Chuck Todd Urges Journalists to Fight Back

The “Meet the Press” host talked at GW about the Supreme Court nominee, the U.S. deputy attorney general and campaigns to discredit mainstream media.

Chuck Todd speaks at GWU
"Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd (l) answers questions from SMPA Director Frank Sesno. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
September 26, 2018

By B.L. Wilson (This article originally appeared on GW Today .)

Have a discussion on media, and the news is sure to intervene. Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” was slated to talk Monday at the George Washington University about the need for journalists to defend the legitimacy of their work in a democracy.

That subject — at least for several moments — took second billing to Washington, D.C.,’s focus on sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the potential firing or resignation of U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The setting was a conversation between Todd and School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno.

Students lined up outside the Dorothy Betts Theatre in the Marvin Center long before the start of the event, filling the auditorium to capacity. They were joined by GW President Thomas LeBlanc and members of SMPA’s National Council.

Dr. LeBlanc welcomed Todd as the NBC political director, the host of the most watched Sunday morning public affairs show and as a former GW student who lived in Thurston Hall and probably slept through a couple of courses “just like you.”

Reflecting on the maelstrom surrounding the Supreme Court nominee, Todd wondered how Kavanaugh would be able to maintain his impartiality after having undergone such a process.

“You know I think it is impossible for him to serve,” he said. “That doesn’t mean he won’t end up serving.”

With regard to revelations that Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, had considered secretly recording President Donald Trump, Todd, said he considered that “a fireable offense,” but he doesn’t expect it to impede Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Directing the conversation to the subject of the campaign against the media, Sesno tossed a question to the audience: “Anybody know who coined the term ‘alternative facts’ and where they did that?”

It was Kellyanne Conway, J.D. ’92, White House counselor to Trump, who first uttered the phrase, he said, and it came on “Meet the Press.” She was defending then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s contention of the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. A video showed an astounded Todd responding on the show that “alternative facts are not facts.”

“Some things you hear,” Todd told the audience, “I knew it was never going to away.”

A few months ago, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s attorneys, appeared on “Meet the Press” to explain that he wouldn’t advise the president to testify before the special counsel because “he would have to tell his version of the truth, not the truth. Truth isn’t true.”

Todd said he tried to give Giuliani an opportunity to rephrase what he said and that it was not intended as a “gotcha” moment. Contrary to those who perceive coverage of Trump as negative, Todd explained that this is what happens when you cover a “disruptive” president.

Modern attacks on the press can be traced back to the era of President Richard Nixon whose supporters attributed his downfall to a media biased against conservatives, according to Todd, who recently wrote about the campaign against the media in The Atlantic magazine. He pointed out that Rush Limbaugh and subsequently Fox News, which was run by Roger Ailes, a holdover from the Nixon era, accelerated those attacks.

“The irony is that the chief antagonist, the person who was essentially the strategist for this campaign to prove that the mainstream media was biased against conservatives was a political operative who ran a network in a biased way,” he said.

He said the mainstream media made the mistake of assuming that no one would believe those critics because they were obviously biased. He acknowledged that some cultural bias in the media and past mistakes such as the coverage of weapons of mass destruction in the Iraq war contributed to the problem.

In the Atlantic article Todd argued, “If journalists are going to defend the legitimacy of the work and the role it plays in sustaining democracy, we’re going to need to start fighting back.”

He explained to Sesno that means journalists will have to be more aggressive in reporting, more dispassionate and clinical in the work they do.

“I see my mission as translating Washington to America and America to Washington,” he said.