January 19, 2017

With Donald Trump’s inauguration just a day away, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd is preparing to cover a president who occasionally treats journalists like political punching bags.

“I think he sees the media as an incredible political tool for him,” Todd told Poynter. “I don’t like being a political prop. And I think we have been set up as a political prop in some ways.”

Todd, who will be co-anchoring NBC’s special inauguration coverage when Trump is sworn in Friday, spoke with Poynter for “Covering 45,” our new podcast examining how journalists are chronicling the 45th president of the United States. During the conversation, Todd touched on the ongoing fight over the White House briefing room, the media’s disconnect with rural America and the President-elect’s relationship with the press.

When it comes to the press briefing, why not compromise?

It’s been less than a week since senior Trump transition officials told a reporter they were considering evicting journalists from their longtime offices in the West Wing. Since then, the fate of the briefing room — and the reporting style it showcases — has been a subject of much debate.

Todd is in favor of keeping the press briefing, he said. But he doesn’t think it necessarily has to be televised. Missing from the discussion thus far has been talk of a possible compromise between reporters and Trump administration officials.

“All of these debates right now about the press are extreme debates,” Todd said. “Do it all or do nothing!’…Most of the time there’s a middle ground. I’m not saying all the time. But most of the time. Especially when it comes to these media questions.”

Skype seats?

Trump administration officials have cited the closed, insular nature of the White House briefing as one of the justifications for moving it to a larger venue. A bigger room would mean more seats, and, presumably, questions from a wider array of journalists.

But there’s another solution: Todd said. Why not let reporters Skype in?

“You could have four or five ‘Skype seats’ that are only open to news organizations that are based 200 miles or more outside of D.C., so that this isn’t just a way for lazy reporters to phone it in.” Todd said. “There are reporters whose beat (might be agriculture) and their publication is based in Omaha. But they don’t have a Washington bureau, but they may have questions. That’s the type of reporter who should have the opportunity to have a ‘Skype seat’ once a week.”

These ‘Skype seats’ would enable small to mid-size newspapers who can’t afford a Washington bureau to get the occasional question to the Trump administration, Todd said.

“…That is an opportunity to expand the aperture of the press corps a little bit and use technology to give opportunity to deserving news organizations,” Todd said.

The troubling coastal-rural divide

It’s clear that many viewers feel as if the media, which is based in left-leaning coastal centers, didn’t effectively channel the voice of the electorate during the runup to the election, Todd said. The solution? Get back on the horse and tell stories about people who feel underrepresented.

“That’s the bottom line,” Todd said. “We didn’t tell the stories about folks in Macomb County. We didn’t tell the story of the coal miners in West Virginia. I think a Trump voter would say we spent a lot of time telling the story of the DREAMer that may get deported, but we don’t spend enough time telling the story of the 19-year-old in…Missouri who is addicted to opioids and has no job prospects.”

Telling those stories is essential to winning back the trust of America writ large, Todd said,

“The fact of the matter is, we have a trust problem in rural America,” Todd said.

Trump views politics through the prism of media

There hasn’t been a president since perhaps Lyndon Johnson who views politics in terms of interactions with the press, Todd said. He’s used the media to score political points, a tactic that has been enabled by journalists who are ready stenographers.

“It’s not fun to be a political prop,” Todd said. “Some of this isn’t helped by what I call concierge media, which are certain individual members of the media who, if Trump calls, they listen. So he certainly knows how to manipulate that aspect of the press very well.”

Still, journalists shouldn’t let those tactics sway their coverage one way or the other, Todd said.

“I think having the press as a punching bag is what he wants,” Todd said. “But acknowledging that can’t influence how you cover him.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly rendered Macomb County, Michigan.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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