Like most journalists, Chuck Todd hates becoming part of the story. So when his recent criticism of Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes was used as the basis of a Mitch McConnell campaign ad, the new Meet the Press host felt "physically ill."
Todd spoke at length with Media Matters last week about life in the hot seat of NBC's top Sunday morning news program to which he ascended after two decades of political reporting at the network, MSNBC, and National Journal. Since he was handed the Meet the Press reins last month, Todd has to his credit granted extensive interviews to several longtime critics of the program, of which Media Matters is one.
In the first part of a three-part series, Todd shares his thoughts on how the media covers political crises, scandals, and gaffes in the modern era, including how the press has handled Ebola, the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and the alleged IRS political targeting.
Earlier this month, Todd argued that Grimes had "disqualified herself" as a candidate when she refused to answer whether she had voted for President Obama. His comments were quickly turned into a statewide television ad by Senator McConnell's reelection team.
Asked about having his comments turned into a political ad, Todd stood by his critique of Grimes and her alleged obfuscation, though admitted his wording was "sloppy" because he had been trying to suggest that it was Kentucky voters who would decide that Grimes had disqualified herself.
Pressed on what types of things should disqualify a political candidate - like, for example, McConnell's dismissal of climate science - Todd was elusive, saying that candidates being "caught lying" is a red flag, but that it should be up to voters to make those calculations, not reporters.
Todd also discussed the tradeoffs that are necessary when covering Ebola, which has dominated the news in recent weeks.
According to Todd, outlets need to make "smart decisions" and balance the need to provide the public with information about the disease and the government's handling of it without simply stoking hysteria about a domestic outbreak. Todd noted that the nonstop collective coverage from the media has led to a situation where it feels like "one case is going to turn into a hundred," which makes it important for outlets to "explain how hard that is."
Then there are two so-called "scandals" that Republicans have endlessly tried to hammer away at and use to criticize both the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton: Benghazi and the IRS.
Discussing Benghazi, Todd said there is a "constant campaign" from both the left and the right to "work the refs" on the story, with conservatives engaged in a "search for conspiracies" and the promotion of supposedly scandalous stories that are "not news."
As for the IRS story, in which the agency has repeatedly been accused of targeting conservative political groups, Todd suggested it is symptomatic of how, with the proliferation of opposition research, news outlets need to be active debunkers instead of just reporters, something they cannot always do.
A new poll last week revealed disturbing trends about the increasingly dire media coverage of the Ebola story in the United States. Measuring the rising anxiety among news consumers, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the deadly disease spreading in the U.S.
The truly strange finding was that people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola. The more information they consumed about the dangerous disease, the less they knew about it. How is that even possible?
Poll director David Redlawsk cast an eye of blame on the news media. "The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding," Redlawsk told a reporter. "You just have to turn on the TV to see the hysteria of the "talking heads" media. It's really wall to wall. The crawls at the bottom of the screen are really about fear. And in all the fear and all the talking, there's not a lot of information."
While the Rutgers-Eagleton poll was a statewide survey, not a national one, it's reasonable to assume that the Ebola information phenomena documented in New Jersey is happening elsewhere, as a series of nationwide polls have highlighted just how little Americans understand about the rare virus.
"Reporters can be part of the problem or part of the solution," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced at press conference on October 2, as the city began to deal with its local health crisis following the disclosure that an Ebola victim was being treated in a city hospital.
Two weeks later, what's the verdict?
Last week, in the tightly contested Senate race in Kentucky, both Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes gave newsworthy interviews in which they seemed to stumble over basic questions. But only one of the awkward missteps was treated as big news--treated even as a campaign-ending debacle--by some in the Beltway press: the Grimes interview.
Pundits pounced after Grimes refused, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board, to say whether she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. (McConnell has spent most of his campaign trying to tie Grimes to Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.)
After a Republican opposition group posted the clip of Grimes' answer, the Washington Post immediately linked to it and mocked the candidate's performance as "painful." On MSNBC, morning host Joe Scarborough bellowed, "What a rookie mistake!" CNN commentators criticized Grimes for being "too scripted" and "evasive."
Keep in mind; the issue itself is of no practical consequence to Kentucky voters -- it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives. But the story revolved around campaign "optics," which Beltway commentators now thrive on, especially when it's bad Democratic optics.
"Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? You want to be a U.S. senator?" demanded Meet The Press moderator, Chuck Todd. "I think she disqualified herself. I really do. I think she disqualified herself."
Recall that query ("Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything?"), and the way Todd described it as a disqualifying trait for a Senate candidate. Because the day before the Grimes interview, McConnell called into Kentucky Sports Radio to talk with host Matt Jones. Days earlier, the popular host had interviewed Grimes with the understanding the McConnell campaign had also agreed to an interview. But after Jones grilled Grimes on the air, McConnell's campaign refused to answer Jones' emails and phone calls with regards to finalizing an appearance.
After days of on-air pleas, McConnell, without advance notice, finally called into the show last Wednesday and spoke with Jones for 14 minutes. Among the actual topics covered (in the place of optics analysis) were climate change and gay marriage. McConnell basically refused to answer questions about either:
JONES: That's a yes or no question. Do you believe in global warming?
McCONNELL: No it isn't. It is not a yes or no question. I am not a scientist.
And here's how McConnell danced around the issue of gay marriage:
When asked if he supports gay marriage, McConnell answered, "I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman." Asked why he believes that, McConnell again repeated he thinks marriage is "between one man and one woman." Again asked "why?" McConnell repeated the same line. Jones tried one more time. Again, "It is my belief that marriage is between one man and one woman."
To recap: If you're a Kentucky Democrat and you don't answer a straight-forward question, you may as well take your name off the ballot, according to Beltway journalists. But if you're a Kentucky Republican and you do the same thing, it's mostly crickets from the same pundits.
From the October 12 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
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Critics pounced after President Obama recently addressed the rising threat of the terror group Islamic State. His answers didn't represent "a national rallying cry" (National Journal). He sent "mixed messages" (ABC News). The president was guilty of an "inartful phrase" (Politico), and he wasn't projecting "an image of presidential resolve" (Washington Post).
The president hadn't necessarily said anything inaccurate or made controversial claims. Critics just didn't like the way he said what he said. It didn't look or sound quite right.
On Meet The Press, Obama conceded he had made a specific error when he played golf after making a public statement about the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley. "I should've anticipated the optics," he said. "Part of this job is also the theater of it." And he's right, optics do matter for a commander-in-chief, especially in his role as communicator. But optics and stagecraft aren't the only thing. And Beltway pundits proved themselves to be poor judges of optics when a Republican last occupied the Oval Office.
Please recall that the press loved President George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" optics in 2003, which foolishly implied the United States had won the war in Iraq. (NBC's Brian Williams: "He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit.") And don't forget Bush's "bring them on" taunt when he was asked about escalating attacks on American troops inside Iraq. (More than 4,000 Americans subsequently died in fighting there.)
A common complaint about the Beltway press is that journalists obsess over process at the expense of substance. (i.e. Who's up, who's down?) Sadly, we've now eroded to the point where process journalism has been eclipsed by an even more meaningless pursuit: "optics."
Another description for the current press malady is theater criticism. Theater criticism means you don't offer solutions; you don't offer insights or analysis. Theater criticism means you simply detail everything the pitch-poor actor does wrong in terms of word choice, inflection and public emotion. (Or golfing.) Analysis is different. It's more difficult, more rigorous, and it's much needed.
Instead we got the tan suit meltdown. This was an actual tweet last month from one of the largest news organization in America:
How did we arrive at a place so trivial and vacuous?
After spending much of the last two weeks criticizing Hillary Clinton for supposed "gaffes" about her wealth and claiming she's increasingly out of touch with voters thanks to the combined earnings of herself and her husband, Beltway pundits are confronted with a new poll that shows that despite days worth of media attacks on Clinton's money comments, a clear majority think the former secretary of state relates to "average Americans" and the problems they face.
The findings from an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey forcefully debunk the punditry's conventional wisdom that by being "rusty" while discussing her wealth during her recent book tour, Clinton inflicted potentially deep damage to her possible presidential run by being so "out of touch."
The recent wealth coverage continued the Beltway press' long tradition of parsing portions of Clinton comments taken from hours worth of long-form interviews and spinning then in the most unappealing way, and by claiming Clinton's word choice and "tone" is all wrong. (CNN even altered a Hillary quote about money last week to make it more incriminating and newsworthy.)
To date though, voters don't seem to mind when Hillary Clinton talks about money.
Nonetheless as the Washington Post's Dan Balz noted, Clinton's "comments about being "dead broke" upon leaving the White House and not being among the "truly well off" today have triggered an avalanche of coverage raising questions about whether she has lost touch with the lives of ordinary Americans."
Just yesterday, Balz's colleague Ruth Marcus detailed what she called "Hillary Clinton's money woes," and warned the former first lady that the problem might get "worse" because she risks being viewed by voters as "greedy," "defensive," "whiny," and "out of touch."
How was Marcus so sure that voters would deeply resent the Clintons' wealth if Hillary ran for president? Or specifically, that they'd resent how she talked about her wealth. Did Marcus cite polling? Did she interview voters? No, she just knew. Or she thought she knew.
According to the new NBC/WSJ poll, none of Marcus' characterizations are accurate.
And that's why the red flag of the wealth coverage was always the question of whether voters were as deeply offended by Clinton's wealth as the Beltway press is. (MSNBC's Chuck Todd recently dismissed the Clintons' earnings from giving speeches by insisting, "It's not like they have acquired their wealth from hard work.")
From the May 7 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:
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NBC News' Chuck Todd claimed that Congressional Republicans refrained from talking about Benghazi on the one-year anniversary of the attacks -- the statements and actions of at least seven GOP officials on September 11 prove otherwise.
September 11, 2013 marked the twelve-year anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Over the last year, congressional Republicans and conservative media have formed an echo chamber of lies, smears, and conspiracies related to the Benghazi attacks and the Obama administration's handling of its aftermath.
On Meet the Press the Sunday following the anniversary, NBC News' Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd claimed that Republicans withheld from discussing Benghazi during the one-year anniversary of the attacks: (emphasis added)
DAVID GREGORY (host): Meanwhile, we're talking about not only twelve years after 9/11, and the Middle East, Benghazi, back as a political focus this week.
TODD: It is. The House Republicans have not dropped this as an issue. They didn't talk about it last week during the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack, but this week on Thursday alone, three different hearings are going to be taking place on the same day on Capitol Hill. House Republicans, they don't want to drop this.
But House and Senate Republicans alike jumped at the opportunity to push Benghazi falsehoods on the anniversary of the attacks.
Several elected Republicans took to the friendly airwaves of Fox News on Wednesday, September 11 to politicize the year-old attacks and condemn the president's response. Republican Congressman Frank Wolf (VA) suggested the Obama administration was hampering an investigation into the Benghazi attacks when he spoke on Fox's America Live. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) went on Fox's Your World and complained that the debate over intervention in Syria is a distraction from the Benghazi attacks "where nothing ever occurred to ... bring people to justice." Later, on Fox's On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, both Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) launched multiple attacks on Obama to intimate that the administration was not committed to investigating Benghazi.
MSNBC host Chuck Todd misleadingly claimed that the lesson for Democrats of the recall of two state senators who supported stronger gun laws is to stay away from the issue, claiming that Colorado Democrats had only been able to win recent statewide elections because they "neutralized the gun issue." But several Democrats have won elections in the state despite attacks from the National Rifle Association over their support for stronger gun laws.
On September 10, Colorado State Sens. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) and John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) were defeated in recall elections after being targeted over their support for expanded background checks on gun sales and a 15-round limitation on firearm magazine size. The elections featured an extremely low turnout, in part due to irregular voting rules.
Discussing the election results on Morning Joe, Todd concluded that Democrats will no longer want to be associated with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, its co-chair Michael Bloomberg, or the effort to strengthen gun laws. According to Todd, "the whole reason why [Colorado] is a state that was looking like it was just passing through swing state status on its way to being reliably Democratic is because Democrats starting in 2004 just neutralized the gun issue, and there was never any Democrat that ran statewide that was not seen as pro-gun."
Discussing the issue on his own program The Daily Rundown, Todd highlighted how President Obama twice won Colorado and other Democrats had repeatedly won statewide races in Colorado over the last decade because they had "neutralized the NRA," portraying the recalls as a foreboding course correction that happened because the legislature acted on guns.
But Todd's claim that Colorado Democrats had previously "neutralized the gun issue" and that "there was never any Democrat that ran statewide that was not seen as pro-gun" is false. While candidates frequently push back against false claims that they support gun confiscation and the like, and in some cases publicly associate themselves with Colorado's sportsmen and hunting culture, they nonetheless have been targeted by the NRA for their support for stronger gun laws.
From the August 8 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:
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The problem with so much of the Beltway media's ongoing commentary regarding the sequestration showdown between Republicans and President Obama is that it reflects the central failing of the press throughout Obama's presidency: It blames the president for the GOP's ingrained, signature obstinacy.
Earlier this week, I noted that the bulk of the commentary class was berating Obama for failing to "lead" on the budget issue. They faulted him for not fashioning a deal despite the fact that Republicans made it plain they did not want to make a deal, which wasn't surprising since they've been emphatically saying no to Obama for nearly 50 months. Nonetheless, Obama's to blame because he failed to change the GOP's ways.
As an update, it's now worth noting that the media's blame-Obama approach is additionally misguided because we're learning more and more Republican members of Congress don't understand, or haven't bothered to find out, what the president is offering in terms of his deficit reduction plan. So not only does the press fault Obama for Republicans' (obstructionist) behavior, it also penalizes him for the fact that Republicans don't know what the White House proposed to avoid sequestration.
That doesn't seem fair.
Here's what NBC News' Chuck Todd reported on the president's dinner with Republican senators Wednesday night [emphasis added]:
In fact, one senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn't shared that list with them before.
But the Republicans' astonishing lack of knowledge about Obama's detailed deficit reduction proposal, the same proposal they've rejected, appears to be widespread. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported that at an off-the-record session with Republican lawmakers, one Congressman didn't know about a key cost-cutting concession Obama had made regarding Social Security benefits.
From Paul Waldman, writing at The American Prospect:
The Republican position is that this negotiation is of vital importance to the future of the country, indeed, so important that they may be willing to shut the government down and let the full faith and credit of the United States be destroyed if they don't get what they want; but they also can't be bothered to understand what it is the other side wants.
But remember, Beltway pundits agree: The partisan impasse that led to sequestration was Obama's fault.
There has been strong criticism from Chrysler, GM, fact checkers, and local media in Ohio of the Mitt Romney campaign's false claims that Chrysler is shifting its Jeep production line from the United States to China. But in reporting on the story, MSNBC's Chuck Todd attempted to shield Romney from criticism by claiming that the campaign would not have run its Jeep ad in Ohio had it known there would be such strong pushback from Chrysler and GM.
In fact, the Romney campaign went ahead with its television ad in Ohio on October 27 even after Chrysler had already pushed back on erroneous claims that Jeep is sending U.S. jobs to China. In a statement on October 25, Chrysler wrote on its website that "Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China."
Yet, on October 26, Romney falsely claimed that "one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep -- now owned by the Italians -- is thinking of moving all production to China." The next day, the campaign debuted a TV ad in Ohio that echoed that false claim.
Another ad repeating the same debunked claim started airing on October 30.
But during a discussion of the Romney ad on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Todd stated: "I don't know whether they thought the ad would actually encourage GM and Chrysler to repudiate them. I think -- I wonder if they thought that was going to happen, whether -- if they knew that was gonna happen, whether they would have gone up with this ad."
On the same day that the Romney campaign released its false radio ad, both Chrysler and GM issued statements condemning the ads as untrue. GM spokesman Greg Martin stated: "No amount of campaign politics at its cynical worst will diminish our record of creating jobs in the U.S. and repatriating profits back to this country." Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne reaffirmed that "Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China," adding: "It is inaccurate to suggest anything different."
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal cast the repudiation of the Romney ads by Chrysler, GM, and the Obama campaign as mere controversy between dueling campaigns, writing that the "two campaigns sparred Tuesday" over the ads.
In response to Mitt Romney's debate claim that the Navy's fleet "is smaller now than any time since 1917," President Obama noted that military also has fewer bayonets and horses because it has modernized. Rather than discuss President Obama's accurate point about military strength, members of the media are trying to figure out how many bayonets the military actually uses.
From the July 22 edition of NBC's The Chris Matthews Show:
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It's hard to keep count of them all at this point. But every now and then a whopper gets rolled out that's so preposterous and jaw-dropppingly dumb that the sheer idiocy of it draws attention and a crowd of gawkers form to marvel.
That's what unfolded last week when the bright lights within the GOP Noise Machine latched onto an Indian news report that quoted an anonymous official who claimed President Obama's diplomatic trip to India was going to cost $8.3 million per-hour in security costs, and that nearly three dozen U.S. war ships were also making the trip to provide protection.
Of course, the $200 million-a-day price tag made no sense. No sane person would think for a moment that the U.S. government would send 34 war ships in support of an overseas presidential visit, or lay out $2 billion on a ten-day diplomatic excursion. No rational person would think that because it's utterly absurd. Or, as a Pentagon spokesman said last week of the war ship claim, it's "comical."
Marveling at how the story unfolded, NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted that he was surprised the absurd numbers gained any traction and that a simple "smell test" would have halted the story in its tracks. But that might have given right-wing partisans too much credit by assuming they were interested, or even cared about, getting the story right.
And that's a sentiment that remains common among media elite, this idea that far-right media players sometimes get things wrong and that for everyone's benefit they ought to apply a common sense "smell test" before they run with controversial stories, like the one about Obama's India trip.
But here's the thing, there is no right-wing smell test. It no longer exists. In fact, there appears to be no sense of smell at all, which is closely related to the right-wing media's lack of common sense and decency. (It's a package deal.)