Chuck Todd Explains The Meet The Press “Balancing Act” And How Diversity Is A “Front-Burner Issue”

Part Two Of A Three-Part Interview Series

If Chuck Todd's plans for the new Meet the Press are successful, within a year the show will balance the need to explain the inner workings of Washington to viewers with elevating public concerns that are not getting enough attention in the political sphere.

In the second part of a three-part interview series with Media Matters, Todd lays out his goals for Meet the Press, the struggle for guest diversity on Sunday political shows, and the current state of the media landscape.

Responding to a frequent progressive critique of the Sunday shows -- that they are obsessed with gaffes and spin and not actual issues -- Todd expressed hope that his show would pull off a “balancing act.”

“On one hand, we're trying to explain and interpret what Washington is up to for the public,” Todd said. “But at the same time, trying to bring the public's concerns and the public's issues and the things that they seem to be worried about to Washington's doorstep.”

Asked whether Meet the Press should discuss issues like climate change that are generally under-covered or merely reflect the current discussion in Washington, Todd explained that it's difficult to find time to cover every deserving story, especially when breaking news events like the Ebola outbreak eat into the schedule.

Media Matters has repeatedly highlighted the lack of diversity on the Sunday morning political shows, including on Meet the Press. In 2013, when the show was hosted by David Gregory, a full 62 percent of the guests were white men.

Todd said that it's probably too early to judge his own efforts with regards to diversity but said it is “a front-burner issue for us, not a back-burner issue.”

While Todd said he had so far sought to make his weekly roundtables diverse, he warned of challenges in providing a balanced slate of interview subjects.

Todd highlighted how, for instance, “90 percent of the generals and the military experts out there” are white men. “Some of this stuff is out of your control. At the end of the day, you want to put the best people on. You want to put the best, smartest people on,” Todd said. “I'd like to think we're doing a better job at making sure that we're reflecting America.”

He also pointed to the need for geographical diversity among guests in order to avoid “socioeconomic groupthink,” as well as providing diverse ideological voices within both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Todd criticized Fox News' use of straight news reporters to balance conservative commentators on their roundtable panels, saying that it demonstrates the network has an “agenda,” adding that Meet the Press doesn't “believe in that.” Todd also criticized Fox News for “trying to make everything about media bias.”

Despite his criticism of the conservative network, Todd offered that “too many citizens are only getting news from one place and not understanding the other side.”

The first part of Todd's interview with Media Matters focused on the media's coverage of scandals and crises. The third and final installment will focus on media coverage 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 two are below:

MEDIA MATTERS:  To what extent do you think you should reflect the topics currently debated on Capitol Hill and what extent do you -- should you be setting the agenda? Things like climate change, which we cover a lot. It doesn't seem to be getting a lot of Sunday-show attention in recent years, even though it's hit a crisis.

TODD: It's like anything, right? It does feel like the Sunday shows -- and this is -- I can just tell you, I just got off a call now, a planning call -- and so in some ways, every day -- and I'm still trying to -- I'll be honest. I'm still trying to figure out this rhythm, right? I mean, I've done five shows. But this rhythm, I have a list of what I call “middle of the show” topics that I want do, which is the one-off. Which is the stuff that you can plan farther in advance. So, for instance, doing something on climate change is something -- and then every time you try to plan something in advance, then news of the day seems to bump it, right? So all of a sudden I'm spending 20 minutes on Ebola, and I wanted to do five. And there's this push and pull. Well, how much am I the next show up for NBC News versus Meet the Press that week. Do you know what I mean? I think sometimes those get into conflict. And I'm still struggling with that conflict a little bit. And I think that I want to be ideally both, right? I want Meet the Press to reflect -- to basically explain what's going on, reflect the debate, hopefully move the debate forward in some form or another, at least get some unanswered questions answered. But then raise issues, lift up issues and give them a higher platform when you can, and when it makes the most sense, and when it, where it doesn't -- so it is -- I'm not going to pretend I found that balance yet. I haven't found that balance. But it's a balance I want to strike. But it is funny you say that because I literally have this long list, and then there are -- all of a sudden I'm feeling, “Oh shoot, I have three Sundays before the election.” So I've been obsessed with wanting to do a larger story about the election --

MEDIA MATTERS: Right, and that must obviously play into it, the election coming up.

TODD: Right, and then you also -- you say, “Well, there's certain things you gotta do within” -- if you don't do it within this window, then you're not going to be able to get to it for another year, right? You know what I mean? You have those. So there's definitely some competing things on that front. But that -- when I say I'm still struggling with that balance, that's what I'm learning.

MEDIA MATTERS: And the other thing that you mentioned, the election --

TODD: But I do agree with you. I mean, I think it should be, right? I think that it's got to be. This is a place where I have the luxury of this platform, right? I am sort of -- it's been handed to me. Use it wisely, type of thing. And it's like, use it to bring -- to lift up a topic that doesn't get -- that is a major issue that doesn't get this -- [unintelligible] What's kind of funny is I look at -- actually, my lead in the election, if I could have done the Sunday show today with the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, I'd be like, “The two top issues of concern, not a single campaign is debating them right now.” Right? The two top issues are sort of -- are jobs and the economy, and breaking the gridlock in Washington. Those are the number one and two concerns. They were tied for first in our poll.

MEDIA MATTERS: Well, that's a --

TODD: And I'm like, for the life of me, I don't know where that's -- that debate -- I'm trying to figure out where anybody is campaigning on that.

MEDIA MATTERS: Well, that comes to another thing that's kind of a progressive critique of the Sunday shows is that they have Washington insiders who treat politics like a game and gaffes and spin rather than the problems. I mean, is that a valid critique? Does it worry you?

TODD: I think it is a valid critique if you try to make the Washington insiders tell you about things outside of Washington. I think it's important for the public to understand how Washington is handling something, right? To sort of explain the why. But I think that part of the challenge, and what -- if Meet the Press is working and in a year, I hope you check me on this -- is that we're sort of able to do -- or we are that balancing act. On one hand, we're trying to explain and interpret what Washington is up to for the public, but at the same time, trying to bring the public's concerns and the public's issues and the things that they seem to be worried about to Washington's doorstep. I think that that's what's gotten lost. It's funny. Part of it that you're just sort of reminded of, is we need to do a better job discovering new non-Washington reporters and analysts and things like that. And it's funny, that pipeline -- one of the things that is -- that's a pet peeve of mine about what's going on in the media -- we're still in sort of the -- [Tom] Brokaw likes to call it the Big Bang in media, meaning we've had the Big Bang. The particles are still -- they haven't settled yet, right? We're still figuring it out. No place has been decimated more than state and local political reporting.

MEDIA MATTERS: Yes, absolutely. [unintelligible] for years.

TODD: It is just dried up. I think about when I started in 1992 and how many newspapers had their own state capitol bureau chiefs, which means they actually had a staff. How many local newspapers had a Washington bureau chief, which meaned they had actual reporters that reported to them. There was more than one person. And you had, I'd say the top 100 newspapers in this country had a chief political correspondent.


TODD: In some form or another, right?

MEDIA MATTERS: Well, and how many Washington bureaus are decimated or converged --

TODD: It's a weird Catch-22. So what's happened? People that aspire to be political reporters, they don't say, “I'm going to go to Austin. I'm going to go to Tallahassee. I'm going to go to Sacramento.” No, they say, “I'm coming to Washington,” because there's 55 different media organizations that are trying to cover politics now, all based out of Washington. So it's weird. So, this is something that I think that is another beauty of the platform of Meet the Press is that if we find somebody I think we can sort of surface them faster. But look, that's been among my frustrations over the last few years. Because I feel like there's a dearth -- I mean, there is no [Iowa reporter] David Yepsen anymore, right? That's gone. [Reporter] Jon Ralston's terrific in Nevada, right? That's somebody you know that has his pulse on Nevada. I wouldn't want some outside reporter, I'd want Jon Ralston to tell me what's going on, right? There are not many Jon Ralstons.

MEDIA MATTERS: That plays into another issue that we've brought up that you probably know. Media Matters has been tracking guests lists of Sunday shows. A real, real dearth of diversity. I think for Meet the Press in 2013, we found 62 percent of guests were white men, and I think some of the other shows are even higher. There's not as many --

TODD: Look, I can only tell you what I'm doing.

MEDIA MATTERS: Right, but do you think that this is a problem? And is there a need for more gender, ethic, and ideological diversity on the guests?

TODD: I'm glad you put it -- I think diversity also needs to extend to geography. I think sometimes geographical diversity leads to this socioeconomic groupthink. Right? Meaning, if you don't have geographical diversity, then you have socioeconomic groupthink. And what I mean by that is the Washington, New York -- you know, the “Acela corridor” phrase that I love to use all the time. So I always throw geography in there. I feel like newsrooms benefit from geographic diversity because you need to know sort of the quirks and the cultural intricacies of different parts of America.

MEDIA MATTERS: But even the minority diversity -- I mean, look at your shows. You had, let's see, you had James Baker on a few times, Henry Kissinger, Henry Paulson, Mike Bloomberg --

TODD: Well, look some of this is stuff -- my diversity is --

MEDIA MATTERS: And again, it's your first shows. I understand.

TODD: Right, right, right. But I would -- look at my roundtables. Have they been anything other than geographically, ethnically diverse, gender diverse, ideologically diverse? So, look, there's some things you can control. I can't control -- sometimes, the fact that 90 percent of the generals and the military experts out there -- you know what I mean? Some of this stuff is out of your control. At the end of the day, you want to put the best people on. You want to put the best, smartest people on. I'd like to think we're doing a better job at making sure that we're reflecting America, and that's the point is, I think that in politics and in the media and in -- it should reflect the country. So I'd like to think that we're trying to do a better job of that. But it's -- look, on the guests -- I mean, I think, again, I would go back and say I think we've done better than most, but I'd also say I wouldn't want to see me judged after five shows. But I think -- you tell me - but if you look at it, you can see that I think that's a front-burner issue for us, not a back-burner issue.

MEDIA MATTERS: And how about when you have group discussions that feature a partisan conservative commentator matched up with a news reporter? There seems to be a working assumption that a straight news reporter will balance --

TODD: I haven't done that.

MEDIA MATTERS: No, in a lot of the Sunday shows.

TODD: I can't -- I mean people that do that -- that's a Fox phenomenon. That's not a -- Fox may do that, but that's their -- they have an agenda. You know what I mean? I don't do that. I don't believe in that. If I've got a right-leaning voice, I need a left-leaning voice. Now, I think a bigger problem is -- I think that all the shows need to reflect -- it's like, we go through this diversity checklist, right?


TODD: There's ideological diversity in both parties these days, right? We can just go on Republican foreign policy. You have Rand Paul versus John McCain, right? Democratic foreign policy, you've got a Russ Feingold liberal interventionist versus progressive pullback, folks that want to pull back. So, I think that is the next challenge. For instance, I tried to -- when we were talking about the Republicans, I did my -- the culture wars things, right? With the Republicans essentially surrendering on the culture wars. In that case, I said, OK, I've got a reporter who covers the evangelical movement. And a reporter, reporter-columnist, but both sort of right-leaning, right? But they're within their party, right, because this is a debate --

MEDIA MATTERS: Yeah, that was very interesting.

TODD: But that was my point. It was important to me that you reflected, sort of, two sides. Look, ideally, I would have -- let's say, Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman, right, type of thing. You want to reflect -- sometimes, there's diversity within the parties that the networks can get sloppy on. You know what I mean? They just throw up any Democrat and say, “Hey, that person reflects what all Democrats think.” That's a ditto on the Republican side. And that's always among the critiques when I hear about conservative bias, liberal bias, the thing that I -- when I hear the bias -- the complaints that resonate with me, it's when a progressive says, “Hey, that person really isn't representing” -- or a conservative says, “Hey, that Republican isn't really representing what we are.” That resonates more with me because, hey, at the end of the day, I'm trying to represent -- I want to know those things a little bit. You want to, I think, represent the multiple wings.

MEDIA MATTERS: Yeah, and there's so many voices, so many views, to say this is a Republican view, this is a Democratic view. That was interesting that you brought that out.

TODD: Look, I think we need to do that better. That was my attempt. Hopefully it came through. Maybe we can do it better next time


MEDIA MATTERS: What's your take on the current state of conservative media? And we're talking Matt Drudge, Daily Caller, Breitbart, the real hardliners.

TODD: Look, I'm frustrated that I feel like media -- that the easiest thing -- I mean, it's a campaign tactic, and I just sort of -- media bias is, like, the first thing out of the mouths of any -- and I -- frankly, I think this is happening on the left now, too. I think it certainly was something that the right pushed a lot longer. This goes -- it has its roots in Watergate, right? That's where this was born. The modern version of this feeling that conservatives feel as if the media is always out to get conservatives, that the media went and got Nixon. You know what I mean? And it sort of had its roots there, and it has grown from there a little bit. But it's now like the first thing out of the mouths of a lot of progressives now, that they just assume if you say something critical, “Oh, you're a right-wing operative, hiding this” -- it is -- this attempt to put every journalist -- to try to put them in their correct color jersey is having a corrosive effect on all journalism.

MEDIA MATTERS: Right, but don't you think that -- these are conservative outlets like Breitbart, Daily Caller, they have a -- you know -- we've written a lot about the inaccuracies, the slanting coverage. Does that -- is that a problem versus maybe a quote “liberal” outlet like MSNBC or somebody that doesn't seem to have as much problem with accuracy and slanting, even if they have opinion in some of the obvious opinion people. But a lot of these right-wing outlets that I mentioned -- Rush Limbaugh -- that -- it's just outright inaccuracies and that that really hurts the image of media?

TODD: Well, I mean, that's the thing. Everybody defines what media is. And it's like, the more untrustworthy any -- it doesn't matter. It's like we're all in this, and this is -- you can be a filet mignon, but if you mix it with some rancid piece of meat, and you mix it all together -- even the best filet mignon is going to taste rancid to people. So --

MEDIA MATTERS: But should you be in the -- should Meet the Press and --

TODD: No. I don't --

MEDIA MATTERS: -- others be in the same place as those?

TODD: The public puts us all in the same place. Look, the media world has flatlined. And look, I'm not going to sit here and say who should be and shouldn't be a journalist. That's not my role, and I don't believe -- I'm not going to tell -- for the same reason why I don't think anybody should be told whether they're eligible to be a voter or not. If you meet -- if you're 18, you're a voter. You want to be a voter, you can go vote. Or if you're like Neil Peart, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, right? So we have flattened the media world, right? That's the good news. So I think people would say that overall is a good thing, right? It forced us in the mainstream media to be more accessible to the masses and to be more responsive.

MEDIA MATTERS: So what do you think is the role of Fox? Do they do it right? Do they do something wrong? What do they do right and wrong?

TODD: I again, I think their obsession with always -- I think it's amusing to me, their obsession with trying to make everything about media bias. Whatever story, whatever angle, whatever stories is out there, there's always some sort of supposed media-bias angle to it. And I'm like, “Aren't they the number one media -- news media outlet on cable?” So my concern, frankly, is less about the media organizations and more about the groupthink that's taking place with the populace. I think citizens -- too many citizens are only getting news from one place and not understanding the other side. Look, I want Meet the Press to be a place that hard-core conservatives and hard-core progressives feel like they can get a better understanding of things. As well as moderates, pragmatists, whatever you wanna call 'em. Everybody's got a different name for them. Wishy-washy people, right, if you think they don't stand up for their principles enough. Whatever it is. But that's a challenge in these times. I think more and more people are gravitating toward their comfort zones politically and ideologically, and I think that that is reinforcing the negative perception on the press and journalism.

Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.