Meet The Press is the longest running show on television, so when it came to deciding one of the initial people to “break bread” with post-relaunch – after renewing our vows to truly great content – the show’s host Chuck Todd was a first choice of mine. The thing about Chuck is he doesn’t like talking politics at the dinner table: That didn’t stop me from sitting him down at Donald Trump’s table at the 21 Club (seriously, regulars have their tables, they show you a map) to juggle napkins, compare broccoli to content, and discuss the differences between being biased and simply calling out bad character. Todd’s an umpire calling balls and strikes rather than a player competing, so we considered him the perfect dinner companion…
Laura Kosann: From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Chuck Todd: Ultimately I would usually rather be cooking it. My favorite breakfast that I make for special occasions is sausage gravy over biscuits and scrambled eggs. For lunch I would go down to Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. I would want an appetizer amount of the stone crab and their fried chicken: They make great fried chicken. That would be the perfect lunch. Then, I’m a total carnivore, so dinner would have to be just a big old boneless rib eye, very fatty. Not to say that I would eat any of this anymore, like all of this would be once a year.
LK: Right because now you tell us you’ve gone gluten-free…
CT: Yeah, yeah.
LK: You don’t want anybody knowing about that?
CT: No, no! It’s funny, look, my wife wanted to do this. She read, full disclosure, an article about a Jayson Werth, who is a baseball player for the Nationals. He’s 37, so in baseball years that’s ancient. He talked about how he went gluten-free this year, over the off-season, and he feels better. So, we had already been on our own fitness kick. Then my wife said, “I want to try gluten-free” and I’m like ‘all right.’ Maybe it is psychosomatic, but it does feel as if you don’t have that too full feeling. I don’t miss much, but I miss good bread. That I’ll admit.
LK: Do politicians have a responsibility as public figures to be healthy?
CT: I think a politician is going to get judged all the time; so give people fewer things to judge you on. I do think whether you like it or not, as an elected official, you’re a role model. You’re a role model for everyone. And I don’t like this tendency we’re in now when a lot of famous people say “We shouldn’t expect so and so to be a role model,” because previous ones have all let us down. I do think there is some responsibility.
When it comes to the food police everything should be in moderation. Let’s not overly judge people, or food shame them here. I do think that politicians should remember that at any moment, somebody is using their action as a rationale for their own action. If at least one person is doing that in your life, then you ought to be mindful of it.
LK: We have always believed that food is a type of entertainment. If you’re opening a restaurant, the curtain goes up and curtain goes down every day. When you do Meet the Press on Sundays, is that how you feel when you’re doing your show?
CT: I always hate referring to the news as a show, you know, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t want the implication being that our first responsibility is to entertain. That’s not our first responsibility. Now, do I believe in a spoon-full of sugar makes the medicine go down? Yes.
The way I would say it’s synonymous to the restaurant in that you could take the same meal, have it at home, and it would just be another meal. You do it at a restaurant with good service and a server that really sells you on how it was made and creates a whole presentation; it does add to the value of the meal. So in that sense, if we put on a show, and we have a very informative program, and we make it so that it’s also easy to watch, and it’s informative, well then that’s better stuff. If you’re given the same information in some pamphlet, it’s not going to be that interesting. So there is that line in my view of it, yes, we should entertain to a point, enough so that they want to be informed.
LK: In terms of media, obviously our world right now is saturated with so much content, short, fast, long, etc. What do you personally define as good content and how do you most often consume content?
CT: I would say everything is via my iPhone and iPad these days. Everything is either pushed to me via email or social media. The biggest change I’ve made in the last six months is that I have exponentially added a number of podcasts I listen to. It’s been to the detriment of magazines. You know, I used to read a Men’s Health every now and then or maybe a gadget magazine, and that stuff has just sort of faded. That’s why that industry is struggling.
LK: And what’s good content to you and what’s bad content to you?
CT: I’m an information junkie so there’s a part of me that has a certain set of expectations like “don’t waste my time.” Give me as much of the information, as fast as you can, as accurately as you can. There’s that set of expectations. That to me is one definition of what’s “good.” Can you give it to me succinctly, quickly, and save me some time? Then there’s a different type of good content, which is any time you feel like you’ve thought, “well I didn’t realize that and I should’ve realized that.” Like when you fill up on broccoli; it’s like wow I’m full and I’ve eaten food that’s good for me. I’ll feel that way after a Malcolm Gladwell podcast every now and then, or I’ll feel that way after reading a unique book, or listening to an interview on a topic I had no idea I was interested in, and then suddenly I realize I connect to that and it helps me think about something else in politics in a different way. Good content is when you make me question my thought process on a topic. That’s the kind of content I’m searching for that makes me think differently.
LK: What do you think about talking politics at the dinner table, and is it impossible to not talk politics at the dinner table right now?
CT: My whole goal is to have conversations that aren’t revolved around politics. My 10-year-old son, it’s really funny, he now is very aggressive in saying, “Can we have no politics?!”
LK: He’s 10?!
CT: He’s 10. He said the other day, “the only time I hear mommy yell anymore has something to do with politics.” Man, he hears everything, and it’s a reminder they hear everything.
It’s also always funny when I have the neighbor that’s like, “I know you’re tired of talking about this, but I gotta ask…”
LK: Kind of how you feel right now right…
CT: (Laughs) Here’s the thing, if I were them I’d do the same thing, so I try to have a good attitude about it. My inner voice says, if you’re tired of it, get out of the business. It’s part of your job, if you don’t accept it as part of your job, then don’t do it.
I at least try to turn it around, and say, “Well what do you think?” Because people will say, “Oh my god, well what do you think of this election?” I’ll say “well ultimately, your opinion is as important as mine, because your vote weighs the same, so you tell me. What do you hear? Where did you grow up? Where are you from?” As soon as I start talking politics I always want to know, what are the environmental biases? When I say environmental biases, what is the environment with which they live now, and the environment with which they grew up? You could tell me those two things, and 8 or 9 times out of 10 I could tell you a lot about them: their politics, or at least what’s influenced their politics over a generation.
LK: Does the current landscape make what you do more or less enjoyable?
CT: Look, it’s not a lot of fun. It’s not fun to be in this constant antagonistic relationship that we’re in. I’ll put it another way, nobody enjoys being lied to, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than having to confront somebody who has lied to you. So, I don’t enjoy being lied to in my job, and I don’t enjoy having to expose somebody and ask “Why’d you mislead me on this, why’d you mislead us on that?” We’re all spending too much time, having to fact check. We’re so caught up in it, rightfully as we should be, but it’s taking away from our ability to report on some of the bigger stories, and that’s frustrating.
You’re dealing with some folks who are constantly trying to game out everything, so they view all of their interactions, well sometimes, it feels as if they view it as a game. And it’s like: We’re not playing a game. You may think we are, we’re really not playing a game. We have a job, and we’re trying to do our job, and you’re making our job more difficult. You’re making us more uncomfortable, and then you’re wondering, why don’t we have a better relationship with the press? I say it this way; part of it is we don’t get a straight story. If we can get a straight story, your relationships are going to be better. Just think about it: in any human interaction, you don’t enjoy interacting with people who’ve misled you. And guess what, journalists are human beings, and so you’re going to have an antagonistic relationship with anybody you mislead.
Politicians should remember that at any moment, somebody is using their action as a rationale for their own action.
CT (cont.): So I worry about this right? You have a human reaction, “well they’re misleading me” so you’re going be a little more antagonistic. You’re going be a little more skeptical of anything they say, and then the audience is like “you’re just biased.” And as a journalist, you’re like, “I’ve come about this skeptical bias, in a way, from doing my job.”
That’s where we’re in this bad, vicious cycle here with the relationship with the press and this White House because they’re screaming “Bias!” A couple of times we’ve caught them misleading us. I am careful to say the world lie. Lie implies motive, and so at the end of the day I can’t crawl into somebody’s head and know for sure that they were intentionally not telling me the truth. Perhaps someone told them, “mislead them,” and therefore they mislead us. But it doesn’t matter why they’re misleading us. Over time, I think that takes a toll on a human relationship.
LK: Do you feel like you’re opinionated in your job or do you stay neutral?
CT: No, I don’t feel that way. I feel like I never trust my opinion. And that’s hard, that’s hard here a little bit because it’s been hard when it’s about character. Because to me character is not ideological, right? I think my job is to be fair; my job is to be like an umpire, calling balls and strikes. So is that an opinion? I’m laying it out as a fact. It is my opinion that politicians should accept the idea that they’re role models and accept the idea that character counts. That’s been the frustrating thing, because how do you even define bias? If I’m critical because I think this shouldn’t be done, you don’t speak this way, you don’t talk that way, and you don’t turn the Boy Scouts into a political event. You just don’t do that. Is there a rule that says you don’t do it? No. But, it’s like; none of us were brought up that way. There are certain places you don’t introduce controversial topics, and in front of a group of kids? You don’t do it.
The idea that if you criticize that, that automatically makes you anti-ideology? No. We’ve got to be able to separate character. There are too many people that have conflated character, politics, and bias into one thing. It’s turned into a toxic mess. It’s a toxic stew that has created this political mess.
LK: What does it feel like, like being on Twitter, with the president tweeting at you, calling you names, like we’re on a school playground?
CT: I think at the end of the day, my 10 year old is watching my actions. My 10-year-old son very much can be mini-me sometimes. And that’s what I think about. So, he calls me names? I never respond. I never directly respond. Every once and a while I’ll subtweet. I fully have done that a few times. But I have never directly responded to him because I don’t want to be the story. When we’re the story, that’s a distraction. It’s not fair to the voter, to the viewer. I’m here to tell you about what this person is doing that impacts your life. I’m the referee that’s helping facilitate the conversation. You may get mad at me very once in a while, you may think Geez, I thought that pitch was a strike not a ball. We can agree to disagree; you can send me that complaint, that’s fine. I can explain to you why I thought it was a strike. We can have that conversation. But that’s all I’m trying to do here at the end of the day, and I think that should be what it is.
I understand that press in general; it’s all been conflated a little bit because the viewer doesn’t see the lines that we’ve drawn between news and opinion. The viewer doesn’t see it as easily as we do, and you can say that’s more on us than on them. And that’s something I think we always have to fight to clarify.
LK: Is there anyone you haven’t gotten to interview that you really wanted to interview?
CT: I really want to put Joe Biden on an on the record interview for 5 hours. I want to do the audio history of that guy’s entire political career. That guy could tell a story.
LK: Unrelated to politics, who is the one person you’d want to sit down to dinner with and what would you eat?
CT: Ah, I am not prepared to answer this question. I guess I’d want to have dinner with the Rock before he announces his presidential candidacy. Uhhh, I don’t know I don’t have a good one for ya.
LK: And I feel like you’ve probably never been asked this question, if you could sum up the current administration in a dinner dish, what would that dinner dish be?
CT: It would probably be a soufflé. There’s a lot of hot air.
There will be the first-ever Meet The Press Film Festival in Collaboration With the American Film Institute come November. Get the details here.
*Chuck Todd, photographed at 21 Club in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann