Chuck Todd has had a front-row seat for the spread of disinformation while hosting NBC’s Meet the Press. Whether it was Kellyanne Conway using the phrase “alternative facts” to dispute media reports about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) blatantly using Russian talking points to blame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 election, or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spreading Russian conspiracy theories, Todd has seen it all. I spoke with Todd about this erosion of truth ahead of an upcoming Dec. 29th special edition of Meet the Press that will focus on journalism and the weaponization of disinformation, and feature guests such as Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post; Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times; The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen; and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
Rolling Stone: What made you decide to devote an entire show to the topic of disinformation and fake news?
Chuck Todd: For the last two or three years we’ve been pondering a social media special like this. Last year we focused on climate change. But had we not done climate change, we were in the social media world thinking about what it was doing to our politics. And then you realize it’s the misinformation. This is bigger than social media. The Ukraine story for me really crystallized it. And for good or bad, our show has been at the forefront of this. The first Sunday of the Trump administration is when the phrase, “alternative facts” was debuted. It was on Meet the Press Rudy that Giuliani used the phrase “Truth isn’t truth.” So look, whether we’d liked it or not, our platform has been used, or they’ve attempted to use our platform to essentially disseminate, or to sort of, what I would say, is lay the groundwork for this.
And it’s clearly an epidemic. And I think that even if a special like this is only seen by people who already believe we have a problem, it is a reminder. I’m a big supporter of something called the News Literacy Project. My fear is the next news consumers: How will they know truth from fiction? How will they have the tools to discern from this?
I think our biggest problem going into 2020 is that we have two sets of standards simply on political advertising. If you choose to advertise on cable or television, on linear television, there’s a certain set of standards on fact that you have to surpass in order to get your ad on television. Not the case on social media. And we have seen the Trump campaign literally use two different ads — one that allows them to say their misinformation about Biden in the areas that they can. So part of this is putting it all in one place as almost as an educational exercise, if you will, to show we have a systemic issue here.
Let me bring you back a little bit. Were you surprised by the consistency that the Trump administration was willing to spread disinformation with Sean Spicer’s initial press briefing when he lied about the crowd size at the inauguration? Were you surprised that the president and other administration officials and their allies just kept it going?
I fully admit, listening to you ask that question now, and me giving you the honest answer of, yeah, I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight. Donald Trump’s entire life has been spent using misinformation. His entire life. I’ve spent years studying him now on trying to figure out how did this guy even learn politics? Where did he learn?
And the more you learn, you realize he learned at the feet of a master of deception in Roy Cohn, who learned at the feet of the original master of deception of sort of the modern political era in Joe McCarthy. So I mean, look, if people want to read my answer to your question, “Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.” Yeah, it looks pretty naive. I think we all made the mistake of not following Toni Morrison’s advice, which is when people tell you who they are, believe them. (Ed note: Maya Angelou is the author of this quote.)
In your recent interview with Senator John Kennedy, he used Russian talking points to defend Trump. Somehow, he gets that disinformation from Russia. Why do you think Republicans are willing to come on your show and run that exact line?
The fact is, and by the way, this isn’t going to be easy to show, but I actually think when we outline this it will, the right has an incentive structure to utter the misinformation. Look, I’ll just be honest, when I had the third senator [to spread Russian disinformation], Senator Ted Cruz, come on my show and do this — who I did not expect to do this — I started to think, he wants the confrontation. He wants to use this for some sort of appeasement of the right.
I didn’t know what else to think. I was stunned because he’s a Russia hawk. He spent the entire week showcasing his hawkishness on Russia. Threatening the administration on the pipeline in Germany and really be there. So the reason I, and I’m sorry I ever showed an expression, the reason that the expression on my face went viral, I think, I was genuinely shocked. And by the way, they came to us. They came to us saying they wanted to come on this week. And I really naively thought, maybe he wants to remind people that with Russia [and blaming Ukraine] this is getting ridiculous. And it turned out not to be the case.
So I do think one of the things that I want to explore on this is the incentive structure. One of the things we don’t fully appreciate in mainstream media on these attacks is that it’s become fun to attack the press, if that makes sense, on the right. It doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong, attack them anyway.
This is, to me, the greater challenge we have, which is that pretending the media is a liar or fake news and all this stuff, is sport. Trump has turned this into sport. People that are the loudest chanters of fake news and accusatory of us are the ones who, under a lie detector, would probably take our word over any word they’ve heard from the other side on whether something was poisonous or not. Hannity says drink it, and so-and-so says don’t. Who do you trust? So I do think that is something that this sort of cheering on falsehoods for sport. Wow, have we gone off the rails on the right side of the conversation that’s taking place.
What surprises me most is the lack of fear of being called out as unpatriotic.
Yeah, I know. You would think it would. That’s why I was like, “I don’t understand.” You hit on something. Look, I’m checking ourselves all the time. I’m like, “All right. I don’t assume I’m 100 percent right ever.” I don’t get why so many people are comfortable uttering stuff that they may know will look ridiculous in three or four years. It might get them through three or four months. And maybe this is just about getting through a primary, or whatever it is.
Look, the Iraq War, in the aftermath, discredited enough politicians and enough media. I assume that when all this, in the Trump era, and this is to me how I think we in the press will get judged, it will be in about five or six years in the rearview mirror. How did we cover it in the moment? Were we honest in the moment?
It turned out that the previous generation of national reporters missed the story in the moment. I’m not saying they were dishonest in the moment. They were too trusting of their sources. They maybe were too naive. I don’t think it was active disinformation, if you will. It was probably more feeling patriotic pressure that was coming down on them. Whatever motive it was, it just turned out they let it influence how they reported. Maybe the tone of the reporting in particular. I think we’re going to have another reckoning when this post-Trump era truly works itself out of our system.