Chuck Todd Needs to Do More Than Issue a Mea Culpa

None of this gets resolved until the media finds a way to prioritize truth over balance.

During an interview with Peter Wade for Rolling Stone, Chuck Todd admitted that he was “naive” when Kellyanne Conway referred to “alternative facts” on his show, Meet the Press.

The Ukraine story for me really crystallized it. And for good or bad, our show has been at the forefront of this. The first Sunday of the Trump administration is when the phrase, “alternative facts” was debuted. It was on Meet the Press Rudy that Giuliani used the phrase “Truth isn’t truth.” So look, whether we’d liked it or not, our platform has been used, or they’ve attempted to use our platform to essentially disseminate, or to sort of, what I would say, is lay the groundwork for this…

I fully admit, listening to you ask that question now, and me giving you the honest answer of, yeah, I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight.

Jay Rosen rejects the idea that Todd’s performance can be written off as naive. Instead, he calls it “strategic blindness.”

By “strategic blindness” I mean what people mean when they quote Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

How naive could Todd have been during all of those months that Donald Trump was peddling the birther lie about Barack Obama as a way to launch himself on the national political stage? Where was Todd back in 2012 when political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote that “the GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition?”

Chuck Todd has been the political director at NBC News since 2007. He is heralded as an expert on the subject. And yet it has taken him until 2019 to grasp that Republicans have been manipulating him with their lies.

The interview with Wade was primarily a promotion for a special edition of Meet the Press on December 29 that will focus on the weaponization of disinformation. But as Rosen notes, nowhere does Todd talk about what he will do differently based on this new awareness.

So what will they do now? My answer: they have no earthly idea. This is what I mean by an epistemological crisis. Chuck Todd has essentially said that on the right there is an incentive structure that compels Republican office holders to use their time on Meet the Press for the spread of disinformation. So do you keep inviting them on the air to do just that? If so, then you are breaking faith with the audience and creating a massive problem in real time fact-checking. If not, then you just broke the show in half.

There is simply nothing in the playbook at Meet the Press that tells the producers what to do in this situation.

You might recall that, back in 2013, Todd famously stated that it was not the media’s job to correct Republican disinformation about Obamacare. Lest anyone assume that kind of thinking is limited to Todd, I would remind you that during the Scooter Libby trial, a Cheney press aide revealed that the Bush administration preferred going on Meet the Press with Tim Russert because it was “our best format,” a program where political handlers can “control the message.” Linda Hirshman explained why.

The Russert Test was a disaster because it rewarded people willing to lie unabashedly on TV. They lied because they could not truthfully defend their positions. But Russert’s famed “gotcha” research couldn’t catch them. Much has been said this eulogizing week about Russert’s hard-working ways assembling the material in advance of the show. Old metal. When someone told a new lie on Meet the Press, such as when Dick Cheney flat-out denied he had ever said that intelligence confirmed the Al Qaeda/Iraq link, Meet the Press had no procedure for producing the contrary evidence.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how David Roberts coined the phrase “post-truth politics” to describe Republicans back in 2011.

Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights.

In that endeavor, Republicans have had a willing partner in a media whose playbook was limited to viewing every issue from the two sides of the partisan divide. In the process, they abandoned the idea of seeking the truth. That allowed the GOP to traffic in disinformation and culminated in a president who has now told over 15,000 lies since being inaugurated.

While we all welcome Todd’s recent mea culpa, none of this gets resolved until the media finds a way to prioritize truth over balance.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.