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Chuck Todd on the Importance of Defending the Free Press

By Michael M. Clements & Heather Mahoney | October 26, 2018 | People Feature

Veteran newsman Chuck Todd is on the front lines fighting for our first amendment rights.


“The president of the United States will say things that are unchecked and unverified—this is how he has changed the calculus [of media], and we are all coming to grips on how to cover this guy and this era. Do you just dismiss it when he tweets unverified information?” It’s a rhetorical question from veteran newsman Chuck Todd, who spoke to Capitol File in between coverage of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the confirmation process of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

For Todd, one solution to combating misinformation, fake news and a constant stream of unbridled, in-the-moment presidential tweets and talking points that quickly disseminate and reverberate through partisan echo chambers, then trickle down uncontested to an increasingly insulated viewership, is to cross-platform his message, moving the conversation beyond his weekly role as moderator of Meet the Press on NBC.

Case in point: Todd’s recent op-ed “It’s Time for the Press to Stop Complaining—And to Start Fighting Back” in The Atlantic. In it, Todd takes aim not at President Trump, but the decades long crusade to delegitimize all media that reports unfavorably on conservative issues and/or candidates favored by former Richard Nixon ally and Fox News architect Roger Ailes.

“What did we reporters do in the face of this cable onslaught that would eventually turn into a social-media virus and lead us to the election of the most fact-free presidential candidate in American history? Nothing,” Todd wrote in strikingly frank terms in his opinion piece, adding, “The American press corps finds itself on the ropes because it allowed a nearly 50-year campaign of attacks inspired by the chair of Fox News to go unanswered.”

Todd has widened his reach with his 1947: The Meet the Press Podcast and the recently concluded Meet the Press Film Festival. In collaboration with the American Film Institute, the inaugural film festival featured nearly two dozen films spotlighting critical midterm election issues such as immigration, voting rights and gun control. Screenings included Q&As with filmmakers, moderated by NBC News correspondents and anchors including Todd, Andrea Mitchell, Craig Melvin, Jacob Soboroff, Hallie Jackson, Kasie Hunt, Kristen Welker and Harry Smith. According to Todd, he wanted the documentaries to present “a platform for issues that aren’t getting enough attention.”


“There’s an opportunity and an appetite, but it is so difficult to break through this polarized way people digest information,” says Todd. “My hope is that if we come at it from different platforms—through Sunday morning shows, through our podcast or through one of these documentaries—it’s another way to penetrate that [40] percent that may have written off mainstream media, simply because someone told them so.”

As an aside, you should probably not include Todd’s run last year making NFL picks against a monkey named Reginald on The Tony Kornheiser Show to his cross-platforming strategy. For the record, Reginald had a 51 percent winning percentage to Todd’s 47 percent. Suffice it to say, Todd will not be trading his day job for sports prognosticating anytime soon.

Being at the tip of the media spear in an age when the leader of the free world deems you and your colleagues “enemies of the people” is no light-hearted matter. The consequences are real and, at times, dire: five employees shot dead in Maryland’s Capital Gazette newsroom; news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, employees of CBS affiliate WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., shot live on camera; and routine confrontation at political rallies. At a recent coffee meetup with a White House correspondent of a major five network, a reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, confided that their network, like others now, has to provide security when they cover presidential rallies.

Regardless of party affiliation, for Todd and other journalists reporting on events in a tribalized political climate, personal well-being has become an issue. Especially if, like Todd, one is married and a parent. “We have never had anything like it before,” Todd tells Capitol File. “To be in the bunker covering it from the inside is a real challenge.” In his op-ed for The Atlantic, Todd delves deeper into the subject of safety, stating, “For me, idle death threats are now the norm. (I don’t take them seriously, because if I did, I’d never feel at peace.) But forget the personal animus or safety issues reporters now face. 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.”

One of the outcomes of that engagement is increasing Americans’ trust of the media. Todd says that people need to realize that “reporting about social change does not mean the press is advocating for such change.” With the mythology of a biased press so ingrained, and the bifurcation of our information sources so complete, crossplatforming in innovative ways to reach across and within independent mediated realities might be the best hope we have of defending the free press—for Americans, and for democracy.