Chuck Todd on Journalism's Long Road Back to Win Public Trust

"Meet the Press" moderator discusses the challenges of political reporting

Chuck Todd and Bill Adair shared stories illustrating the struggles of modern political journalism. Photos by Colin Huth.
Chuck Todd and Bill Adair shared stories illustrating the struggles of modern political journalism. Photos by Colin Huth.

As personal attacks and distrust rise against the media, journalists must commit to thorough reporting, transparency and dispassionate coverage, "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd said Monday.

This work is urgent, the NBC News political director stressed. “Every day I think about the crisis of 40 percent of the country thinking I am making something up,” Todd told a sizable crowd at Penn Pavilion.

Todd came to Duke for the 2019 Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Media, hosted by the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

Bill Adair, Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, interviewed Todd about the struggles of modern political journalism, from navigating a relationship with a president who both attacks and, Todd said, seeks “elusive gratification” from the media to trying to convince more than a third of the country that is skeptical you are telling the truth.

 

A tough spot

Todd said figuring out where to set the dial on coverage of President Donald Trump, such as when to tune in or out of the president’s social media messaging, is “the hardest thing we’re dealing with.”

“We simultaneously overreact and under-react to Trump on a daily basis,” he said, pointing out the difficulty in determining what content -- from gossipy presidential tweets to updates on the special counsel investigation into 2016 election interference -- matters most.

The president’s attacks on the media also put individual reporters in a difficult position, said Todd.

Todd, the target of more than 20 negative Trump tweets, told the story of one moment when he was in the president’s crosshairs. He said he was eating a burger at a restaurant on a Saturday when his daughter scrolled through social media and told him the president had called him a “son of a b****.”

Todd said he does his best to react by compartmentalizing the vulgar comment and dissociating his emotions when at work. It is important to call out Trump’s hostility, he said, but observed that personal responses can reinforce the narrative that the media is the “opposition party.”

“When I make a mistake, it’s going to have an impact on Jake Tapper at CNN, it’s going to have an impact on Chris Wallace at Fox … any error in the ‘mainstream media,’ we all pay the price,” he said.

 

The dawn of doubt 

Todd made clear that Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to bash the media. He traced the origins of today’s media distrust to the White House response to the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

“Richard Nixon’s political survival, for the longest time, was just bashing the press,” said Todd.

Todd said Roger Ailes, the late Fox News CEO, was next to recognize that criticism of the media resonated with the right and continued to chip away at the public’s confidence in journalists. 

It has not helped that the corporations that now own so many regional newspapers are having financial struggles, which has resulted in cutbacks in coverage in so many parts of the country. That has led to the “nationalization and coastalization” of news, which carries serious consequences.  

“We’ve culturally fallen out of touch with a big chunk of the country,” Todd said.

 

Mainstream downstream

It will take a while for the media to regain its footing, Todd said, but he believes that process is underway. NBC, he pointed out, has political reporters embedded within communities across America rather than waiting until the 2020 campaign really heats up.

He shared fears that Americans have become irreversibly numb to too-frequent “breaking news” alerts, but also offered hope in them, noting that because of Trump civic engagement and interest in journalism is actually expanding.

“Don’t underestimate America’s ability to snap back,” said Todd.

As for journalists, Todd marked the importance of getting everything right, being transparent, and “saying what you see,” rather than what you expect to see, as they work to earn back America’s confidence.

“It took us 40 years to lose the public trust; it’ll take us 40 more to gain it back,” Todd said.