In late May, President Donald Trump shocked many when he rejected the assessments of his own administration and U.S. allies about recent North Korean violations of United Nations resolutions regarding its ballistic missile program. In response to Trump’s support for the “very smart man” in Pyongyang, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd offered a novel theory to explain Trump’s impunity in offering rhetorical aid and comfort to the enemy.
“I do think if the president thought there was a penalty to pay from even his own favorite channel, perhaps he would have curtailed his behavior, but they enable him too, they celebrate this now.”
Yet less than a month later, Todd himself proved that Trump need not fear paying a penalty on Meet the Press, either. During his catastrophic June 23 interview with the president, Chuck Todd was unprepared and spineless, letting Trump spew uninterrupted and unchallenged obvious falsehoods about the tension with Tehran, the Iran nuclear deal, his family separation policy, Obamacare, mythical voter fraud in 2016, and so much more. Writing in the Washington Post, a horrified Jennifer Rubin warned, “Trump’s lies need to be exposed in real time.” And as an astonished Aaron Rupar of Vox summed up Todd’s pathetic performance:
At numerous points throughout the interview, Todd let Trump get away with blatant falsehoods and gaslighting. Todd also teed up a number of softball questions for the president, like “Do you think you’ve been more successful in business or the presidency?” and “Do you speak to any of the former presidents?”
As it turns out, no one should be more disappointed in the Meet the Press host’s disastrous display than Chuck Todd himself. After all, it was only last September that Todd had his “mad as hell/not going to take anymore” moment on the pages of The Atlantic. Decrying “the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media” and the press’s failure “to defend our work in real time from this onslaught.”
There’s not a serious journalist alive who hasn’t had one of those “gulp” moments when you realize that you really messed up. But serious journalists correct the record, serious journalistic organizations allow themselves to be held to account, own up to mistakes, and learn from them so they can do a better job the next time.
Sadly for him and for us, Todd’s interview with Trump last week was that next time. And, as we’ll see below, it was hardly his first strike, either.
Nevertheless, last fall Chuck Todd decided to pick up the banner for his profession and defend it from the dual onslaught of Fox News and the 45th president of the United States. As of June 7, 2019, the Washington Post’s ongoing tally of President Trump’s lies had reached 10,796 in just 869 days. (When Todd published his piece, the figure was 4,713 false Trump claims over his first 592 days in office.) That, combined with Trump’s threats to the media he claims is an “enemy of the people” and the ongoing Fox News campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the press, apparently fueled Chuck Todd’s clarion call in the pages of The Atlantic. “A nearly 50-year campaign of vilification, inspired by Fox News’s Roger Ailes, has left many Americans distrustful of media outlets,” Todd warned, “Now, journalists need to speak up for their work.”
Instead of attacking rivals, or assailing critics—going negative, in the parlance of political campaigns—reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. Every day, we need to do our job, check our facts, strive to be transparent, and say what we’re seeing. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve seen a nearly 50-year campaign to delegitimize the press, and I’m saying so. For years, I didn’t say a word about this publicly, and at times I even caught myself drawing false equivalencies because I was afraid of being labeled as biased. I know that stating the obvious will draw attacks, but I’ve also learned that the louder critics bark, the more they care about what’s being reported.
I’m not advocating for a more activist press in the political sense, but for a more aggressive one. That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them. Access isn’t journalism’s holy grail—facts are. [Emphasis mine.]
Facts are indeed journalism’s holy grail. It’s just too bad Chuck Todd only had that epiphany in 2018 and not years earlier when it might have made a difference.
You only have to think back to the GOP’s days of rage in the summer of 2009 and its landslide in the 2010 midterms to see the triumph of delusion. None of the Republicans’ key talking points—”death panels,” “government takeover of health care,” “tax enough already,” “sticking it to seniors on Medicare,” “an $800 bill raid on Medicare,” “Obama made the economy worse”—was true. It wasn’t simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, “What if a president cut Americans’ income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?” Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:
In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
The answer to all of those “what if” scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ’s Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2012, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too.
All of this transpired in large part precisely because, to repurpose Chuck Todd’s words, the political press had a very high tolerance for talking points and utterly lacked a willingness to speak plain truths. Todd and many of his media colleagues allowed themselves to be spun and gave guests and sources a platform to spin their readers and viewers. Stenography, after all, is easier than journalism. Presenting conflict is more entertaining than reporting the truth.
In September 2013, Chuck Todd himself provided a textbook case of the kind of media failure he now laments. When former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell lamented that Americans were misinformed about Obamacare, Todd protested:
“But more importantly, it’s stuff that Republicans successfully messaged against it and they wouldn’t have heard … they don’t repeat other stuff because they haven’t even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say ‘it’s your fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”
That same day, Todd took to Twitter to repeat his point:
Somebody decided to troll w/mislding headline: point I actually made was folks shouldn’t expect media to do job WH has FAILED to do re: ACA
But after eight hours of absorbing a pounding online, he returned to Twitter to clarify his clarification:
I was NOT saying it isn’t job of journos to call out lies, I said it was not job of media to sell WH’s health care message, it is WH’s job.
But the basics of Journalism 101 leave no ambiguity about what precisely Chuck Todd’s job is. First, discovering and reporting objective truth is the job. It should not have required the rise of Donald Trump to make clear that the lie—and not the claim—is the story. A corollary to that law is this: in many cases, there are not two sides to a story, but only facts and truth. Reporters must never waiver in their commitment to the rules, no matter the intensity of the hell-storm they may suffer in response (usually from the raging right).
Chuck Todd, of course, knows all of this. Lamenting the success and the power of Roger Ailes and Fox News in his jeremiad last September, Todd warned:
From the very beginning, Ailes signaled that Fox News would offer an alternative voice, splitting with the conventions of television journalism. Take the word balanced. It sounded harmless enough. But how does one balance facts?…
If you hear something over and over again, you start to believe it, particularly if the charge is unrebutted. The Trump team now keeps pounding this message, compounding the challenge. And the president faces little penalty with his voters, no matter how disparagingly he talks about the press corps; it’s precisely what Ailes conditioned them to believe…
American democracy requires a functioning press that informs voters and creates a shared set of facts. If journalists are going to defend the integrity of their work, and the role it plays in sustaining democracy, we’re going to need to start fighting back.
Well, Chuck can start any day now. In the meantime, the Meet the Press and Meet the Press Daily anchor will rightly be scolded by the likes of Jennifer Rubin. Using language almost identical to the words Todd himself penned last fall, Rubin blasted his appalling surrender to Trump last Sunday.
Allowing Trump and his ilk to bluster and flat-out lie their way through interviews might be the path of least resistance when trying to cover a lot of ground. However, if Trump and his teammates are not stopped dead in their tracks, the media become a platform for deceiving voters…
We’re at risk of losing not only a shared set of facts but also a uniform belief that there are such things as facts. That’s straight out of the autocratic playbook — one that the media cannot facilitate.
Never-Trumper Jennifer Rubin, by the way, was a full-throated cheerleader in 2012 for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. A man who never missed an opportunity to be an opportunist, Romney’s mythmaking and fact-free falsifications paved the way for The Donald. Mercifully, Mitt Romney lost, a defeat aided in part by the work of those like Steve Benen. Over the course of the 2012 campaign, Benen was “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity,” a journalistic project which ultimately encompassed 41 volumes.
Steve Benen, by the way, works for MSNBC. Perhaps Chuck Todd should talk to him some time. He won’t be disappointed.