Over the past three years, as well as expanding the role of political director, Todd has redefined it for the new media age. He is not only a constant presence on cable and network TV, but also a constant voice on MSNBC’s First Read blog and on Twitter, which he constantly surveys for news—“I think it’s the most powerful wire service ever invented,”—and is known to Tweet thirty times a day. It’s part of the job, said Todd. “I don’t ever feel like I stop reading-in. It used to be that you read-in in the morning and then you went through your day. Every time you think you cannot check in for a while, you miss something. I’m in a business where I’m not allowed to miss right now.”
Something that becomes apparent when you spend time with Chuck Todd is that despite his reputation as an innovator in the political director role, he is somewhat old-fashioned in his view of American politics. He blossomed in the Beltway but remains un-jaded by it. The public got a glimpse of this last month when Todd took exception to Stephen Colbert’s appearance at a House subcommittee hearing on immigration and farm labor, asking Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC’s Hardball (which he’d found time to guest host): “What if Al Franken was in character in the U.S. Senate? What if he decided to be Stuart Smalley in the Senate?” And later: “I’m asking you, is this good for the system, bad for the system, or is it simply the system?”
Liberal bloggers called Todd everything from a “full-blown concern troll” to an “inside-the-Beltway tool” following the comment. But he makes no apologies. “We demonize politics so much in the American media,” he told me. “And I hate how we’ve demonized the institutions of Congress so much that it’s now okay for somebody to go in there and make a mockery of it. I understand that Congress has certainly not earned the respect of the American voter. But like I said, the first book I read was Profiles in Courage. For me that put senators on a pedestal.”
He is similarly old-fashioned in his view of journalism. Todd sees “Rupert’s influence”—the “rise of activist journalism”— as dangerous to the neutral and skeptical voice that has defined modern American journalism. “Obviously, good journalism has been broken by point-of-view folks,” he says. “But if activist journalism becomes the norm, and if we’re supposed to be the watchdogs, the credibility of the journalism is always being questioned.” When the Daily Caller published its incriminating pieces on JournoList, a liberal media listserve in which Todd did not take part, he told Politico that the group had damaged journalistic credibility. “This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It’s very depressing.”
Despite those beliefs, Todd’s own credibility has faced its fair share of dings. In the middle of 2009, Salon’s Greenwald wrote a column bashing Todd for suggesting on Morning Joe that President Obama should refrain from investigating possible war crimes committed by members of the Bush administration. Todd responded in an e-mail, and Greenwald set up a debate for Salon Radio. Though Greenwald gives Todd his due for fronting up, he says the political director is symptomatic of a political media that is cowed by the corporate interests of the companies for which they report and the insider circles in which they report.
“For me, the thing journalists should want to do more than anything else is be adversarial to people in political power,” Greenwald told me over the phone from Rio de Janeiro, where he spends much of his time. “It’s the same journalists who see objectivity as their guiding star. And yet they’re willing to depart from that when they feel safe doing so—typically when they’re mouthing Beltway conventional wisdom or the consensus of the powerful officials they are supposed to be covering.”
On Todd, he adds: “Beyond that, he does nothing but repeat every outlaid media cliché that is whispered to him by the political officials he covers and the media friends who he has. That’s what he is and what he does.”
Obviously, Todd disagrees. “I think for Glenn and others, those of us in the prominent journalism assignments will always be viewed skeptically because we don’t cheerlead or we don’t advocate their beliefs,” he told me later in an e-mail. “We also have constraints that I wish we didn’t have, including the issue of being a business so we can’t delve as deep into some policy debates as many of us would like, because someone has decided it’s not good for ratings. I do believe we do our best at NBC and MSNBC to figure out how to keep pushing the envelope on this front.