MSNBC public editor: The Chuck Todd show

Image: MSNBC Screengrab

After former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee this morning, Chuck Todd managed to demonstrate, with uncharacteristic brevity, his basic misunderstanding of the requirements of his job:

Todd’s focus on the “entertainment” aspect of politics coverage is often in evidence—for example, in his own recent performance as moderator in the Democratic presidential debate. He managed to talk more than all but three of the candidates, even as he demanded that they keep their own answers brief.

Graphic via FiveThirtyEight.

For Chuck Todd all the political world’s a stage, and he’s the star.

And it’s not just Todd. Other MSNBC anchors reacted to the Mueller hearings similarly, finding fault with the Democrats’, and Mueller’s, lack of pizzazz as performers. Brian Williams referred to “the caffeine gap” in the Judiciary Committee’s questioning. I can’t help pointing out that excessive concern with caffeinated pizzazz can warp a journalist’s judgement pretty severely, and is best avoided.

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At a moment of particular gravity for the country, with the sitting president credibly accused of obstructing justice, and many of his campaign staff and associates under investigation and indictment, may I suggest that if you, a journalist, are bored with the politics of this—if you are demanding somehow to be entertained, right now—you’re not doing your job.

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

It took a former US Attorney and acting head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, to drag MSNBC back to reality, after Williams’s remarks. “There’s a difference between ‘exciting’ and ‘important,’ he said. “There are things that are exciting that are not important; there are things that are important that are not particularly exciting.” 

“Perfectly said!” exclaimed Nicole Wallace. “And it’s so important!! And I think it’s shallow analysis, I’m guilty of it, to hone in on the performance aspects of it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

EDITORS NOTE: An attribution line was added for the graphic about speaking time at the Democratic presidential debate. The graphic was first published on the blog fivethirtyeight.com.

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Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at publiceditors@cjr.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has previously appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.