JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
Chuck Todd prepares for his next act
The outgoing 'Meet the Press' host on the state of journalism, the Trump era, rising antisemitism and the long-form documentary projects he's pitching
Chuck Todd has felt a sense of relief since he announced on Sunday that he would step down from NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the long-running Sunday news show he has anchored for nearly a decade.
“It’s a spotlight that can have a glare to it, and I think there’s only so much time anybody can do it and handle it,” he said in a phone interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “I didn’t want to get to the point where I was too jaded or cynical, and I was getting close. I’ll admit it.”
But there were also more personal reasons for his decision, including the recent deaths of two close friends, which “really rattled me,” he explained. “I lost my father when he was 40 and I was 16,” he said. “My son, my youngest, he’s 16 right now. I’ve seen people die doing this work.”
“I still have a lot of ambition. I still want to be a part of the solution and what’s wrong with media consumption and journalism in the 21st century,” Todd, a veteran Washington journalist, told JI. “But I think there are other places I can do that.”
Todd will be succeeded by Kristen Welker, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, in September. While he will continue at NBC as chief political analyst, Todd said he will also be turning his attention to more creative efforts, citing two TV documentary projects he is now “in the middle of pitching.”
In conversation with JI, Todd, 51, elaborated on those plans while reflecting on his tenure at “Meet the Press,” which has overlapped with three presidential administrations. Even if he has yet to interview President Joe Biden, the outgoing NBC moderator said he remains hopeful about landing a sit-down before he leaves. “There’s still time,” he said.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jewish Insider: How have you been feeling since the announcement?
Chuck Todd: Personally, I’ve been feeling really good. I feel both a sense of accomplishment and, at the same time, a sense of relief. Because it’s a spotlight that can have a glare to it, and I think there’s only so much time anybody can do it and handle it. I didn’t want to get to the point where I was too jaded or cynical, and I was getting close. I’ll admit it. I already feel intellectually refreshed. I feel like I’ve made a bunch of the changes that needed to be made, and it was sort of like, OK, now let’s solidify, and in some ways, the best way to solidify it is to transition. And I think, especially because it’s Kristen, I had always — the last couple of years, to be frank — viewed her as the person who might be best prepared to do this, and I think it’s pretty clear she is.
JI: You advocated for her to succeed you?
JI: You’ve been in the role for nearly a decade. Did that motivate your decision to step down?
Todd: It’ll be nine years when I finish. It’ll be literally a full nine years. As I say, if you believe in term limits, it’s one year longer than two presidential terms, which feels appropriate. It feels about right. It does. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I had lost two people very close to me in the last nine months. Probably my two closest friends, to be frank. One was fairly recent, somebody I’d worked with for 30 years at every job I had or he had, we were together. In fact, I acknowledged him on the show about a month or so ago after he passed away. That really rattled me. He and I had kids the same age. His kids were a couple years older. He and his wife were just about to take the next chapter. The next great chapter. His last kid was in college. This was Vaughn Ververs. And he’s gone. I lost my father when he was 40 and I was 16. My son, my youngest, he’s 16 right now. I’ve seen people die doing this work.
JI: It’s not the healthiest profession.
Todd: No, and I still have a lot of ambition. I still want to be a part of the solution and what’s wrong with media consumption and journalism in the 21st century, reshaping and all this stuff. But I think there are other places I can do that. And what was great was I didn’t know how NBC was going to feel about this, and I think they really were a little nervous about me leaving leaving, so I’m in a great position. I viewed Tom Brokaw as a model of how to do this, and I tried to follow that model. Now I want to help coach; I want to be behind the scenes a little bit. I’ll still dabble in front of the camera. But in some ways, there’s only a certain amount of time I think anybody has on the frontlines if you want to stay credible, if you want to stay, I think, whole in yourself, to be frank.
JI: So there wasn’t any pressure from executive leadership at NBC?
Todd: I didn’t feel it, but, you know, maybe there was. I mean, I’m also self-aware. I certainly wanted to do this before somebody told me I should do this. How’s that?
JI: You mentioned in your announcement that you’ll be working on producing some docuseries and docudramas. Could you elaborate on those projects?
Todd: I’ve got two that I’m in the middle of pitching now and I’ve had a couple others in the works. I don’t want to say what they are. This is something I’ve been dabbling in for the last couple of years. I got something bought and then everything was going well and then all of a sudden the streamer changed direction in what they wanted and we were one of the victims. I’m learning this world and all this stuff. But all of it that I’m getting involved with is in service of what I think is, we need to help — you cannot assume people get educated about today’s news just through news streams, whether there’s a newscast, whether it’s a Twitter feed, whether it’s a podcast. Sometimes people learn about authoritarianism through docudrama.
One of my favorite examples is “Chernobyl.” I don’t know how many people would have read the book. This was all based on amazing material that the Ukrainian government released to the public. They turned it into a docudrama, and they told you exactly how they changed things. To me it was like, here’s this incredible education that the world needed about what happened at Chernobyl, but you can deliver it multiple ways so that you have as many people learn about it as possible. And if that is through a docudrama, then do it; if it’s through satire, do it; if it’s through a straight-up news report, do that, too. I’m not losing focus on what I want to do. I’m just going to try different platforms to do it.
I’ve always said the basic form of journalism is education. What is our job? We’re educating our viewers. I always viewed myself that way, and I didn’t fully appreciate it until I started at “Meet the Press,” because the number one reason people say they watch a Sunday show is to be educated. They didn’t say it was to be informed; they literally said the words educated. They’re like, ‘Hey, I want to keep up,’ ‘I’m trying to keep up with the news,’ or ‘I want to be able to talk at work,’ or ‘I’ve got a certain interest in X,’ whatever it is. But it was a real sort of, ‘Hey, let’s remember what we do for a living.’ At a minimum, we’re in the education business, and there’s plenty of ways to educate people.
JI: Is there anything you can broadly reveal about the subjects of the two projects you’re pitching now?
Todd: One has to do with international elections, sort of tracking democracy versus authoritarianism around the world, and doing so in a compelling way — like, it’s on the ground with these local campaigns. I think in some ways, if Americans see what’s happening in other fledgling democracies, it can be a learning experience. Sometimes it’s easier to see it if you see it somewhere else. You go, ‘Oh, that looks familiar.’ That’s a quick synopsis of one example. But then there’s other things. Like, we know so little about what happened during Reconstruction.
I think there are good ways to tell stories of important times in history, and you can grab an event to do it. So if you use a presidential assassination as a hook — because people like a true crime story — while you’re learning about Garfield, you might learn more about what the hell happened with Reconstruction. I haven’t said I even sold that, but I’m giving you an example of what I think is possible out there, which is, how do you put some sugar with the broccoli of history? If you don’t understand what happened during Reconstruction, you don’t understand race relations today. That is one of my theories, and if you can find ways to tell good stories, I always say, who needs to make stuff up? What has happened is fascinating enough, so tell the real stories and maybe somebody will learn something about it.
That gives you an idea of where my head is at. I dabbled in this with the Meet the Press Film Festival. That was sort of the point of it. I think documentaries are the new books in that, what books were in the 19th and 20th century for people, today it’s documentaries, it’s podcast serials. In many ways, what’s replaced the 20,000-word magazine article? Not to say they don’t exist anymore.
JI: Tim Alberta’s recent Atlantic piece on Chris Licht might prove that wrong.
Todd: Well, did he or didn’t he? I’ve always said that audience is much smaller than you think, when you write about media. There’s a reason there’s not a lot of books about media, because they don’t sell. It’s the same group of people who read them. But my point is, what we see now, I think podcasts have replaced the big magazine piece, in many ways, and we’re seeing that in the way people consume history books and current events. I mean, look how much faster we seem to go from ‘something major happened, let’s make a docudrama out of it.’ But I think we ought to do that more for our current history a little bit better. I think we’ve all realized how much we’ve all lacked in our history education collectively as a society.
JI: Somewhat tangentially, I’m thinking back on some of the memorable moments from your tenure on ‘Meet the Press.’ The line about ‘alternative facts’ from Kellyanne Conway is one that stands out in particular. Is there anything you have in mind?
Todd: I think ‘alternative facts’ will be something that’s always connected to me and that show and to Kellyanne Conway, because it became definitional. I think what made that moment, in hindsight, so important is it was definitional on sort of the new world we now are having to deal with — which is, now there’s a whole ecosystem that is devoted to an alternative set of facts. There’s an entire ecosystem devoted to questioning reality — and, as we found out, there’s a market for it. It wouldn’t be out there if there wasn’t a market for it.
JI: You haven’t interviewed Biden since he became president.
Todd: I haven’t yet. There’s still time.
JI: Are you optimistic?
Todd: I have no idea. President Biden has promised me an interview multiple times, so I look forward to it, and I’ll just leave it at that.
JI: Maybe he’ll do you a solid now that you’re about to leave.
Todd: We’ll see. Who knows. I have a feeling the decision is in a lot of people’s hands.
JI: Like many of your colleagues in the news media, you were frequently subject to personal attacks from former President Donald Trump while he was in office. How do you view the level of vitriol now — not only directed at you but more broadly?
Todd: It’s a distraction. The laziest criticism on social media is blaming the media. There’s nothing lazier, dumber and more uninformed than trying to blame the media for whatever X issue there is. The issue isn’t the media; the issue is the people doing the stuff. There are some members of the media who cover that stuff well; there are some members of the media who cover it poorly. But this is not the ‘media’s fault.’ Many people who criticize were hoping that I would somehow be biased and get angry that I wasn’t somehow advocating or being an activist and all of this stuff. In this job, I don’t think activism works, and it shouldn’t. The whole point, I think, of a good Sunday show is you’re trying to explain what is happening. Why is it happening, why are they making these decisions, can you explain yourself? But you have to cover the world as it is. You have to cover the Congress that you have, not the Congress that you want. If you want to cover the Congress that you want, join an editorial board or start writing a column.
And look, I get it. People were frustrated, people were angry, so it’s always, ‘let’s shoot the messenger.’ But what I’ve learned over this is that most of the criticism I get says more about the person leveling the critique than anything about me. It’s always in the form of their own biases. I think my former EP put it well. He said, ‘The right thought you were biased to the left and the left thought you were a traitor and belonged on Fox,’ or whatever it was. The point was, it was simply because I was covering politics as it is. I was covering what’s happening, not pretending something else mattered more.
A good journalist shouldn’t care if they’re popular. The worst thing to happen to journalism is when you combine an incentive structure that makes popularity part of the job. I think the dumbest thing that every news organization does is put up a ‘most read’ list or ‘most clicked-on’ list. Why are you doing that? You’re basically outsourcing your own editorial judgment to the masses? Like, let somebody else do that, that’s fine. You want to provide those statistics, that’s fine. But you’re featuring it? And then what happens, you see it with op-eds, at editorial boards, and you watch it — a topic ends up number one most read, and then all of a sudden, five different people write the same column or some form of it. Why? Traffic.
So, I do think that we have really screwed up incentive structures, and because activists masquerading as journalists have gotten a following, there’s some sort of distorted reality of what journalism should be. And look, I’m aware of the business. The business is changing rapidly and is going to continue to change rapidly.
JI: That did cross my mind.
Todd: But it’s like, think about the outlet you work for. Could it even have existed 30 years ago on a daily basis? The answer is no. So on one hand, it’s terrific, right? You’ve been able to do something that the barrier to entry 30 years ago would have been impossible. But I’m sure you guys get grief all the time because you either don’t say this about Israel or you don’t say that about Israel. You want to talk about a taste of polarization? Let’s put it this way, nobody is dispassionate about their opinion of Israel. There’s no dispassionate analysis of it that gets tolerated.
JI: You can’t write anything about Israel, it seems, without drawing some sort of criticism.
Todd: Right, and it’s like, that’s the nature of the politics.
JI: With the rise of antisemitism we’ve seen recently —
Todd: Boy, can I just tell you, if you’d have told me when I took this job in 2014 that among the nastiest things I would get would have to do with me being Jewish, I would have said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a 20th-century mindset. What are you talking about?’ I never would have believed that in 2014, and I will say everything changed once the Trump era began. The amount of antisemitic attacks that I personally received, that my family received — I stopped counting. But it’s astonishing. We swept all this stuff — we swept antisemitism, we swept racism, we all wanted to believe, ‘Oh, it’s just a fringe that still thinks these things,’ and I still want to believe that it’s still not a majority that thinks these things. But that fringe turned out to be a lot bigger than we thought.
JI: Have the attacks given you a sharper sense of your own Jewish identity?
Todd: I think it gives me a better perspective at what happens to the otherizing of people. And I think a lot of Jewish people would like to think, ‘Hey, we’ve always had that.’ But you have to in some way see it and experience it at the same time. And watching what’s happening, in many ways, to the marginalizing — we’re trying to otherize people on gender or they’re trying to otherize people on some other things — that’s where I think, ‘sharpen’ is a nice way of putting it; it sort of sharpened my view of how to cover these stories.
JI: Does that relate to your desire, as you suggested earlier, to provide more background on Reconstruction and how it ties into the present?
Todd: Right. We’ve got to understand our own history and our own sort of evolution here. I think we all struggle, and this gets to one of the things that has divided left and right — which is, how do we deal with our founders? How do we deal with the first 150 years of this country? We’re arguably getting up to close to 60 years of being a multiethnic democracy. Have we really only been a democracy for 60 years? I think that’s a healthy debate for scholars to have and academics to have, and it certainly roils left versus right a little bit. But everybody needs nuance. There’s a little bit of an attempt to go one way or the other, and it’s sort of like, every era has flaws, and sometimes you’re not aware of what those flaws are for 50 years. Sometimes it takes 200 years.
When I was putting together what I was doing with Garfield, I got really into this book about the history of Washington, D.C., and the brief period it had home rule in the late 1860s. It got taken away. Essentially, Grant appointed developers to an oversight board that basically took over the entire development. But, D.C. had a Black mayor — in the 1860s. It’s astonishing how close we got to the 1965 moment back in 1866 and 1868 and 1870, and how elusive it turned out to be. You want to talk about the ultimate what if? What if Reconstruction stuck? What if Reconstruction had held?
The point is, the more people are educated about what happened, basically, in the period between 1880 and 1930 and the rise of Jim Crow and the whole antebellum movement and all of that — these are things that we’ve memory-holed away as a society. We don’t like teaching it because it’s bad news. It’s where we sort of went off on the wrong track. We did good things. We helped Europe, and the Industrial Revolution was a positive. But thinking about my own education, we memory-hole the bad stuff.
JI: It sounds like a more front-facing interest in history for you.
Todd: Look at how often some big breaking-news event needs some historical context to make you understand it better. That is what I feel like the Trump era shined a light on. It goes back to Francis Fukuyama, who right after the fall of the Berlin Wall wrote the infamous essay The End of History — this idea that, OK, we’re never going to fight a war again, we’ve matured as a civilization, whatever it is. And I feel like, unfortunately, we did spend the ’90s and the first decade of the aughts deciding that this is a new era and everything that happened pre-1989 doesn’t matter anymore. How wrong that ended up being, obviously.
JI: Looking ahead, what kind of themes are you expecting to explore as we head into the presidential election?
Todd: I’m obsessed with all of these voters who tell us they don’t want Biden and Trump. What are they going to do when there’s Biden and Trump? And one of the things I know that NBC wants me to do is, essentially, go have this conversation around the country. For many people, it’s going to be the ultimate test of the lesser-of-two-evils mindset that we’ve often used to describe our presidential politics. It feels like this is the most glaring example we’ve ever exhibited yet. It’s funny, I always thought that Gore-Bush was the election that nobody realized mattered, until it did. Until after the election happened, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this one matters.’ But people had no view of either guy. Neither guy seemed threatening enough or galvanizing enough to make you either fall in love or fall in hate. So in some ways, we came to a tie almost by shrugging our shoulders. That’s not going to be the 2024 election. No one’s going to be shrugging their shoulders.
The other thing is — and I don’t know how we fix this problem — but we are starting to have a divide that, when it happens in other countries, that divide is the end of democracy, and that is this massive, rural, urban divide. You know, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is the most unpopular in Istanbul; his power base is all outside the major cities. Hugo Chavez — all of his power base was outside of Caracas. That is something that I don’t think Americans fully realize, but we are behaving like other democracies that ended up having authoritarian figures get power and hold power — and it’s having that power over the rural vote. That’s another thing that I’d love to see us as a news division tackle more.
I think it’s a fair critique that a lot of news organizations aren’t. We show up in rural America when there’s a disaster, manmade or natural. We’re not there on a day-to-day basis, and I understand why. Where’s all the industry happening? There’s there’s certainly rational reasons why we devote as much time as we do to the other area. But we’ve got to have, particularly in political years, some understanding of why there is so much distrust between rural and the rest of America.
JI: Does that approach mean you’ll potentially be acting more as a kind of roving correspondent going forward?
Todd: I certainly would enjoy doing that. I think there’s a little bit of that. I’ve always said that the job of “Meet The Press” is to explain Washington to America and America to Washington. I look forward to getting back out in America.