment and that optics absolutely matter. To suggest otherwise shows you haven’t been paying attention since the day Donald Trump rode down the escalator to announce he was running for president.

We don’t like to admit it and it might not be our proudest moment, but since Trump moved into the White House, American politics have become a reality show, played out daily on Twitter and nightly on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Let’s not blame Todd for recognizing that and knowing what plays well (and what doesn’t) with the American people — and how that drives what people think, how they feel and how they vote.

As far as Wednesday, wasn’t optics pretty much the point of the Mueller testimony? We already had the report — Mueller was there to bring it to life. When that didn’t happen, when we didn’t get that “Aha!” moment, Todd merely pointed that out.

 

   

As viewers, we like what we like and don’t like what we don’t like. There always will be those who don’t like Todd and never will. He’s just not their cup of tea. That’s fine. But as host as one of the most iconic news shows in TV history, Todd certainly has the journalistic chops to be doing what he’s doing. To criticize him for simply pointing out the truth — that perception matters — doesn’t seem fair.

Tuning in for the show


Robert Mueller is sworn in to testify to the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Speaking of the Mueller testimony, exactly how many people watched? A definitive number is hard to pin down because of streaming and the fact that the testimony lasted seven hours and not everyone tuned in for its entirety. Variety reported that preliminary Nielsen ratings show that an average of nearly 13 million viewers watched.

Fox News drew just more than 3 million viewers, followed by MSNBC (2.4 million), ABC (2.1 million), NBC (1.9 million), CBS (1.9 million) and CNN (1.5 million).

Those really aren’t big numbers. For example, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year averaged about 20 million viewers, and about 16 million watched Michael Cohen’s testimony earlier this year.

Autopsy report provides ghastly details

Before December, no child had died in U.S. Border Patrol custody in a decade. Since December, five have died and they all were initially taken into custody by agents from the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors. Their ages: 16, 16, 8, 7 and 2.

A disturbing story in Texas Monthly by Robert Moore, who smartly sifted through the autopsy report, provides the details of the latest death. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, 16, crossed the border alone in May and was held in a processing center for six days before becoming sick. He had a 103-degree fever and tested positive for the flu. He died the next morning and the autopsy determined the cause of death as the flu, complicated by pneumonia and sepsis.

The details in Moore’s story are grim (Vasquez died on or near the toilet of his Border Patrol cell) and make you ask if the death could have been avoided with more intensive care.

Come for the op-ed, stay for the comments


Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), at the Capitol in Washington on Thursday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has written an op-ed for The New York Times, criticizing President Donald Trump. Omar was the target of the recent “go back” to where you came from tweets sent out by the president. In her piece, Omar mentioned the chant of “send her back” that was aimed at her at a Trump rally.

She called the rally a defining moment in American history and she wrote that the 2020 presidential election is “ …  a fight for the soul of our nation. The ideals at the heart of our founding — equal protection under the law, pluralism, religious liberty — are under attack, and it is up to all of us to defend them.”

Omar’s commentary is worth the read, but so are the comments — and that’s refreshing. Such sections of many news outlets can quickly devolve into bitter arguments and name-calling. But at the Times,  “comments are moderated for civility.” Thus, the result often is an intelligent and somewhat respectful exchange of ideas. The process is helped out by what The Times labels as Times Pick.

The Times describes those as a selection of comments that “represent a range of views and are judged the most interesting or thoughtful.” And typically, that’s exactly what they are.

No big reveal at ESPN over political talk


(AP Photo/David Kohl, File)

One final update for the week on Dan Le Batard, the ESPN TV/radio host who was critical of President Donald Trump and his own network for its “cowardly” policy of not talking about politics unless it’s tied to sports. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that Le Batard and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro met face-to-face in New York on Thursday and that Le Batard will continue doing his radio and TV shows.

Citing an unnamed source, Marchand reported that Le Batard and Pitaro had a “positive” meeting and were on the same page. But what’s on that page (did Le Batard agree to stop with the political talk?) is not known publicly.

It seems unlikely that Pitaro would drop his employee mandate not to talk politics unless it intersected with sports, or give Le Batard the freedom to do what other ESPN personalities cannot. My guess is that Le Batard told Pitaro that he had no plans to make his shows political, and that Pitaro told Le Batard to use sports as a jumping off point if he wanted to bring up politics.

Hot type


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Georgetown University Law Center in this month. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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