‘Round midnight on Christmas eve, Rolling Stone posted a short interview with Chuck Todd, host of “the longest running show on television,” NBC’s Meet the Press.
Its contents were explosive, embarrassing, enraging, and just plain weird.
Three years after Kellyanne Conway introduced the doctrine of “alternative facts” on his own program, a light went on for Chuck Todd. Republican strategy, he now realized, was to make stuff up, spread it on social media, repeat it in your answers to journalists — even when you know it’s a lie with crumbs of truth mixed in — and then convert whatever controversy arises into go-get-em points with the base, while pocketing for the party a juicy dividend: additional mistrust of the news media to help insulate President Trump among loyalists when his increasingly brazen actions are reported as news. Todd repeatedly called himself naive for not recognizing the pattern, itself an astounding statement that cast doubt on his fitness for office as host of Meet the Press.
While the theme of the interview was waking up to the truth of Republican actions in the information warfare space, Todd went to sleep on the implications of what he revealed. It took him three years to understand a fact about American politics that was there on the surface, unconcealed since the day after inauguration. Many, many interpreters had described it for him during those lost years when he could not bring himself to believe it. (I am one.)
You cannot call that an oversight. It’s a strategic blindness that he superintended. 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.”
The ostensible purpose of the Rolling Stone interview was to promote a special edition of Meet the Press on December 29 that will focus on the weaponization of disinformation. But its effect is to bring MTP — and by extension similar shows — into epistemological crisis. With Todd’s confessions the mask has come off. It could have come off a long time ago, but the anchors, producers, guests, advertisers and to an unknown degree the remaining viewers colluded in an act of make believe that lurched along until now. One way to say it: They agreed to pretend that Conway’s threatening phrase, “alternative facts” was just hyberbole, the kind of inflammatory moment that makes for viral clips and partisan bickering. More silly than it was ominous.
In reality she had made a grave announcement. The nature of the Trump government would be propagandistic. And as Garry Kasparov observes for us, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” This exhaustion, this annihilation were on their way to the Sunday shows, and to all interactions with journalists. That is what Kellyanne Conway was saying that day on Meet the Press. But the people who run the show chose not to believe it.
That’s malpractice. Chuck Todd called it naiveté in order to minimize the error. This we cannot allow.
Now let’s look more closely at his Christmas Eve confessions…
* “The Ukraine story for me really crystallized it,” Todd said. By “it” he meant the damage that disinformation “was doing to our politics.” His show has been “at the forefront” of the problem, he said. “Whether we’d liked it or not, our platform has been used, or they’ve attempted to use our platform” to disseminate fabrications. (What has to change to prevent this went unremarked upon.)
* “We have a systemic issue here.” Which is that it’s easy to spread lies through social media. (And on Meet the Press!)
* Peter Wade, the Rolling Stone interviewer, asked about Sean Spicer’s inauguration crowd size rant. “Were you surprised that the president and other administration officials and their allies just kept it going?” Todd’s answer: “I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight… if people want to read my answer to your question, ‘Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.’ Yeah, it looks pretty naive.”
* Todd said he had been studying up on Trump’s methods. “He learned at the feet of a master of deception in Roy Cohn, who learned at the feet of the original master of deception of sort of the modern political era in Joe McCarthy.” (But McCarthy not only deceived the country. He exploited existing routines in journalism to do it, which is the theme of this book. “He was able to generate massive publicity that made him the center of anti-communism because he understood the press, its practices and its values; he knew what made news.” The press was implicated in McCarthy’s rise because he had gamed it by, for example, announcing wild new charges just before the wire services deadline. The accusations would be out there. The investigation of them took more time and made less news.)
* Todd said he recognized that “the right has an incentive structure to utter the misinformation” when they come on his show. And they welcome a confrontation with journalists over it because fighting with the press helps them with core supporters. (Again, this seemed to be new information to him.)
* He said he he was “stunned” that Ted Cruz came on MTP and did as Senator John Kennedy had done before: repeat the debunked claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in a material way. “I was stunned because he’s a Russia hawk… I was genuinely shocked.” He revealed that the Cruz camp had asked to come on Meet the Press in order to spread a false story! Another shock. “And I really naively thought, maybe he wants to remind people.” Meaning: remind them that the Ukraine plot is Russian disinformation. “And it turned out not to be the case.”
* “One of the things we don’t fully appreciate in mainstream media,” he said, is that “it’s become fun to attack the press,” and “it doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong.” The attacks keep coming. “Trump has turned this into sport.”
* As if discovering this for the first time, he marveled at pervasive bad faith on the right. He said that prominent people he knows in the Republican coalition who would normally trust skeptical accounts in the establishment press over Sean Hannity’s latest conspiracy theory will now parrot the conspiracy theory. “Wow, have we gone off the rails on the right side of the silo of the conversation that’s taking place.”
* He confessed to not understanding the motivations of Republican office holders who spread lies that are easily disproved. “I don’t get why so many people are comfortable uttering stuff that they may know will look ridiculous in three or four years.”
* He said that when the Trump era is concluded, “we’re going to have another reckoning” over how the press performed during it. About journalists in the run-up to the Iraq war, he said it’s not that they didn’t believe what they were reporting, but reported it anyway. Rather: “They were too trusting of their sources. They maybe were too naive.” (That word again…)
* Throughout the interview, Todd repeatedly changed the term “disinformation” in Rolling Stone’s questions to “misinformation” in his answers, as if United States Senators were just poorly informed and not actively and deliberately misleading the public. (Thus he continued to perform his naiveté while simultaneously calling himself out for it, a weird combo.)
* In a crucial error of omission, he said nothing about what he or his show would do to change course— other than broadcast his Dec. 29th special on the problem of misinformation.
* And to cap it off, he said of Republican operatives and office holders. “I think we all made the mistake of not following Toni Morrison’s advice, which is when people tell you who they are, believe them.” (Fact check: It was Maya Angelou who said this, not Toni Morrison.)
What to make of this performance?
It’s not naive of him. It’s malpractice. Chuck Todd’s entire brand is based on the claim that he understands politics. Since 2007 he has been NBC’s political director, which means he has influence over all coverage. He is literally the in-house expert on the subject. You don’t get to claim you are naive about politics when you have these kinds of positions. It would be like a chief risk officer saying, “I didn’t understand the gamble we were taking.” Well, that’s your job.
It’s not that he was naive. He did not care to listen. I am going to use my own writing to show what I mean, but there are many others who could be quoted in similar fashion. On January 22, 2017, two days after Trump was inaugurated, I wrote about Sean Spicer’s crowd size spectacular. There are several audiences for it, I said. One of course was the press. For them the message was…
We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!
Another message went to core supporters:
To the core Trump constituency — and an audience primed for this over years of acrid ‘liberal media’ critique — two things were said. “We’re going to rough these people up.” (Because we know how long you have waited for that.) But also, and in return, you have to accept our “alternative facts” even if your own eyes tell you otherwise. This too is a stark message. The epistemological “price” for being a solider in Trump’s army is high. You have to swallow, repeat and defend things that simply don’t check out.
That disinformation was going to overtake Republican politics was discoverable years before Chuck Todd discovered it. That attacks on the press were baked into Trump’s political style was knowable from 2015 on.
It’s not naiveté. It’s a willful blindness to what the Republican Party had become. Four years before Trump was elected, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote, “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 as NBC’s political director, and Meet the Press as its premiere politics show could have taken seriously what these exemplary members of the Washington establishment were saying back in 2012. They chose not to, but not because of their naiveté. They thought they knew better than Mann and Ornstein. And they were probably afraid of sounding too extreme themselves.
He’s not naive. He’s an insider who thought his read was better. You can smell on his Christmas eve confessions the regrets of the insider who thought he knew these people well because he broke bread with them, rang them up for off-the-record conversations, and enjoyed the kind of green room bonhomie that says, “sure, we have different roles, but we’re all part of the same industry called Washington.” He thought he could predict what a Ted Cruz would do because he has behind-the-scenes knowledge. Naiveté is not a good word for that. He thought himself savvier than the rest of us. I was not at all shocked that Senator Cruz took the party line on Ukraine interfering in 2016. Were you? Todd was because he had miseducated himself.
It’s not naive. It’s a lack of imagination, a failure of insight. The practices common to political journalism have premises to them. When the premises shatter, the practices make less sense. This has been the central problem of covering the Trump movement since 2015. (I wrote about it here.) A simple example is fact-checking. One of its premises is that candidates and office-holders can be shamed into staying roughly within factual bounds. A president who has no sense of shame “breaks” the practice by busting the premise. Doesn’t mean you stop fact-checking. But you do have to alter your expectations, and start thinking about alternatives.
A key premise for Meet the Press is symmetry between the two major political parties. The whole show is built on that. But in the information sphere — the subject of Chuck Todd’s confessions — asymmetry has taken command. The right wing ecosystem for news does not operate like the rest of the country’s news system. And increasingly conservative politics is getting sucked into conservative media. It makes more sense to see Fox News and the Trump White House as two parts of the same organism. As these trends grind on they put stress on Meet the Press practices. But it takes imagination to see how the show might be affected— or changed. In place of that we have Chuck Todd pleading naiveté.
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 air to do just that? If so, then you break faith with the audience and create 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. As I have tried to show, they didn’t arrive here through acts of naiveté, but by willful blindness, malpractice among the experts in charge, an insider’s mentality, a listening breakdown, a failure of imagination, and sheer disbelief that the world could have changed so much upon people paid so well to understand it.