The Media Today

Where Chuck Todd failed

September 11, 2023
Chuck Todd's Meet the Press Daily interviews Pennsylvania State Senator John Yudichak and Wilkes-Barre Mayor, George Brown ahead of primary elections last year. (Photo by Aimee Dilger / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Yesterday, Chuck Todd signed off as host of Meet the Press, NBC’s venerable Sunday morning show, after nine years in the role. His final guests were Bill Cassidy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, and Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California—both chosen, Todd said, because, unlike many other politicians these days, “they accept the premise of a healthy democracy, which is that elected officials take a stand and then come on shows where they get questioned for their rationales and defend it.” Todd then moderated a panel discussion, which ended with a love-in as the assembled reporters and pundits warmly thanked him and expressed pride in his legacy. Finally, Todd handed the reins to Kristen Welker, his successor, who also showered praise on Todd and his reportorial chops. (She said that Todd taught her that “You have to have the confidence to ask the tough questions.” Todd agreed: “It’s not a popularity contest,” he said.) With that, and a final trademark signoff, Todd was gone.

Since Todd announced his impending departure back in June, his bosses at NBC have been similarly complimentary of his legacy. The network hailed him for leading Meet the Press through “an era of digital expansion and audience growth”; the show now boasts a podcast, a blog, and a weekday spinoff that aired on MSNBC before moving to NBC News Now, a streaming service. And executives at NBC News also praised Todd’s stewardship of the flagship Sunday morning broadcast. ​​“Meet the Press has sustained its historic role as the indispensable news program on Sunday mornings,” Rebecca Blumenstein, the network’s president of editorial, and Carrie Budoff Brown, its senior vice president of politics, said. Through Todd’s “penetrating interviews with many of the most important newsmakers, the show has played an essential role in politics and policy, routinely made front-page news, and framed the thinking in Washington and beyond.” (Full disclosure: Blumenstein chairs CJR’s Board of Overseers.)

Meet the Press does now look like a modern, multi-platform brand. On the Sunday-morning front, however, many critics would dispute the success of Todd’s tenure and just how “essential” Meet the Press is these days. Over the years, such critics have viewed Todd’s interviews as less than penetrating; his inability to ask difficult follow-up questions became such a running joke that it was skewered by both The Onion and Trevor Noah, at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (“Chuck, you here? How you doing?” Noah called out from the stage. “I’d ask a follow-up, but I know you don’t know what those are.”) And, since before Todd started hosting Meet the Press in 2014, media critics have testified to the decline not only of that show but its Sunday morning counterparts on rival networks, with the shows’ one-time power as political agenda-setters challenged by the twenty-four-hour news cycle and guests’ increased reluctance to stray beyond carefully crafted talking points (when they can be coaxed to appear at all). The Trump era only intensified such takes, as many top Republicans’ break with reality rendered the Sunday shows’ good-faith, “both sides” self-conception increasingly untenable. 

As regular readers of this newsletter may have noticed, I continue to pay close attention to the Sunday shows—not because they are agenda-setting, necessarily (though I still think they perform something like this function for the rest of the mainstream political media), but because, as the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen once put it, “they crystallize consensus practice in journalism, and display in miniature its relationship to the political class.” Typically, I start my weekly download with Meet the Press. This is mainly because it is the Platonic ideal of the genre; not only the oldest and most hallowed of the Sunday shows but, to my mind, the most explicitly consensual. But I also have come to find my weekly dose of Todd, if not soothing exactly, then somehow anchoring.

Sometimes, there have been substantive grounds to praise Todd: in 2018, he devoted a whole episode of Meet the Press to the climate crisis and refused to give a platform to climate deniers (Grist described the episode as “a glimpse of what it would look like if we took climate change seriously”); the following year, Todd justifiably lost his rag with Ron Johnson, the Republican senator for Wisconsin, after he started spouting nonsense about Trump’s first impeachment. Such moments, however, cleared a fairly low bar for success. And, more often, I have found myself criticizing Todd for channeling the very aspects of consensus practice in journalism that I hate: bothsidesism, false equivalence, an obsession with presidential politics, handwringing about ill-defined concepts like “polarization,” a focus on political optics. (My former colleague Maria Bustillos once memorably wrote that, “for Chuck Todd all the political world’s a stage, and he’s the star.”) After Todd announced that he was stepping back, I concluded in this newsletter that his Meet the Press “too often privileged a halcyon conception of civil dialogue over hard-edged accountability journalism.” His final weeks in the job haven’t changed my mind.

Indeed, an episode that aired two weeks ago struck me as a microcosm of what Meet the Press was under Todd, and what it could have been. It opened with Todd making a good point—hedging against the media consensus that Donald Trump’s alleged crimes are only helping him politically—albeit one rooted squarely in horserace analysis. Todd then interviewed the Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy; as I wrote at the time, the booking reflected Ramaswamy’s status as the political media’s latest shiny object, but Todd did at least ask him some pointed questions, including by teasing at the holes in his biography and past statements. Then, Todd interviewed Bernie Sanders—asking questions about whether President Biden should face a primary challenge, concerns over Biden’s age, and Cornel West’s tilt at the White House from Biden’s left. Finally, a panel discussed optics from the Republican debate, third parties, and polling. If some of that analysis was insightful, not much of it focused on policy.

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In his interview that day, Sanders mentioned Biden’s record on climate change three times. By my rough calculation, based on NBC’s transcripts of Meet the Press, these were three of seventeen mentions of the word “climate” (in the context of climate change) across thirty-five episodes of the show this year. Mostly, these were passing references from Todd’s guests; Todd did do a data segment on extreme weather and bring up climate in his interview with Newsom yesterday, though the latter conversation didn’t make the TV cut. (NBC posted the full interview online.) This summer, Todd asked Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, about the politics of a pipeline project without broaching its climate impact, and only briefly mentioned the wildfires that devastated Hawai‘i. If his 2018 climate special merited plaudits, this more recent Sunday-morning record is hardly what it looks like to take climate change seriously.

And, while Todd’s Ramaswamy interview was sharper, his NBCUniversal colleague Mehdi Hasan blew it out of the water when he had Ramaswamy on his show last week—over twenty-five minutes, Hasan picked apart almost everything that Ramaswamy said and bought detailed receipts to back up his questions, at one point waving Ramaswamy’s tax returns. As I wrote in a 2021 profile of Hasan as a debater-type interviewer, he comes at his subjects from an unapologetically progressive vantage point. That fact—and his contentious, British-style interviews—probably wouldn’t be tenable on the current iteration of Meet the Press, not least because these days, no high-level politician needs to accept an invitation to be eviscerated.

Still, as Todd himself noted on air yesterday, politicians who are willing to subject themselves to even gentle scrutiny are thin on the ground, and watching genuinely tough, substantive interviews with a narrower universe of guests would have more civic value—and also make for better TV—than the umpteenth Sunday show smarmfest with a Chris Sununu or Larry Hogan. The latter type of interview, and many of the other problems I identified above, are far from unique to Todd or Meet the Press; again, the Sunday show as a genre has long been in decline. Punching them up, and reorienting them around policy rather than political process, might not reverse that decline. But it would better meet this moment than business as usual. As Todd and his team have shown with their digital expansion of the Meet the Press brand, the Sunday show format needn’t be set in stone. Hopefully the same can be true of their editorial philosophy.

Todd’s departure offers Meet the Press an opportunity to lead a much-needed reset. We’ll have to wait and see how Welker performs as host, though her promise, on yesterday’s broadcast, to bring a reporter’s spirit to the role at least sounds hopeful. What’s troubling, at least based on yesterday’s on-air encomia to Todd, is that Meet the Press seems to think it is already asking politicians the tough questions. (On Twitter, Rosen summed up Todd’s parting message as: “It ain’t broke. We’re not going to fix it. And, wow, the country sure is divided.” Rosen judged the episode as a whole to have been “dismal.”) At least to my ear, Todd’s interview style might be described, at best, as friendly coaxing, the occasional clash with a Ron Johnson aside.

While I would favor a more adversarial future for the Sunday shows, there’s nothing inherently wrong with coaxing—but at the very least, you have to consistently coax out information of value to your viewers. To be fair to Todd, this is part of his record. But he also coaxed out a lot of trivia about the horserace and political proceduralism. As he signed off, Todd defined the essential value of Meet the Press as educational; as “helping to explain America to Washington and Washington to America.” Too often under Todd, I heard a show explaining Washington to itself.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote in this newsletter about an extraordinary court ruling that blocked officials across the federal government from communicating with social platforms about the content they host, casting such activity as a violation of the First Amendment. On Friday, an appeals court effectively confirmed the decision, but narrowed its scope. The Justice Department could now appeal to the Supreme Court.
  • Earlier in the summer, three men were charged in connection with a campaign of vandalism and intimidation at properties linked to Lauren Chooljian, a reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio. Now a fourth man—purportedly an associate of a subject of Chooljian’s reporting (who denies wrongdoing)—has been arrested in the case, and all four have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Boston. WBUR has the details.  
  • In the UK, the government introduced a task force aimed at clamping down on strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, that wealthy individuals—including, in the British case, Russian oligarchs—have exploited to tie up reporting they don’t like. The task force will focus on non-legislative measures, but the British government is working on legislative responses, too. (I wrote about SLAPPs in the UK last year.) 
  • In Australia, a court in the state of Queensland mistakenly allowed journalists to view documents identifying the alleged victims of a man who has been charged with over a thousand child sexual abuse offences. According to The Guardian—which was among the outlets to review the documents, but has not retained any identifying details—the press cannot legally identify the alleged victims, but could approach their families. 
  • And The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner profiled Ross Douthat, the Times columnist who “occupies an all but vanished position: he is a Christian conservative who lives among liberals, writes for them, and—even when he is arguing against abortion, or against ‘woke progressivism’—has their respectful attention,” Chotiner writes. “This is in part because he is curious, not only distraught, about the decline of faith in American life.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.