Chuck Todd Accidentally Tells the Truth

NBC’s Meet the Press isn’t exactly the cutting edge of journalism these days, but on yesterday’s episode, host Chuck Todd said something really, really insightful.

During a panel discussion about how and why Americans are so cynical about our corporate-owned media, Todd told comedian Lewis Black that if he “barks” at politicians - AKA asks them tough questions - they won’t come back on his show.

Amazing, right?

The host of probably the most influential Sunday show in the country basically admitted that he won't do hard-hitting interviews because he knows that lying politicians will refuse to come back on his show if he calls out their lies. And, for a show like Meet the Press, if no politician will come on the air, there's no show. This, in a nutshell, is everything that’s wrong with the American media, and it’s a clear demonstration of how badly broken our political and media cultures have become.

Remember, the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution so that the press could speak truth to power and challenge the political establishment. Some of the Founders actually believed that having a free press was more important than having a government.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, once said that, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And Jefferson was tormented by the newspapers of his era! Those are powerful words, and they’re still relevant today, more than 200 years later.

Thanks to the rise of corporate media that's owned and run not for news but for profits, the kind of adversarial, power-smashing press that revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson put into the First Amendment to protect is basically shot to hell. Although independent media outlets like Truthout and Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept are still out there speaking truth to power, mainstream media like NBC has become merely another money-making business, a business that cares more about access and entertainment - which produces profits - than it does about keeping the public informed - which only helps us have a functioning democracy.

This is a huge threat to our nation. The press has historically been the means by which “We the People” keep the political and corporate elite in check.

We only need to look across the pond to the United Kingdom - the nation from which we declared our independence - to see how differently the mainstream media in other countries deal with the rich and powerful. The BBC has a fantastic show called HARDtalk that features challenging and hard-hitting interviews with big name politicians and business leaders. HARDTalk’s hosts pull no punches, and get right to the point.

During one recent episode, for example, host Steven Sackur asked former Defense Secretary Robert Gates if his tell-all memoir about his time in the Obama administration was really just a way to avoid responsibility for some of the White House’s foreign policy failures. That’s the kind of hard-hitting, tough journalism that the American people deserve, but aren’t getting, from programs like Meet the Press, because our modern corporate networks care more about putting on a spectacle - even if it involves lying politicians getting away with their lies - than they care about holding their guests accountable.

The problem here is simple. While mainstream American media outlets may have a constitutional right to do their job, they’re failing at that job. A "free press" (to paraphrase the First Amendment) is only effective when journalists seriously question and challenge power, and none of our networks do that anymore.

The roots of this problem are deep, and have to do with Reagan suspending the Fairness Doctrine and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, numerous changes in media ownership rules at the FCC and through Congress, and Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It's time for a serious discussion in America about the role of our news media, so we can once again have the adversarial type of press that actually holds those in power accountable on behalf of “We The People.”

Chuck Todd may have inadvertently started that conversation, although it's most likely that the corporate media will totally ignore his moment of accidental truth-telling.

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