From SBD to ‘MTP’: Chuck Todd’s takes on sports, politics and media
“We are not the story. I’ve always believed we can’t be the story, and when we’re the story, we’ve done something wrong.”
Chuck Todd had a lot to say about the media, politics, sports and life on a warm January day, as rain clouds were giving way to blue skies throughout the nation’s capital.
The 45-year-old host of NBC’s “Meet The Press” and the network’s political director, Todd is one of the most recognizable names and faces in political journalism. But few know that in his early days in media, he had a short stint as assistant editor at SportsBusiness Daily, as the two of us worked with a staff of nine in a Victorian home in Alexandria, Va., when The Daily launched in 1994. Todd’s previous experience at the American Political Network helped us get started, and he later went back into political media where he has been a rising star, going from The Hotline to NBC News and now the vaunted Sunday chair of “Meet The Press.”
Sitting in his office on a Tuesday morning, I ask how difficult his job has become since President Donald Trump has made the media, and Todd, a target over the media’s veracity and transparency.
“It’s not easy,” he concedes, sitting at a desk cluttered with papers, issues of “The Week,” books on Trump and a “Drain the Swamp” unopened card game. “But journalists aren’t here to be popular. We’re here to do a job. So what if they attack you? If they’re attacking you, you must be doing something right.”
Our conversation came weeks before Trump specifically called out Todd at a rally in Pennsylvania, referring to him again as “Sleepy eyes” and adding, “He’s a sleeping son of a bitch, I’ll tell ya.”
Todd responded calmly publicly, saying, “You don’t speak ill of the sitting president.” That follows his tact of refusing to engage in a back and forth with the president.
“Is it really worth it? If you personalize it too much, you’ll tune people out. Then, he’s won. He’s accomplished what he’s trying to do: Get under your skin.”
Before moving on, Todd adds, “He keeps trying to draw the media into the arena. We’re there to call balls and strikes, and blow the whistle, to referee. We have to stick to our guns on that.”
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Todd, wearing a slim-fitting blue shirt with a red-dotted tie, blue slacks and black shoes, is leaner than I remember, the result of his daily three-mile run at 5:30 a.m. on his treadmill at his Virginia home. Tuesday is his slowest day of the week, coming off his only day off Monday, which he insists on spending with his wife and two children.
He is a workaholic who leads a pretty simple life. He doesn’t hit the Washington social circuit, barely drinks and is generally in bed by 9:30 p.m. He doesn’t sleep at all on Saturday night before anchoring “Meet The Press.”
His office fits the busy lifestyle of an information junkie. There are two computer monitors on his desk, four TVs along the office walls tuned to different news networks, Elvis Presley images line the walls, as does historical campaign paraphernalia, images from conventions and photos with mentors like Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.
He ignores his iPhone, which constantly pings with text messages, and avoids email, which he estimates come in at a pace of 200 an hour.
Instead, Todd talks about lessons in media, sports and how Trump has shaped opinions of the NFL, starting with his controversial speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Sept. 22.
“Trump was campaigning in Alabama, realized he was campaigning for a loser, Luther Strange, and figured, ‘I’ve got to give them something. Why not, I’ll throw the NFL in there.’ So Trump did, and everybody in the NFL lost: players, owners and fans. But Trump walks away unscathed. Owners and players are angry at him. The league overreacted to him. We, in the media, overreacted to him. Players overreacted to him. It became a story and gave him all this influence.”
Todd believes the NFL was ill-suited to handle such an aggressive attack because of its current environment.
“Trump was successful because the players and the owners don’t get along. Had that relationship been better, they could’ve said, ‘Wait a minute, we know what he’s doing here. He’s got a political problem and he’s using us to pave over it.’ But from Trump’s perspective, he won. If you don’t want him to have this influence, you have to suck it up and decide not to react.”
Leaning forward in his chair, Todd stresses, though, that the NFL has more problems than just Trump.
“Our surveys found that NFL fandom is down across the board. Not just with his base, but with the young, millennial male base, too. The NFL can’t just pin this on [Colin] Kaepernick, or older, middle-American NFL fans. Their problem is across the board.”
He feels the league is losing suburban America over the player health and safety issue, while urban America is concerned about the public’s response to player activism.
“Both are problems. I understand that it’s not easy to ignore him, but you have to figure out how to get beyond this. The NFL’s No. 1 issue right now is its relationship with its players. Trump was successful in exploiting the divisions that exist. The NFL, players and owners got to stop complaining about Trump.”
Todd credits the president’s skill in reading a situation and inserting himself in a story.
“He’s not that knowledgeable of a fan. But he knew the narrative was out there that the NFL has problems, he knew how to feed it, and he knows his base.”
And where did Trump first connect with his base? Todd points to Trump’s appearances in WWE events as the start of that connection.
“I’ve always thought his WWE connection really solidified him with his base. That is where he gained credibility with that crowd, and it’s the WWE base that is the same fan base disappointed with what is happening in the NFL.”
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Todd knows his sports, especially football and baseball; he’s a diehard Packers, Dodgers and University of Miami fan, and an ardent follower of the Nationals. His wife, Kristian, went to school at Florida State and worked in the football program. They love their football, but Todd doesn’t hide his concern about the state of the game.
“I’d be selling the NFL. There’s not a parent I know that would let their kid play tackle football right now. Sure, we’re in super-blue America, but these people are football fanatics who just feel uncomfortable. The other problem the NFL has is, at some point, players are going to have power in getting guaranteed contracts, so their labor costs are going to increase. You play the riskiest sport and you have the least amount of financial security, you have the least amount of protection? The business of the NFL is going to change, it has to.”
A sports stock he is buying is the NBA.
“I am stunned by the NBA. The NBA has accomplished what the NFL had done for years — they’ve made themselves market-neutral. If you would have told them franchises like Golden State, Cleveland and Oklahoma City were going to be three of their marquee franchises 20 years ago, they’d have panicked. They’d have said, ‘Oh my God, the league is dying.’ It’s just the opposite.”
He grew to appreciate the NBA’s success through the prism of his 10-year-old son, Harrison.
“His NBA fandom is totally organic. I’m fascinated by how he knows so much about every single team in the league, and it’s all due to one thing: ‘NBA 2K.’ Two years ago, I noticed how much he knew about the Golden State Warriors, and I’m like, ‘I don’t let you stay up this late. How do you know so much about Golden State?’ It was all from the video game. But he’s not alone. All of his friends know so much about so many NBA players. The NBA has penetrated his life in a way without me doing it. I am a Wizards season-ticket holder because of my son.”
Todd has been successful in getting Harrison to love baseball.
“He loves watching basketball and playing baseball. I’m a Nationals season-ticket holder, and he is now a Nationals fanatic. He loves going to the games.”
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As Todd wrestles with the office Keurig machine to make a cup of coffee, we reminisce of our days working at The Daily, logging brutally early and long hours in our 20s for little pay and even less attention. But it’s a path that has paid off. The advice he gives to young people today interested in journalism is contrarian to when he started.
“Ten years ago, I would’ve said go work your way up from a small media market. Now, I wouldn’t. I’d say, ‘Come right to Washington.’ I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish local news were still a powerful enough platform and you had the resources to successfully learn the ropes.”
But it’s not just about location, it’s also about focus.
“The No. 1 piece of advice is to specialize. Don’t be a generalist. Don’t go to school for journalism. Go to school to learn a specialization. Get a deeper understanding of topics. If you’re interested in politics, get a deeper understanding of religion, of economics, of demography. That will help you understand how to cover politics. Don’t major in journalism. Go major in a subject area you want to be an expert in.”
He credits colleague Brian Williams for convincing him he had a future in journalism, telling him at one time, “You’re going to be OK because you have a specialization.”
Todd continues, “My big break in television came because I covered the DNC Rules Committee for nearly 15 years. So, I knew the ins and outs of the delegate process. It never mattered, until it did — 2008 became a delegate race, and I was the only guy in the room who knew the rules. Your big break will come. Don’t be afraid of going into a silo and being an expert on something.”
He also stresses that young people be open to do what is asked.
“Always say yes. Don’t give an excuse of why you can’t do something. Say yes. You will get more opportunities and get promoted faster. Don’t give reasons why you can’t do something. This new generation are very sure of themselves, and they make a lot of demands early about their expectations. They should always have those high expectations, but you have to have the work ethic to go underneath it. Find a way to get to yes, rather than finding a reason not to do something.”
A knock on the door comes from Todd’s colleagues, as our time together has stretched to nearly two hours. They firmly, yet politely interrupt, pushing Todd that there are meetings to have and preparation for future shows. His job and life is a far cry from his days at SportsBusiness Daily.
“But I always tell people that was the coolest job I ever had. I love saying I worked in sports.”
When I tell him that he’s doing far more important journalism now and it impacts the world, rather than the narrow world of sports, he nods slightly.
“That’s the anxiety I have. I hope I always have that feeling. Before all my interviews, I feel like it’s my test. How did I study? Did I study well? I have a goal in every interview for what information I hope to get out of it. That’s where I get nervous. How will I do on my test?”
He hopes to pass the test, but not be part of the story.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.