During a panel discussion on the October 7th 2012 edition of Meet The Press, Chuck Todd said the following during a conversation about the release of the September jobs numbers, which showed unemployment dropping to 7.8% and became grist for the conservative mill that somehow the numbers had been rigged to make the President look better:
Stop for a minute. This is really making me crazy. The Federal Reserve gets questioned for politics these days. We have corroded—what we’re doing, we are corroding trust in our government in our way. And one-time responsible people are doing to control it. And the idea that Donald Trump, Jack Welch, rich people with crazy conspiracies, can get traction on this is a bad trend.
This is what passes for media self-critique these days, but Chuck Todd's temper tantrum rang particularly hollow. Chuck Todd is not some passive observer of politics, some random blogger (like me) sitting in his home yelling at the "TV People" (as Chuck's former employer at the National Journal's Hotline used to sarcastically call chat-show pundits), he is the freaking White House Correspondent for NBC, he hosts an hour-long television program five days a week and appears on numerous other NBC "platforms" all-the-time. "Crazy conspiracies" get traction because people like Chuck Todd give them oxygen by reporting on them. Why Chuck Todd decided to draw this particular line in the sand was a bit of a head scratcher considering everything from "birtherism" to "death panels," "palling around with terrorists" to "Reverend Wright" all gained currency through their coverage in the mainstream media since President Obama hit the national stage in 2007-8.
While it would be nice if Todd's screed reflected some tipping point at which journalists would stop feeding the fire of conservative idiocy over supposedly skewed polls or tweaked unemployment numbers, the most recent issue of TIME exemplifies the "both sides do it" trope that journalists are more comfortable using. In a cover story entitled "Blue Truth, Red Truth" the magazine spends pages discussing how candidates bend the truth. Ironically, the first example they cite, a statement in an ad by President Obama that Mitt Romney "backed a bill outlawing 'all abortion even in cases of rape and incest'" is called untrue, because, according to the magazine, Romney has, since "becoming" pro-life in 2005, supported allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother; of course, had the fact checkers at TIME spent 30 seconds on Google, or 60 seconds watching The Rachel Maddow Show, they would know that Governor Romney appeared on Huckabee earlier this year and, when asked if he supported Mississippi's "personhood" amendment, which would grant rights to the unborn, Romney responded with one word "absolutely." By supporting personhood, you are, by definition, supporting a ban on all abortion. QED. So, if you're scoring at home, bastion of mainstream media TIME publishes an article about prevarications in politics and cites something as a lie that is actually true. And journalists wonder why faith in them is at historic lows.
Once upon a time, Mark Twain is credited as saying a lie is halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on, but that is no longer the case. In an information age where lies can literally be debunked within moments of coming out of a candidate's mouth, the reluctance of reporters like Todd to call lies for what they are is vexing. One explanation may be journalists' reflexive discomfort with the term, but at least to those of us "outside the Beltway" the answer is simpler. You see, calling a candidate a liar may impede that journalist's access to the candidate once in office, which, by extension, harms the media outlet that journalist works for. Therefore, it is not in that reporter's meta-self interest to be too pushy. The symbiotic relationship between politician and journalist is long-standing; however, the former is now able to push his/her narrative directly through the Web while the latter is not as beholden to access because of the tentacled nature of media conglomerates that own space in print, on TV and the Internet. Intuitively, that should make the connection weaker; but instead of making journalists more zealous in their fact checking, the decentralization of "messaging" has simply shifted the job to a combination of supposedly-neutral sites like PolitiFact and, wait for it, anonymous bloggers out in the Internet sifting through the mountains of YouTube videos, event transcripts and legislative records to suss out lies, leaving journalists to comment on the news instead of reporting on it.
If Chuck Todd and others of his ilk are worried about the erosion of trust people have in government and the media, events like the White House Correspondent's Dinner, where the Kabuki theater of politics is validated by hours of jokes about weapons of mass destruction (while soldiers were literally dying in Iraq) to the sight of David Gregory and Karl Rove "rapping" on stage, should be discontinued. If people thought journalism focused on serious issues instead of triviality, looked more like a profession that was skeptical of power instead of intoxicated by it, perhaps trust in the media would rise. Instead, what the "inside the Beltway" crowd looks like is nothing as much as a cast of characters out of professional wrestling - each serving their own purpose but working off the same script. When Republicans telegraph the charade of it all, as former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card did when, in discussing the "marketing" of the Iraq War, noted that you don't start a messaging campaign over the summer, red flags should have gone up instead of what we got, which was fealty to Administration talking points and bogus claims of smoking guns turned to mushroom clouds. George W. Bush's "fuzzy math" about tax cuts went largely unchallenged because Al Gore sighed at a debate and Ronald Reagan pumped apocryphal stories of "welfare queens" without shame.
And so it goes. If Chuck Todd wants to do his job better, no one is stopping him from doing it. He has a platform, a rather large one at that, to speak truth to power. Guests on his show should be challenged on the bogus information they spout and he should focus on issues that matter, utilizing objective information to call lies out for what they are, instead of leaning on the "one side said this, the other side said that" crutch while liberally sprinkling his reporting with nothing but horse race analysis of poll data. The sad thing is that Chuck Todd is probably one of the better informed reporters out there, but to see him both squander the access he so famously brags about in voice over as his car cruises I-395 into D.C. and to the White House and then have a hissy fit on national television when the chickens come home to roost broke my irony machine. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to Tweet this out and/or get blocked on Twitter by reporters who don't like "you people" calling them out for being lapdogs instead of journalistic bulldogs.