Media Matters Interviews Chuck Todd, Part 1: Scandal Coverage

Part One Of A Three-Part Interview Series

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.

“We are living in a guilty-until-proven-innocent society these days, when it comes to gotcha journalism, and gotcha politics,” he said. “And there's going to be some good people that have their reputations ruined. It used to be an anomaly when that happened, I think it's going to be more frequent until all of us clean up our act a little bit.” 

The second part of the Todd interview will look at Meet the Press' place in the media landscape, including Todd's thoughts on the need for diversity on the show. The third will cover the media's treatment of Hillary Clinton's potential 2016 presidential run.

Relevant transcript from Todd's Media Matters interview will be published with each part.

Answers covered in part one are below:

MEDIA MATTERS: You also -- let's see. Last week, you criticized -- and this got a lot of attention -- Alison Lundergan Grimes, saying she disqualified herself. Do you still believe that, and what's the standard for saying a candidate is disqualified?

TODD: Look --

MEDIA MATTERS: That was a pretty lively discussion.

TODD: It turned into a lively discussion. Look, I don't like being part of a political campaign.

MEDIA MATTERS: Right, and then you were in the ad.

TODD: And I don't like -- you know, and it gives me heartburn. All right? It gives me -- it makes me, you know, literally physically ill.


TODD: No, I mean, it's just because you don't want to be in that position.


TODD: You don't want to -- I wasn't trying to inject in the race. I'll admit to have hit a sort of a -- you hit a tipping point where you get so worn down by politicians constantly bullsh-- you know, obviously obfuscating. Like, in such a ham-handed way, you're like -- and, you know,we in general don't call that out enough. Right? That is a big critique of the media. It's a fair critique, right? There's this line -- it's like, why do we have such a high tolerance on quote-unquote talking points, right, in general. And should our -- should we have less tolerance for that? I agree we should have less tolerance. On one hand, I think it's important for somebody like -- one of the things that I want to combat on the whole talking points front is, part of me -- when I introduce a guest, I almost want to get their talking points out of the way. Almost,like, want to run a montage. Like, I know what you've said on this, now let's drill deeper, right? To try to at least speed up the interview sometime. Because I think it's -- look, I understand -- like, I sort of -- I'm conflicted on it, right? On one hand, you want to let them get their view across one time. Right? That would be my argument. You let them get their -- and at the same time, you also don't -- if it's obvious that it's just like, “What is going” -- you know, like, “This is ridiculous.” And I think we've all gotten tired of that. So -- and I'll say this, I think I was shorthanding the “disqualify” line a little bit, meaning, I think that that type of statement to some voters is going to feel like she's disqualifying herself because she's not being straight with the voters, and at the end of the day, honest and trustworthy. You know what I mean? You've got to cross that --

MEDIA MATTERS: What do you say -- what do you think is the standard for saying someone's disqualified? I mean, things like Mitch McConnell doesn't believe in --

TODD: My point is, it's up to a voter.

MEDIA MATTERS: -- global warming or others --

TODD: My point is it's up to the -- the voters make that decision, not me.

MEDIA MATTERS: Right, but you're the one who mentioned it.

TODD: And I understand. Like I said, I was shorthanding it, and I -- what I -- that, to me -- I think a lot of voters are going to say that that was a -- like, this is ridiculous, and now you're just trying to pull the wool over my eyes. This is kind of silly. And to voters, that's a -- there's different -- look, voters disqualify candidates for various reasons. I was -- you can accuse me of being sloppy, of putting the words in my mouth and I should have put the words in the -- in how this will impact, impact voters and impact the race. And, you know, that's where I was sloppy. I don't take back the analysis. I mean, I think it's -- I think that -- you know, I think it was -- I think she had run -- she's been running a poor campaign. I don't understand how she's not made this about Mitch McConnell. Like, I'm still -- for the life of me, I don't get how this is not a referendum on him. Right? And you know, that's -- I mean, you know, that's clearly what the voters wanted to make it. So I -- you know, and, you know, so you critique the campaign, but I think this was a -- you know, it's one of those -- campaigns have moments.

MEDIA MATTERS: Yeah, would he be disqualified for things like --


TODD: I think you're --

MEDIA MATTERS: -- refusing to oppose global warming or --

TODD: -- you mean, if he had a moment like that? Or if he's like --

MEDIA MATTERS: No, no, for other things.

TODD: If you get caught lying. You get caught -- you know, totally pulling the wool over -- I mean, look, I know what you're -- I get what you're trying to do, and I --

MEDIA MATTERS: No, no, I'm just asking, that's all.

TODD: I mean, you know, you could make a argument that a lot -- much of the Senate disqualifies themselves all the time these days --

MEDIA MATTERS: That's true.

TODD: -- because of how poorly they're communicating with voters, how they obviously are BSing us, right? They're just playing constituency-group politics, and they just say things out of fear. I mean, you know, we're all tired of consultant-driven drivel.


TODD: Right? And sometimes when you see it -- and, you know, people are tired of us in the media not calling it out sometimes. So, you know, look, I don't like being used in a campaign. I don't want to let that, like, make it so I'm not dealing straight and dealing honest. You know, but obviously some people chose to take my words and, you know -- that's one of those things that you just -- I just hate being a part of a campaign. So.


MEDIA MATTERS: How about Benghazi? That's been a big issue that they've tried to nail to her, and there's been a lot of -- Fox has got a lot of inaccuracies out there and piled on. 60 Minutes obviously had a big mistake last year --

TODD: I can only defend what we've reported and what we've done.

MEDIA MATTERS: But have you been pressured to cover it, and do you think Republicans should or will ever let up on the press trying to make it an issue?

TODD: I -- you know, there is a constant campaign -- and you know, you're -- you know, now I think left and right, to work the refs in a way that's never been happening before. And it's an organized campaign. So, you know, this is just par for the course. I --

MEDIA MATTERS: Particularly for Benghazi.

TODD: A lot of us have spent a lot of time looking into this. And, you know, I sort of laughed the other day. There was some conservative newspaper who put out, “Lawsuit confirms it was a terrorist attack.” Yeah. Everybody has said it was a terrorist attack. It's not news. Anyway, it's --

MEDIA MATTERS: I mean, is it something that should be an issue?

TODD: The search for conspiracies, the search for conspiracies. Look, I think a bigger issue for her is gonna be the decisions that were made surrounding the Arab Spring. You know, the decision to go into Libya and then not to have a force, the decision -- you know, these are the real -- this is the real issues that she should and frankly anybody in that lead -- the president, too. Those -- these were the decisions that were critical that we may or may not be having to deal with now, that have had an impact on where we are now, which is, you know, how did we handle the Arab Spring? Did we make a mistake? That, to me, is the line of questioning that I think is going to be a challenge for anybody wanting to run for president. 


MEDIA MATTERS: And then one issue that was brought up -- you were in an interview with John Nolte. You said NBC had spent substantial time looking into the so-called IRS scandal, you come away thinking there was no evidence of political orchestration, just incompetence. But a lot of the right-wing media and population still thinks it was --

TODD: I know --

MEDIA MATTERS: -- even planned, you know.

TODD: Well, look, it's because they -- there's a couple of news organizations that keep feeding that beast. And it's good politics. I mean, look, I think every ideologically -- we can have a debate about advocacy journalism. Does it have a place, doesn't it have a place, whatever. Like I said, I'm not going to decide that. I think all of it has a place. But I think all journalists left and right have to always ask themselves, am I doing this to help one side win, or am I covering this story because I think it's getting under-covered? And I -- you know, you can't help but look at the IRS story and say, “Boy, beating up the IRS is good politics for the conservative base.” And you can just feel -- and, look, part of this is the politicians themselves are feeding the questions. They just ask provocative questions. And, look, the IRS has sort of made it easy, in some ways. They lost emails. You're like -- you know, it's like, you look at certain things, but it's like, is there a larger -- you know, when you think about what everybody thought could be the worst-case scenario wasn't there, well, then, it's like OK,this is an incompetence issue, this was a system issue. And then I go back -- look, my issue with the whole IRS -- and I said this before, and the right beat me up on it -- which is, I'm trying to find a victim here. Right? And I hate to say it, and I know [unintelligible] you know,this is a loophole that doesn't -- you know, we're supposed to take politics out of the tax code. Like, why do political groups even have a -- you know, this is fraught with peril and fraught with trust issues, right? This is -- the IRS and politics don't mix. And it's a sort of -- andthese loop-- you know, what the hell is this loophole anyway?

MEDIA MATTERS: But in that case, you really played a role of coming out and running a segment that said, we looked into this, and there's no support for the theory. Is that the role that Meet the Press should have?

TODD: Well, it's funny you say that. I don't -- and I think this is something that -- and I had this conversation with [New York University journalism professor] Jay Rosen -- which is, I think we're all trying to figure out -- and I do gotta go.

MEDIA MATTERS: I appreciate it.

TODD: All right. I know. We've gone long here.

MEDIA MATTERS: No, no, you've been very helpful, as always.

TODD: I do worry that -- not worry, worry's not the right word. I do wonder if the large news organizations in particular, those of us with real resources. I can't -- you know, there -- do you know how many stories we work on a day that never make air?


TODD: Right.


TODD: It happens a lot. We have the resources to check into things. It used to be, if we didn't air a story, well, the story wasn't news, right? But now because of what I explained to you earlier, right, which is this whole, anything in opposition research -- everything becomes --everything is out there now. Do you -- do we have to help debunk? Right? And the problem is, no news organization is ever comfortably 100 percent debunking, right? “Well, we've looked into it, and we can't find anything.” Which then can sometimes -- “Well, they didn't find anything.” Right? It can -- and I wonder, do we have to, like, be more definitive here. Right? Do we need to take a role that says, you know, “This is not true.” Not, “We could not find evidence,” right? Because the problem -- I mean, you know -- is so -- we are living in a guilty-until-proven-innocent society these days, when it comes to gotcha journalism and gotcha politics. And there's going to be some good people that have their reputations ruined. It used to be an anomaly when that happened. I think it's going to be more frequent until all of us clean up our act a little bit.


TODD: I'm very concerned about this. This sort of -- how easy now an allegation that becomes public -- automatic guilt on the person that's -- you know what I mean? You can't un-ring that bell in the way we work, right? There's -- it travels so fast that, don't we as a society owe it to somebody, if it's not true, right, whatever the allegation is -- and, you know, this is impacting the sports world, this is impacting the political world, this is -- you know what I mean? This is not just about politics. This is the slippery slope we're headed to. And, oh, by the way? This is also, then -- you were saying -- it goes back to an earlier question that you had. This is why we're going to end up with the milquetoast, less intellectually stimulating public servants that we're going to get. Because those are the folks that will have the, you know, either background or stamina to go through this ridiculous process.

MEDIA MATTERS: Does -- do you feel sometimes pressured to look at what the Republicans are raising as issues, in the way that sort of Fox --

TODD: I don't view the pressure as one side or the other. Anybody who raises a question that I think seems legitimate, it's like, well, let's take a look. You know, most of the time anybody that's raised a question, we usually have already been, you know, been asking those questions, too. So. But I mean, you know, why wouldn't we? We're not all-knowing. You know what I mean?

MEDIA MATTERS: And do you think the Obama administration successes haven't been covered enough? The stock market went way up, and Obamacare success elements. Why isn't that a dominant story, maybe?

TODD: Another plane lands safely at National. I, you know --

MEDIA MATTERS: Yeah. That's what [former Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee used to say, right?

TODD: Right. I mean, that's --

MEDIA MATTERS: But this is still areas that are --

TODD: News is sort of --

MEDIA MATTERS: I don't know.

TODD: Well, I think -- look, the fact is on the economy, the jury's still out. The stock market's up, but go to rural America. The rural economy's a mess. Right? We do still have an economic -- we do have this income inequality issue. So, I mean, the, you know -- I think the -- you know, this goes to the sort of -- you know, a bigger issue that I think government is going to have in general and is going to make governing difficult, is that we are so crisis-oriented now, as far as a society and a news media that -- and then we say, “Well, how come the government didn't plan for the long term?” “Well, maybe an attempt was planned for the long term, but then they had to do budget cuts, and budget cuts end up” -- you know what I mean? Like, we know because there's an instantaneous, “We've got this problem now, we've got to deal with, and let's deal with it now,” that I think it is just going to make long-term governing very, very difficult to sell to the public. And if you can't sell it to the public, you're not going to get support for it anymore.

MEDIA MATTERS: One last question, also.

TODD: [unintelligible]

MEDIA MATTERS: You mentioned crisis-oriented. How -- what do you think of the Ebola coverage? Has that been overhyped?

TODD: Well, you heard me on Meet the Press on Sunday.


TODD: I am concerned that -- no one is saying this isn't serious. And you know, particularly, this is a tragedy in West Africa. OK? This is the part of Africa that was beginning to show an -- you know, governance was getting better, some economi-- I mean, this is just, of all --like, of all places for it to hit in Africa, this was, like, where the green shoots were. This was -- I mean, it's just -- you know, and it's going to set back West Africa for a decade or more, right? Like, that's the tragedy.

MEDIA MATTERS: But what about here, the way it's --

TODD: Here, I am concerned.

MEDIA MATTERS: -- really being hyped up here?

TODD: Look, I am concerned, you know. And I think that, you know, we're all trying to have healthy debate. Like, what's the line between --

MEDIA MATTERS: You're concerned about what? About the coverage, or about --

TODD: About making the public more concerned -- you know, I think the public is -- I don't -- I'm worried that we have made it seem more likely Ebola -- an Ebola outbreak could actually happen based on a couple of -- you know, like I feel like that we're -- I understand if the public is taking away from our collective coverage -- and I say “our collective coverage” -- like, I think that we're, you know, we're all trying to make individual smart decisions here in these shows. But I'd say the collective media coverage in general, right, the nonstop coverage of it, makes it feel as if, “Oh my God, you know, one case is going to turn into a hundred.” Well, let's explain how hard that is. Let's explain, you know -- now, that said, you know, I think it's the second case, and then all of a sudden you're like, OK, we've got some protocol issues here, you know?

MEDIA MATTERS: Yeah, that was an interesting angle on it, yeah, the protocol.

TODD: You know, I mean, it suddenly became -- I, look -- what I said Sunday -- and then, like, you have a new piece of information that you're like, well, OK, you know what? Our job is to focus on the protocol issue. Right? What is going on here. You know? Should there be a smarter way to deal with these? We're going to have individual Ebola cases in this country. All of them are probably are all going to somehow be connected to West Africa, right? Not, you know -- the panic is going to be if somebody in an apartment building who had - who was nowhere near the -- you know what I mean? Like, that's when you're going to have -- and frankly, then all of a sudden, you have legitimate panic. I'll be honest. Like, that's -- but obviously, now I think, you know, certainly the media's job, and I think correctly so, is to sort of say OK, well, wait a minute. You know, did we have protocols here? Were they [unintelligible] What hospitals were prepared? Which ones aren't? You know. Because we're going to have Ebola patients in this country. There's too many people with it, too many Americans volunteering for the duty to go try to combat this. You know, this is a war against a disease, you know?

It's going -- you know, we're going to have to -- so we need to learn how to deal with it here. And I think that that's, you know -- if that's the focus of our coverage, then that's good coverage. But, you know, that sort of -- you know, that should be the overarching question that we're asking right now. Versus -- look, and I -- there are people I think that have, you know -- are legitimately -- well, they're concerned that somehow this thing is going to spread here so fast. Like it -- it's not going to. But it's like, you know -- and this goes into the whole area, you know -- this is what happens when you erode trust in government over a 20-year period in some form or another. And, you know, we can sit here and point fingers about whose fault it is to erode the trust. But the fact of the matter is, we now -- it makes it that much harder for government to have the credibility in the moment when they absolutely have to have the credibility in the moment.