Engrossed in a cell phone call with a source, Chuck Todd circles the set of “Meet the Press” in NBC’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center. It’s unusual that the moderator of NBC’s influential, long-running Sunday morning political show is in New York. The show is normally taped in Washington,
D.C., and when Todd is not grilling politicos there, he’s on the road following the presidential candidates on the campaign. Despite his flashy career — Todd is the 12th moderator of “Meet the Press” and the political director for NBC News — the newsman can be described as a “reporter’s reporter.” He’s a news junkie who can turn on a dime from talking about the intricacies of polling to the salacious aspects of D.C.’s underbelly.
Although he has spent about eight years on camera, in various roles including serving as the network’s White House correspondent and host of “The Daily Rundown” on MSNBC, the reporter has roots in print journalism, having served as editor in chief for National Journal’s The Hotline for six years.
Back at his satellite office, which is the size of a small dorm room, Todd gulps down spoonfuls of soup from Pret a Manger, while noting that his most excellent view has him eye-level with the top-third of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. “When they light it up, it’s going to be like that episode of ‘Seinfeld’…Kenny Rogers Roasters.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, Todd, 43, talks with WWD about the future of TV, whether Donald Trump or Carson actually have a shot at beating Hillary and how the French horn changed his life.
The Republican candidates have been critical of the media during the debates. Is the criticism justified or is it just political shenanigans?
I think the answer is yes to both. The media is a popular punching bag, particularly on the right. At the same time, I’ve moderated plenty of debates and I’ve interviewed people, and you don’t ask the same questions. There are interview questions and there are debate questions. I think there have been some moderators who have had some terrific questions individually for candidates — that’s not a debate, that’s an interview. Save it for a good interview. I view debate moderators, debate moderation, sort of the way you view a referee at a sports game, which is, if you’re talking about the refs at the end of the game, then it was poorly officiated. If you’re not talking about the two teams on the field, if you’re not talking about the candidates and the way they disagreed, then it was poorly moderated. I always hope that I’m in paragraph eight of the story of the debate because that means they have to say: “The debate was moderated by blah blah blah.” You just want to be a fact in the story.
How about the way the media has posed questions, or the kinds of questions they’ve asked? Have they shown bias?
The point of this is, number one: You’ve got to remember who the audience is for the debate. The audience is, in this case, Republican primary voters or Democratic primary voters. I think it’s the responsibility of the debate moderator to not ask questions on the issues that are important to them, but on the issues that are important to the people who are actually making this decision. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to say, “OK, but how do you answer this charge in a general election.” But, particularly with debates, you are the stand-in for the voter, and you always have to think that to yourself.
Do you feel that with the immediacy of news coupled with the colorful crop of Presidential candidates that you have to be more entertaining on TV?
Entertaining is not the right word. I think that the viewer habit has changed. [It’s related to] the way our news cycle has sped up and the way, frankly, that everybody multitasks right now — even if you’re not a news junkie, you know the news headlines throughout a given day. It’s not about entertaining, it’s about the viewer expecting to have more information delivered to them, which means you need to be moving at a slightly faster pace.
Do people want to see those great Nixon/ Kennedy-style debates of the past?
I don’t know what people claim they want to see. I’d love to see an old-fashioned, truly an old-fashioned Lincoln/Douglas debate, almost moderator-less. You’d need a moderator there to almost be more like a boxing referee; you step in when you absolutely have to, but for the most part, you let them go at it. Most candidates running for president aren’t — smart is not the right word — aren’t intellectually nimble enough to handle it. I think it would be a great way to eliminate the folks who are not intellectually nimble enough to handle that. You’ve got to be quick on your feet and deep to pull that off.
How much weight can you put on early polling?
It used to be [with] early polling, you’d be cautious about it because you’d wonder if people were paying attention. But, when you see 23, 24, 15, 14 — that many million people tuning into these debates, people are paying attention earlier than they did before. Is some of that because there’s a curiosity factor about Trump? Of course, let’s not pretend that Trump isn’t driving this. But I think now it can sustain without him [Trump], interestingly enough. He brought the attention, he brought the spotlight, and I think the spotlight would stay, I think the interest level would stay.
Why do you think Trump and Carson are leading in the polls on the Republican side?
I think the explanation for Carson and Trump in the polls is that this has been something that has been building for basically the last 15 years. We’ve had skepticism and distrust with the economy, with the military, with our political leaders in general. We’re in this period where the Middle East seems a mess, and literally, you’ve got half the country saying it’s [President] Obama’s fault, and half the country says it’s still [former President George W.] Bush’s fault, but either way, 100 percent of the country believes it’s the last two presidents’ fault. The last time we had this type of distrust with big institutions, frustrations with the press, with politics, was basically 1964 to 1980 — that was Vietnam, that was Watergate, there was an economic recession as well that hit then. Think about what happened in those 16 years. Both parties nominated very, very partisan people at one point and got clobbered; the Re- publicans with [Barry] Goldwater, the Democrats with [George] McGovern. We kicked out three presidents within a matter of 12 years in some form or another — LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson] basically forced into retirement; Nixon, forced to resign; Carter, booted from office by the voters. We elected a guy who had no experience in Jimmy Carter, but he got elected because he said, “I’ll never lie to you.” He was morally pure. Sound like someone? Ben Carson. My point is, we’ve gone through this.
Wait, are you saying we’re going to elect Carson?
I don’t know. Don’t assume we revert to “normal,” whatever the definition [of] that is. When we’re in periods when the public has real distrust issues, combine it with economic anxiety — that’s the other part of this. We don’t know where the next jobs come from — there are a lot of voters who say: “I don’t know if my kids will be better off than I am.” There’s this fear of the unknown, throw in now global insecurity. The candidates might not be serious, but the voters are.
Is Hillary Clinton a lock? What missteps does she have to make to lose?
In an environment that is seeking change, in an environment that is seeking a new set of leaders, in an environment that is saying, we’d like to move to a new generation of leaders, you know, she’s fighting some headwinds. Her biggest asset is her gender. Her gender says change. She’s using it. She has said in interviews something like: “There is nothing that would signify a bigger change than electing the first woman president.” She’s relying on her gender to be the change because her last name is not change. The last position she held is not change. The headwinds she’s fighting could be too hard to overcome, but her gender gives her the opportunity to make the case: “Maybe we should be bringing a woman’s perspective to the Oval office. We haven’t tried that yet.” That’s her change card.
What has been your most challenging or frustrating interview?
Every interview is frustrating in some way. You never get every question you wanted to ask. The hardest interviews are the short ones — prioritizing questions. The easier interviews are the long interviews because people are prepared to dodge you in five minutes. It’s harder to dodge in 20. That’s why I love having the ability to potentially do longer interviews. Even if we only air seven [minutes], I want to go 25. The hardest interviews are the five-minute interviews. So you do one topic because the minute you try to do a little bit of everything, you get a lot of nothing.
The media has complained about limited access to Obama’s White House. Has it improved?
No. There’s still limited access. I was chief White House correspondent for six years. Look, it’s a reporter’s nature to complain about access unless we’re in the Oval Office 24 hours a day. That said, it has shrunk, and the number of people they allow to be interviewed publicly continues to shrink. It’s not just access to the president. I’ve gotten reasonable access to him. I basically have interviewed him once a year since he’s taken office in one form or another. It’s been a little over a year. I’m ready for another one.
How do you prepare for an interview with Obama?
The Obama interviews are actually easier to prepare for now because it’s what I do every day, I’m covering him every day. The thing you learn about him is that he will eventually answer your question, but he’s going to filibuster, so he is a time guy. It’s tough to cut off a president — anybody else it’s easier. He doesn’t like to be interrupted. I feel like now, in year seven, I’ve learned how to interrupt him without it becoming a thing. I feel sorry for someone who has seven minutes with him — that’s two questions. He speaks in paragraphs. With him, it’s the amount of time, that’s the challenge.
Where do you think the TV industry is going?
I think TV is going toward specialization. I feel better prepared than other TV reporters. I think you’re going to see this trend continue, where people are hired to be on TV, not necessarily because they’ve been training to be on TV their whole life, but because they have an expertise in a specific beat. I think it’s more important than ever to be a news organization that has experts. Not everybody can be taught how to do television — but most people can. I am lucky to work in an organization that believes that. I think the viewer has a higher expectation of TV right now.
More and more people are getting information across platforms. If you look at Millennials, they get historical context by watching documentaries, as well as other things. The visual medium has never been in better shape. Yes, the news business is changing, but I’m in a lucky position at “Meet The Press.” It’s an issue niche. I had an issue niche in covering politics for 15 years before doing the show, and I’m open to doing some doc- umentaries, so I can do long form.
Who are your dream interviews?
I hate this question. I’m a presidential junkie so I wish I could have interviewed FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] and [Abraham] Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Presidents are where I’m leaning because of who I am.
What, you wouldn’t want to interview Coco Chanel?
[Laughs]. I’d love a Fidel Castro. I’d love it for two or three hours. I’d love to know what the hell was going on in the Fifties and Sixties, and what was happening with Kennedy and all that business. I don’t know if it would be a truthful interview, that’s my only concern, but I grew up in Miami, so the story is a little more present for me.
How do you get a politician to answer a question truthfully?
One of the things I’ve learned is, try to know what their talking point is going to be, so have a conversation with them. Basically, you’re pre-interviewing them without them knowing it. You want to at least get a sense of what they’re going to do. It’s a way to speed up your follow-up. This is something I’ve learned on the fly and wouldn’t have said a year ago. Sometimes having an off-the-record conversation first, or something before, it loosens them up and sometimes they think they’ve gotten their talking point out and they forget they haven’t gotten it out on camera. I shouldn’t be giving this away. The other trick is — do you remember the Will Ferrell character in “Austin Powers”? He would finally answer the truth if you ask him the same question three times. I’ve noticed that most politicians can’t handle ducking a question three times.
Do you rephrase the question each time?
Yeah or sometimes you shame them. There’s no more powerful follow-up than “you didn’t answer the question.” It’s the most powerful follow-up you can come up with. The other great follow-ups are: “And?,” or “meaning?” Too many TV-trained people sometimes feel the need to fill airtime. Don’t be the one to fill the dead air. Make the politician fill the dead air. It’s when they’re feeling the dead air that they might actually take the truth serum.
Where do you get your news?
I have a pretty regimented way. I, in some form or another, get e-mail alerts from as many news- papers that will offer them on politics and government. I try to follow at least one newspaper in every state on Twitter for their news. I view Twitter as a wire service. The best time for me to look at Twitter is when I wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. If you look at it then and go back seven or eight hours from then, it’s less snark and more information. From 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., I’m reading as much information as I can, 200 to 300 sources, if I can.
What is the future of local newspapers? So many have closed.
Some entrepreneur is going to figure it out. Nobody has cracked the code yet [financially], but people want local news. No matter where we live, we want to know what’s going on in our communities. Figuring out who’s going to own the local news markets, that’s the missing piece. We’ve got plenty of national reporters and national news. The New York Times and The Washington Post have never been more influential and arguably better than ever in this day and age. The real crisis is in local news, and it’s a real concern for me in terms of government corruption because we have fewer reporters now covering local politics and state politics than ever before. Everybody wants to cover presidential [politics] or Congress — guess what? The least corrupt place in the country is Washington, D.C. Say what you want about the media, when the media is around, there’s less corruption. We don’t have the watchdogs on zoning boards and on school boards or in State capitols the way we used to.
I heard that you play the French horn. What does that instrument say about you?
My dad was a French horn player, and on my father’s side of the family, practically everyone was a musician. There was an expectation that you learned music, that it was part of your education. At five years old, Dad had me signed up for piano lessons. Learning music was like learning a second language. I looked up to my dad, as a lot of sons do, and he played the French horn, so I wanted to play the French horn. I remember saying to him that it was so big and hard to lug around and the trumpet is smaller. He said: “You can be a great trumpet player, and there’s a million of them out there. French horn is harder and fewer people try. You can be a good French horn player and get a scholarship. You can be a good trumpet player and get nothing.” It was a pragmatic decision, I guess. I was pretty good. I got multiple scholarship offers for music. It’s how I paid for school. I would have ended up at a community college without it. My dad had passed away when I was 16. My mother — we had financial issues as a kid — so without it, I wouldn’t have gotten there. So my kids have piano lessons.
Not French horn?
They aren’t old enough yet. My daughter claims she wanted to play the French horn because Daddy did, but elementary school didn’t offer it, they offered trumpet, and I told her “I can help you with that.”
So you still play?
I got it back a little bit because I got oddly bullied into it by journalistic peers who wanted to hear it. I’ve got it good enough that I can always play the NBC chimes on demand.
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