Personality-driven journalism applies to traditional media, too
This week, I’m talking to Chuck Todd, the political director at NBC News and moderator of Meet The Press, the longest-running television show in the country. Seriously: Meet the Press started in 1946, and Chuck is only the 12th moderator the show’s ever had. And as streaming upends television, he’s expanding Meet The Press from a single weekly show where he interviews politicians to an entire roster of formats: there’s Meet the Press, Meet The Press Daily on MSNBC, Meet the Press Reports on the Peacock streaming service, and, of course, a Meet the Press podcast.
Chuck and I talked a lot about how streaming and direct distribution has changed TV news and what the purpose of a show like Meet the Press really is in an environment where politicians can reach audiences directly whenever they want. We also talked a lot about the fractured news and information landscape and how he has been thinking about his responsibility as one of the last media gatekeepers to exist. Politicians often lie, but right now, the Republican Party is pretty committed to some very serious lies about the sanctity of our elections. It feels like something very serious has changed, and I wanted to know how Chuck thought about his role and the role of the media overall.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chuck Todd, you are the political director at NBC News and the moderator of Meet the Press. Welcome to Decoder.
Hi, thanks for having me. Longtime listener. First-time caller.
I love it. There’s a lot to talk about. You’ve got some new streaming products. You’ve got a new extension of Meet the Press on Peacock, which I want to dive into. I want to start with a very dumb question.
Meet the Press is the longest-running show on television. It started in 1947. Why is it called Meet the Press?
Well, because it was a press conference, and I believe the voiceover at one point said “America’s press conference.” Because we didn’t have White House briefings in 1947. We didn’t have Pentagon briefings in 1947. We didn’t have state department briefings in 1947. So, the initial premise of the show, besides marketing a magazine called The American Mercury — they developed the show and were its sole sponsor, American Mercury magazine, which Lawrence Spivak owned. Martha Rountree is the first moderator, but Lawrence Spivak owned the show, and the show was started to promote the magazine. Ironically, the magazine doesn’t exist, but the show still does. So, shout-out to marketing departments out there. Your work may outlast the product you were promoting.
But the idea was just that: they invited different members of the press corps — that’s who made up the panels of questions and of questioners — and you invited a newsmaker on to take those questions. And at the time, there wasn’t anything like it. There weren’t televised press conferences. Presidents didn’t take questions very often, maybe a couple of times a year, let alone senators. So, this was a first for television, and they actually started as radio, obviously, but that’s why it was called that. And there have been different iterations of it where there have been the panelists asking questions. This is a show where the title was very literal back when it started. It’s obviously a little less literal today.
The reason I ask that question is, I think one of the big challenges for all of us in the media is making sure we attract a new audience, a younger audience, over time. We bring people along. And the idea that a politician would come to meet the press on one show once a week, that seems very far-fetched to me now.
Politicians are constantly meeting everybody all the time on Twitter, on Facebook, on other social platforms. At some point, politicians are going to start dancing on TikTok, so the notion that meeting the press is a forcing function, I’m curious if you think the title holds you back in some way. I think a lot of people listen to it and they think they will meet the press. That it is an instruction to the audience.
It’s a fair question. I certainly don’t let the title limit what I think the ambition of the show should be. Or frankly, I don’t believe it’s one show anymore — I believe it is a brand that is about politics and the intersection of politics and policy. But I would argue everything old is new again. While politicians appear to be more accessible than ever, they’ve never been more hesitant to actually take any question that is not friendly anymore. Right? You have politicians, and a lot more on the right than the left, but there’s some on the left who just want to go to the friendly confines of a place where they don’t have to be challenged on things they don’t want to be challenged on; they want to talk to a specific audience.
So, there’s a part of me that thinks that, yeah, I’ve got to almost use this old brand as kind of a sledgehammer to get folks back. It’s a good thing to show up and be uncomfortable. And unfortunately right now, there are too many elected officials, too many people in power that think that there’s more to lose than to be gained by taking tough questions. And so, that’s, to me, the challenge that I’m concerned about the most. I don’t ever want to be in the access game. And yet the access game is paying a lot of bills in the social media influencer and cable news space. And that’s not a good thing for the democracy. It may be good for a specific business or a specific show, but it is bad for the larger goal of accountability journalism. So, that’s something I worry about. … which is maybe an argument not to drop the name.
What do you mean by the access game is paying a lot of bills in the social media influencer space?
I think there’s a lot of folks who want to build an audience based on access.
Access to politicians?
To politicians or political figures or celebrities. I mean, it’s not just in politics, right? The biggest competitors to mainstream journalism are the new model of journalists, some of whom can make their name because they have access to a couple of important constituencies, either individuals or specific constituencies. And then they sort of build a business off of that. And then even if they started under the premise of some journalistic guideline as to why they started their program or why they got into this, the audience they’ve created, they decide to feed the audience because they need to keep the audience in order to keep the business model going. And that’s one of my concerns about where we’re headed with the modern media landscape.
I mean, I hear this all the time from the tech industry, you can levy that same criticism at cable news networks. You can levy that—
No, no, it’s across the board. Yes. Athletes. [The] sports world, tech world. We know that in the tech world, there are Apple reporters. They don’t work for Apple, but you know who they are, right?
Yeah. You get my drift.
I know. There are some folks in our ecosystem who it feels like sometimes, their job is to carry water for Apple. That said, The Verge exists in the center of that ecosystem. And there’s lots of other big publications in the center of that ecosystem. Do you think Meet the Press exists in the center of the political ecosystem in the same way?
Our job is to. Whether we are, at any moment in time, I’ll let others decide whether we are, but I think, look, my argument is: we’re a credibility play. We’ve got to be seen as credible in the mainstream media. We’ve got to be credible. It’s not about being down the middle. It’s about being credible with facts, honest about how we’re covering politics. I always say I cover politics as it is, not as I wish it were. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to cover ideas that might make things better in some form or another. And that’s why, what we’re doing on Meet the Press Reports and things like that.
But part of my sales pitch to somebody to come on the show is, hey, you’re more credible if you take uncomfortable questions. And I even say, you know what, if you don’t like it, you can just crap on me in the interview or with your social media friends. I don’t care. I do think that’s something else that separates what we do and what others do is, I don’t care if I’m liked. Now, I say this, and of course I care if I’m liked, I’m a human being, but I can’t really do this job if I’m more concerned about whether I’m offending the person I’m asking a question to, rather than asking the question that I think needs to be asked.
So, that is the world we have to exist in. Why is The Verge a credible place for me to find out what’s happening in the tech world that’s real and what’s a pump-and-dump? Over time, you guys have got the credibility that says, okay, when you’re reviewing a Samsung product, you’re reviewing it on the merits, not because they’re an advertiser or a potential advertiser. I’m working in the same way. I’m working in the same world. And that’s what I’ve got to be pitching. That’s what I’ve got to be presenting. That’s what I’ve got to be selling, if that makes sense.
It does make sense. Actually, it brings me to kind of an interesting point of comparison, and something I think about a lot with The Verge. We were explicitly founded 10 years ago and have held onto the idea that people come to The Verge for our personalities, for us. Dieter Bohn is our lead reviewer. He reviews all the things. People trust him, they like him, but one piece of that puzzle is, he is making explicit, subjective evaluations of products. And you can trust him or not. You can agree with him or not.
And I can tie the news cycle of tech to, at the end of the cycle, you’re going to announce a product, we’re going to hear the features, we’re going to hear about the antitrust implications of Apple bundling a weather app, whatever. And then Dieter is going to hold the phone or I’m going to hold the phone and say, it’s an 8. All of this stuff added up into this thing you can hold and you can spend money on it or not. And we’re going to tell you if that’s a good decision.
There’s something tidy about that. I think actually, the only tidier coverage area that I can think of is sports. You can cover all this stuff. And at the end, Tom Brady wins the Super Bowl and it’s just going to keep happening until somebody else wins the Super Bowl.
It’s not the case in politics. There are elections, but the policies themselves don’t resolve into tidy moments where you can say, that person told me the truth about what their policy objective would do, or this person had a great idea and it failed in the market of policy ideas. How do you bring that to a resolution? Because I think that, to me, one of the reasons the more partisan journalists are succeeding right now is that they’re constantly telling a narrative and that narrative comes to endpoints. Whereas I think traditional journalism doesn’t allow for those endpoints.
I take your point. Now, I would say this: The political marketplace does reward folks who are eventually proven right. Barack Obama. Is he president of the United States without having a demonstrable speech where he came out against the Iraq War? He was able to show his judgment, it was a policy, he came out against it in ‘02. There was proof he came out against it in ‘02. It was about the closest thing I could think of when you were going with your question, all right, what can I think of? And I’m like, well, the Iraq War in hindsight. Now, here’s one of these subjective—
But let me challenge you right back. I would argue, I mean, the Iraq War to me is a formative political moment. I was in college. My friends are protesting, they’re getting arrested on Lake Shore Drive for protesting. It felt like everybody in the country under the age of 25 knew it was stupid. And then the media at the time, which was not the internet media, just the big broadcast media was like, we’re doing it. We’re just charging after it. And now I feel like I’m going to be paying for the Iraq War for the rest of my life in some way.
That has split now. That has completely broken open. There’s not an issue in America right now where you cannot find some collection of huge voices making an argument pro or con. And the idea that because Obama was against it and he got elected, it still doesn’t change that repercussion, that long-running repercussion.
No, but it worked for him and it gave him credibility on his other views. Now, let me argue the other side of it. Tax cuts. Republicans have argued for years, “Tax cuts pay for themselves.” There is not a lick of truth to this. There is no data that supports this anywhere. And then when you present them with the data, the tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. “Oh, well, they would have, had they not done this, or they would have had you not …”
So the problem in American politics is that, even when somebody’s point of view, their rationale for a decision they make, is proven wrong, they usually, because there’s enough of a following on one side or the other, there’s enough people invested in making sure that even when their narrative is wrong, they have to defend why it was wrong. So they say, “well, it would have paid for itself had there not been reckless spending by the Liberal Democrats.” Some unprovable ambiguous shot that sounds good to the base of party X.
So I do see what you’re saying. And this is the hardest part of, I think, covering politics, is that I always say, fact-checking is sometimes very subjective, and it’s subjective because what have I just said on tax cuts? Fact-checking it, there’s no proof that is true. But I can’t rule that it’s not true because they’re arguing, actually, over future facts. They’ll pay for themselves if these 10 sets of things happen too. Well, those things never happen. It doesn’t happen in the real world. This is wrong. So in that sense, your point is accurate, which is, this is an extraordinarily subjective world. Sports and tech, ultimately the product works or the product doesn’t. The team wins or the team loses.
One of my theses on this show is that the distribution formats for media often shape the media itself in extremely dramatic ways that are all but invisible. So Meet the Press started, it’s a radio show, it’s a broadcast show. They’re big radio and broadcast television gatekeepers. The politicians have to come there. They have to literally meet the press. That’s all different now. We have eliminated lots of gatekeepers.
There are gatekeepers. What I joke is, I’m holding up a gate, there’s just no walls that the hinges to the gate are connected to anymore. You can hold up any gate you want, but there’s no walls on each side of the gate so you’re not opening or closing the door for anybody.
Yes. But it’s still true that being on a broadcast television show called Meet the Press has a lot of signifiers. So even in my career, I’m editor in chief of The Verge, but I’m also a CNBC contributor. And whenever I show up on CNBC, my parents are more excited than whenever I publish something. It’s just true. And this is true for almost every digital journalist I know, that shows up on television.
I worked in digital journalism before it was cool. I was at The Hotline, before I joined NBC. I did this for 15 years, was the editor in chief of this trade publication called The Hotline. The amount of times I had to explain to my own mother that I had a real job for a living over that 15 years was astronomical. And then I went to work at a company she heard of, NBC: “Oh, now I know what you do for a living.”
Yeah. So these signifiers are enormous, right?
Meet the Press has all these signifiers. Traditional broadcast media or cable news has all of these signifiers. You have access to the signifiers and you can keep people in or out of that room. How do you decide who gets to be in the room, who gets to be on your show?
Ultimately, what is my job? One of the things that I’ve identified as my job is an educator. My job is to educate you on the nexus of politics and policy. So ultimately, it’s about who we’re bringing on — is it going to help the viewer understand X better? X could be the political dispute behind infrastructure. X could be the infrastructure policy itself. X could be who’s going to be running for president and why you’re not going to see a lot of legislation take place in an even-numbered year, or something like that. So I’m not interested in the guest if it’s about picking a fight, because one of the things we learned is why people watch Meet the Press.
People that watch cable news are looking for affirmation. They’re not necessarily always looking for news anymore. They’re looking for a little bit more of a point of view in one form or the other, according to, at least, what we’ve noticed of our viewers. Some of them say it’s simply to get better educated so I can talk to people at work. Or for whatever reason it is of their own. And I keep up day-to-day with the news cycle. I know there’s a lot going on. And I think for instance, in the Trump era, Sunday shows in general, for all the reasons you pointed out earlier, they’re not the only gatekeepers anymore, they’re not the only place to go to find out what a potential presidential candidate, what makes them tick. But we are pretty good filters at what matters and what didn’t.
And that’s what I also think that we provide as a service. We’re sifting out the crazy. Look, there’s some times we’ve got to tell you about the crazy, because the crazy’s having an important influence on decision-making in the country. But ultimately, we try to go back to, what’s in the best service to the viewer? And in our case, I view my viewer as somebody who’s historically informed, but may not be living and breathing the news cycle the way I do for a living. I have to for a living. So if you’re wondering, that’s the line I sort of strive to straddle.
So let me give you an example that I think about all the time. Ted Cruz. We cover Section 230, which is the law that says internet platforms can moderate. We cover it a lot. Ted Cruz went to Harvard Law School. I know he’s read 230. 230 is easy to read. Everybody should do it.
We’ve talked to Professor Jeff Kosseff, who wrote that book, many times. It’s easy, you can just read it. I know [Ted Cruz] has read it. I know he has the training to read it. I know he’s read the court opinions about it. He lies about it all the time. He’s constantly saying 230 says something it doesn’t say. If you have Ted Cruz on your show and he goes on about how 230 says something it doesn’t say, now you are in combat. You have to push back on him, and he’s going to keep lying to you. He’s not going to back down.
Well, see, this is a case where I don’t know if I’d put him on. We go through this debate a lot. I never say never on anybody, but I’m not going to put somebody on who I know is knowingly going to gaslight the viewer. If they have a specific point of view that’s making an argument about something, that’s one thing. For instance, I had John Bolton on the daily show [MTP Daily] today. A lot of people may not like John Bolton, but John Bolton’s got an ideological point of view on national security issues. So there’s an honesty to his point of view that isn’t simply about raising money off the internet on that topic. Again, we can have a debate about whether, well, he’s wrong about X, Y, and Z.
That’s fine. I understand where you’re coming from. But there’s honesty about how he advocates for his position. If somebody is going to be dishonest about how they advocate for something, I think that is something we have to take into account. And I think that is something you have to take into account as an interviewer. If he is on there to only confuse the situation, I have to think long and hard about whether that’s a good idea. The last time I had Ted Cruz on, it’s probably been about a year and a half, it was when he was defending the president on Ukraine at the time, President Trump. And it just devolved into just, you have no facts on this...
And what really set him off, I said, “The president seems to be making something up and you yourself know that he’s good at this.” And I brought up the attacks on his father and the attacks on his wife. I said, “He made up a conspiracy theory on that. Why wouldn’t he make up a conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden and Joe Biden? You know this firsthand.” And he just lost it. The point is, though, did that serve the viewer? It may have made him less credible, and therefore made it very hard to take him seriously on other subjects. And I think that’s the problem Ted Cruz has to deal with right now. I don’t take him very seriously on many things he says, because he was so easily bought into a conspiracy theory. And this is the same guy that used to argue Donald Trump’s a conspiracy theorist and a congenital liar. So I don’t know who to believe or who to trust.
So I do think there’s a point where an elected official disqualifies themselves from being a credible person to put on the air, because of their own words and actions. And I think Ted Cruz is arguably walking that line, or may have crossed it, frankly.
One of the reasons I would argue that Cruz and others have crossed this line is election denialism. And now what we see happening with denial of what happened on January 6th, and saying — Ron Johnson, the senator from my home state, is basically saying it didn’t happen. Lots of Republicans are toeing up to that line. Why even put them on the air?
I don’t know if I would. The point I always say is, I’m not going to make a blanket statement, but I’m not putting on a gaslighter... I wouldn’t put on Alex Jones either. At this point, they’re the same person. That said, if you’re the local NBC reporter in Milwaukee, he’s the elected United States senator, what do you do? Do you not interview him on anything?
I also would interview Vladimir Putin. I have interviewed the president of Iran. These are known gaslighters. Now you go into it, and in some ways the audience already knows this person isn’t as credible. I think if you are going to conduct these interviews with folks that are known gaslighters, like Ron Johnson, I certainly wouldn’t do it live, if you do it. And I think you may have a responsibility to almost warn viewers in advance. I’m not sure I’d do it even under those circumstances, but I’m laying out a way that if you’re going to do it, and I think there are plenty of journalistic outlets who I think need to do it and have to do it, particularly if you’re in the state of Wisconsin. But at the end of the day, you need to make sure your viewers are as informed of the facts as best as they can, so at least form a truth sandwich; which is let them know the truth before the interview and the truth after the interview, in case the truth gets lost during the interview.
It’s notable that we’ve mostly talked about Republican figures. This is, I think, one of the central challenges of all media right now, even the most partisan media. I just saw that study that said hard-right digital outlets are seeing their traffic plummet after Trump is out of office. Trump is still the head of the Republican Party. But the Republican Party is increasingly divorcing itself from a shared set of facts. It’s just going somewhere else. A show like yours is sort of premised on the idea that there are tradeoffs, and you can make them, and we can have this reasonable debate.
They’re debates, they’re compromises. Right. You meet somewhere between the 35-yard lines. Yeah.
When you go and talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the audience’s first expectation is, “Well, you’re an American. An American journalist is interviewing the president of Russia. We’re going to just sort of flatten America into one shared set of interests, whether it is or not.” But when you talk to a Republican elected official, there’s not that shared sense of expectation. There’s not that flattening of interests and you are just doing combat. And if one side is just off making up whatever it wants, and the Democrats are claiming all the facts, how do you even maintain a sense of, I don’t know, call it objectivity, or a sense of fairness, which I think you were saying a lot of people seem to want?
I think objectivity and fairness are not the same thing in some ways. You can’t define objectivity as sort of being equal, that we know. You can’t balance the truth, that we know. So you have to be fair and have an open mind. Where we did get lost in this, and this sort of happened to mainstream media in particular, is that we did let Republican critics get in our heads, right?
The Republicans have been running on, “There’s a liberal bias in the media.” And talk about, if you say something long enough, there are liberals who say there’s a liberal bias in the media when you see polling now.
I think I’m one of those liberals.
Right. The point is, if you say it enough, a lot of people believe it. This has been a 45-year campaign. I mean, Roger Ailes and Pat Buchanan were Nixon guys and basically blamed the media for Watergate. And it’s been a sustained campaign. And Roger Ailes basically built an entire media empire based on this premise that he created during the Nixon era.
And the thing is, is that, on culture there is a big divide between left and right, and that culture used to be defined by New York City. I remember one time just seeing it hit me on the cultural divide, where there can be a New York City bias that creates the illusion that this is a left/right thing, when it’s really more of a New York City versus the rest of America thing.
I remember one time in 2008, my boss wanted a quick poll in South Carolina. And I said, “Well, we can’t poll on Wednesday nights in South Carolina.” And they said, “Well, why not?” And I said, “Well, Wednesday night is church night in the South.” And they said, “What do you mean?” In a lot of Southern Baptist, and if you’re at all familiar with some of the more evangelical communities, in the South … there’s a strong evangelical community in your home state of Wisconsin, but not nearly as big as in a place like South Carolina.
So literally, Wednesday night is church night. You’re not going to get any replies, particularly if you’re [polling] a Republican primary, you’re not going to find any voters that night in a poll. If you’re calling them on the phone, calling on their cellphone, whatever, they’re going to be at church. Well, this was news to folks that I worked for in New York. They’d never heard of this. And that’s a cultural disconnect, right?
That’s cultural ignorance in that sense, right? You don’t understand that. That didn’t make NBC biased against religion, right? Biased against Christianity? They were just uninformed about a cultural phenomenon, that hey, Wednesday nights is church night in the South in a lot of places. And so Ailes always had success in selling this as liberal bias because on a handful of things — guns, and I’d argue, religion — there is a big difference between the cultural sensibilities of people that work in our industry.
And frankly, there’s four cultural centers in America, right? For entertainment, it’s LA. For tech, it’s essentially San Francisco. For finance and media, it’s New York. And then DC, for politics. All four of them, though, have a common cultural identity, when it comes to perhaps religion, when it comes to some sort of cultural norms. And so a guy like Ailes exploited that really well, over a long period of time, so that they could say, “Hey, that proves there’s a liberal bias,” when really, this was just more of an urban/rural divide, not a left/right divide.
But now the Republicans have subsumed all of this and it’s turned into this. We should have fought back better in the mainstream media. We shouldn’t [have] accepted the premise that there was liberal bias. We should have defended. I hear the attacks on fact checkers where they “fact-check Republicans six times more than they fact-check Democrats.” Yeah. Perhaps the Republicans are being factually incorrect more often than the Democrats.
We ended up in this both-sides trope. We bought into the idea that, oh my God, we’re perceived as having a liberal bias. And I think for particularly the first decade of the century, I’d say mainstream media overcorrected. And we bought into the Fox motto of “balance.” And it’s like, Jesus, there’s no balance, they need the truth. There’s fairness, that’s different than balance. And so in that sense, this is why we’re in this defensive posture today.
How do you get out of it when you are also competing with Netflix and TikTok and Fortnite, right? I mean, you are launching new products; they are digital products.
Right. Well, that’s the way to do it. I look at it this way, I think Meet the Press has a credible brand. I think when people hear “Meet the Press,” they think a few things. I think they think it’s something serious, something about politics, something about policy. So you hope with that comes an open mind to watch what you do with maybe less of an ideological lens. So that’s why I’m going into these other spaces.
I mean, I do think that cable television is going to go the way that radio did, right? We saw what happened to radio. It was broad and mainstream and then as people left radio, and the middle-class radio viewer left — I don’t mean middle-class in a socioeconomic sense; more of the casual radio listener who may have always had the radio on when they were in their car, [but] now always puts on whatever they’re listening to on their device and no longer ever listens to the radio.
But in order to get people to create appointment viewing on radio, you had to go and have a hot take, whether that’s a hot take on sports, hot take on politics. And if you look at the legacy cable channels, whether in sports or news, you’re seeing the same thing. The thing that you have to be leery of, and I have to say this with my own producers all the time, just because something is hot in the cable news universe, doesn’t mean it’s a relevant topic that we ought to spend a lot of time on. Hence, critical race theory.
Critical race theory, is it a real issue or is it a manufactured issue on the right? Well, eventually the answer to both questions may be yes, but I’m not sure Meet the Press should be giving it extra oxygen because I do think it means something when we delve in on an issue. And I think that there are going to be more and more of those issues that create these dilemmas for those of us that are not in the partisan space. Because if you want to get a lot of likes or even attention on social media, have a hot take on critical race theory right now, left or right.
Create a hot take, you can get attention. So somebody might advise me, “Hey, you want extra eyeballs, why don’t you do that?” And I’m like, but to what end, right? I mean, some of us have to still have some affinity for wanting to do the best we can at correctly informing folks on the issues they really need to know about.
As you make digital products, you have a podcast and a newsletter and Meet the Press Reports on Peacock, and some of them end up on the NBC website. The lesson of digital is that finding big niche audiences is far more successful than trying to have a big general publication or show.
Meet the Press is supposed to be a big general show.
I would argue that, because of the Republican Party’s slide into fantasyland, the premise of that big general show is being challenged.
You are correct.
Because abstractly, what you’re doing is you’re trying to have some debate with the Democrats, and then you’re saying to all the Republicans, “I think you’re lying.” That just seems like a hard thing to solve, while maintaining the appearance of fairness, as they continue to slide into fantasyland.
And then on the internet and digital, you’ve got to go find big tranches of audience that want you, right? You are competing with YouTubers, who are not shy about feeding that algorithm in various ways. How do you manage that tension?
You are correctly identifying something that I struggle with internally myself, because I don’t think we should be celebrities in the news media. But as you point out, sometimes the personal is the draw.
Well, it’s trust. The positive spin is that you want people to trust you.
That’s right. And I do think that that’s certainly what you want to establish. I am hanging my hat on a couple of things, particularly with Gen Z, I think it’s the partisan media that has created the larger trust problem we have in media, right? The biggest media outlet on cable is the least factually correct, Fox News.
And so I always sit there and say, when people say, “Is the news media biased?” It’s like, well, the number one cable channel is the most biased news organization in America. So of course, most people are saying yes. And yet, the right views that answer as somehow, it’s about us in the mainstream media. So it really is, I think, eye of the beholder and unfortunately, cable news has done this.
I’m hanging my hat on that Gen Z is a lot less ideological and a lot more realistic. There’s a pragmatism to the millennial generation that’s come out in frustration at how we’ve covered things. I do think what I’ve said, that I’ve changed how I do Meet the Press, I used to worry. I actually used to go out of my way to do what I would call round the edges. I might explain away, “Well, that rhetoric sounds crazy, but here’s why they say it.”
Because I’ve always believed part of my job is to say “Look, this rhetoric is crazy and they know it’s crazy, here’s why they say it.” But suddenly that crazy rhetoric, which was used as nothing more than a marketing tool for Politician X, is now gospel. So now we have a real problem. I just view my job as, say what you see and let the chips fall where they may. And if you just simply say what you see, over time, people will decide, yeah, I trust how that guy sees things. I might not always agree, but he always sees it honestly. He comes about it from the same perspective every time. Look, we all have bias. Humans are biased. The second they’re born, they have bias.
You’ve identified the correct challenge. It is a lot easier to be a biased commentator and get an audience, but you are limiting your audience, right? There’s only a finite amount of world. I’m still betting there is some common middle ground that people are looking for. And when I say middle, I’m not necessarily saying the political middle. What I’m also betting, though, is that I can’t live in one medium, because the broadcast cable space is going to basically devolve into only being a place people watch live events, either live news events or live sporting events, and that’s it. Everything else is going to be on demand, and you have to sort of get into their habits.
If people want their politics via podcast instead of television, I’ve got to be there. If they want it when they want it, and they want deeper breadth, they want more newsmagazine-style, fine, I’ve got that at Peacock. They want a long interview, I’ve got that. In that sense, that’s how I sort of view this changing landscape, is, “All right, I got to be everywhere. I got to be platform-neutral. I can’t let the platform dictate what I do.” I do think what you’ve identified earlier, in the same way we saw what happened with radio, right now cable television, and even broadcast television, is letting the platform dictate how they do coverage right now, because they’re desperately trying not to lose viewers. They no longer are in the, “How do we find new viewers?” I do want to hold out hope that I’m in the, “I want to find new viewers,” place too.
You’re also the political director of NBC News. Do you think you can take the broader NBC News apparatus with you there? I ask this question because it feels like a challenge for every big mainstream media newsroom. One business might be going away, but we’ve got a new, much more demand-oriented business. People are going to tell us what they want, and we have to deliver it. That’s a big shift. Do you think you, as the political director of NBC News, can get the broader organization there?
Well, we’ve taken a big step in the idea that we’re now dividing up by brand rather than by platform. So it used to be, you had a cable news person, and you had a podcast person, and you had a digital news person. Now, we’ve got a vice president of the Today show, a vice president of Meet the Press, a vice president of Dateline. You see where I’m going here, right?
You’re unbundling NBC News.
Correct. What CNN was in the ‘80s, is what I think NBC News NOW is going to be in the world of streaming. This is what is happening now. Where I think more and more people go to an MSNBC because they want to know, “Why is this happening?” And they may want that “why” from a more progressive perspective, or they want to get the why from Joy [Reid] or the why from somebody else, even the why from me, sometimes, who’s not in there in the sort of traditional left-right mode ... But I think that that viewer is looking for something different, and so I think that’s the bet we’re all making.
I think NBC News is making this bet, which is... I’ve been sort of pushing the idea that Meet the Press is more than a Sunday show. Well, now they sort of bought what I was selling, because they now reorganized. Look, we did it first with the Today show. Today is its own brand. Today is bigger than NBC News, and in some ways, conveys more to the viewer than NBC News does. It’s a product of NBC News, but Today is its own thing, and that’s what I think Meet the Press is. I think people have correctly separated Meet the Press from MSNBC, for instance, or from NBC Nightly News or any of that. And certainly, Dateline has its thing. So I think that’s the bet we’re making, and so we’re going to find out if it’s possible to be a successful brand on multiple platforms, because the past says that doesn’t always happen for everybody. I’m well aware of that.
One more question, and then I want you to tell people where they can find all of your stuff, because that is ostensibly why you’re on the show. You talked about a lot of platforms. In the spirit of “distribution shapes what you make,” what is the platform right now that you think is having the most impact on what you make?
If you said TikTok, the answer would be, “Well, now all the videos have to be a minute long.” If you said YouTube, I would know that all the thumbnails had to be over the top with you shaking your fist at a politician. What’s the platform you’re distributing on now that has the most impact on what you make?
I think we still view ourselves with a broadcast sensibility, which means we’re PG all the time, if that makes sense, and we’re trying to be PG even in the battle of polarization a little bit. That doesn’t mean that that’s the correct answer on the sensibility question. I certainly don’t think we have a cable TV sensibility. In fact, I fight that pretty hard, because I do think there’s a different set of issues that cable argues over on a given day, whether you’re watching Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, and I think that is driven by the viewers who are watching on that platform. The people that run those platforms would deny I’m saying that, but in some ways, the way social media, particularly Twitter — I think those are fused together a little bit — Twitter and prime time cable, and maybe Facebook. That they, all in their own ways, influence each other and the topics that they cover.
As you can tell from my answers here, I’m desperately trying not to feel attached to one over the other, because I do think that if you do, and you worry about one set of viewers more than another set, then you’re going to cater to that viewership. It is what makes a podcast successful. The most successful podcasts are the niche podcasts. You’re a baseball card collector, you’re going to find that baseball card guy. You’re a quilter, you’re going to find the quilter. If you’re a gadget person, you’re going to find your favorite gadget guy. And in that sense, it makes sense that that medium would dictate, in some ways, at least how deep you go on a specific topic.
But as far as what’s influenced Meet the Press, I think right now, because I’m [on] a broadcast network, and our affiliates are still pretty powerful — they have a pretty powerful seat at our table. They decide when my show is on. They can decide whether they’re going to carry it at 9 or 10 or 10:30. And it’s not just me, it’s that way with all of the news division and all three of the major broadcast networks. So the affiliates, I think, are an underrated influencer on how we cover things on a Sunday show, but that is changing. You want to talk about a disruption that’s coming, we’ve seen it already in local print media. It’s inevitable. We’re headed to a disruption in the world of affiliates. We just don’t know what it looks like at the end, what that world looks like.
It kind of looks like massive consolidation until one company owns them all.
Obviously, that is one thing that’s happening. I mean, when you have multiple media markets, we’ll have one company produce both the CBS affiliate and the Fox affiliate. Literally, the news will be done from one set that has the CBS logo, and then they rotate the set around, and there’s the Fox logo. And the people will be the same, the weather information is the same. At what point does that channel stop having two channels, and they decide, “We’re going to have Fox programming at 8, CBS programming at 9, our own programming at 10?” In the same on-demand world we as viewers live in, I assume the affiliates, at least the stronger ones, are going to end up in that world too at some point.
All right. I feel like we could go another hour on this. There’s many more things to unpack, but I know we’re out of time. Tell people about your suite of new products and where they can find them.
Look, Meet the Press Reports is obviously the thing that sort of sparked you even being interested in interviewing us, which is our streaming seasonal show. Right now, it’s episodic on Peacock. We had an eight-episode spring season. We’re going to do another eight to 10 episodes this fall. It’s a single-topic, a half-hour. It’s a deep dive. It’s sort of a magazine show meets a documentary short. I make no apologies for borrowing a lot from Real Sports, the Bryant Gumbel show, that I’ve always thought does a good job of not just telling you a story, informing you about something you didn’t know you needed to know, but then unpacking it after and sort of digesting it. We’ve done everything from the new rise of athletes’ activism to another episode that I was really proud of, our season finale, which was America’s next war. Where are we going to fight it? Are we ready for it?
And I can tell you this, I learned a lot more about why we have a Space Force now than ever before, because there’s a fear the next war is going to begin with a shutdown of satellites. It’s things like that, the type of things that you don’t always get to do on an every-Sunday mode that I think make for important gaps that need to be filled by us in the so-called mainstream media.
That’s great. How’s it doing on Peacock?
You know how that stuff’s a black box. Here’s what I can tell you. They want us to do more, so it’s good. I’m amazed at the anecdotes I’m getting. I had a friend of mine who said, “Wow, you interviewed Alyssa Milano on Meet the Press?” I said, “Well, that was actually on Meet the Press Reports.” I was so excited they stumbled upon it. That’s another thing that I was hoping for. So, I’ve been very pleased with the response so far.
That’s great. Well, Chuck Todd, thank you so much for coming on Decoder, for getting into the dirt on the questions. I really appreciate it.
Like I said, long-time, first time. So it’s good to actually now be a contributor.