March 22, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Chuck Todd and the anti-moral press
NBC host will be where the action is even if he must invent it.
It’s important to understand that NBC News’ Chuck Todd and other members of the Washington press corps1 are not biased in the sense that they prefer one party over the other, one ideology over the other, or one set of interests over another. They are biased, however, in one truly significant way. Reporters prefer covering partisan conflict, especially conflict that has no foreseeable way of being resolved. Conflict begets attention begets profits—or just a feeling of being pivotal to the country’s destiny. The press corps will be at the heart of the action even if its members have to invent the action.
For this reason, the Washington press corps tends to behave one way when there’s a Democratic administration, another way when there’s a Republican one. The press corps’ differing behavior is very often mistaken for bias, but that’s not what it is. This is important to note, because the solution is not greater neutrality. The real solution is greater morality. Because of the unquestioned value of competition between reporters, however, a moral press is unlikely to happen. Indeed, the press can be anti-moral.
The border is an old mess the new administration must clean up. But it is not a “political crisis” unless Chuck Todd and others think decency and law constitute political crises.
Think about it. Liberals, as the current president is, tend to privilege procedure and due process. They tend to see Republicans (or, increasingly these days, Republican voters) as potential bargaining partners. They believe policies should not be enacted for their own sakes but in accordance with higher principles, such as truth and morality. Liberals, moreover, tend to seek compromise if only to dampen passions. They also tend to see partisanship as having boundaries that must be enforced. While the press corps does share some of these values, very little is as important as conflict. The press corps can find itself at odds with liberal officials but not for reasons that are obvious.
The Republicans, meanwhile, are nearly totally fascist. For them, the means are only as important as the ends. While liberals seek bargaining partners, the Republicans “treat liberals as unworthy of recognition.” While liberals aim to dampen passions, the Republicans are “bent on inflaming them.” While liberals hope to strike fair deals, the Republicans treat anyone who’s not a Republican as the enemy. For liberals, politics ends where morality begins. For the Republicans, politics never ends. For liberals, there are rights “that no government can take away.” For the Republicans, “in cases of emergency—and they always find cases of emergency—the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.”2 The press corps loves conflict. The Republicans love emergency. People don’t have to be on the same side to arrive at the same place.
Here’s the tip jar!
Which brings me back to Chuck Todd. I don’t think the host of “Meet the Press” cares one way or another about what’s happening at the southern border. I don’t think he cares about a surge in the number of children and adults who are seeking safety and asylum in the United States. What he does care about, however, is covering partisan conflict, especially partisan conflict with no foreseeable way of being resolved. This is why Chuck Todd characterized the surge Sunday as a “political crisis” facing the new president. To be sure, that’s propaganda. It’s been roiling right-wing media lately. But Todd doesn’t have to be biased in favor of the GOP, its interests or ideology to see that laundering their propaganda creates the appearance of conflict. As I said, the press corps will be at the center of the action even if its members have to invent the action.
In doing so, Todd is warping reality to the detriment of his audience. He suggested the surge was a consequence of Biden’s border policies. By implication, different policies, i.e., Republican policies, would have prevented the surge. That’s almost certainly false when you consider the context of what’s been happening. First, unlawful border crossings never stopped under the Trump administration. The most significant impact the former president had was on legal immigration. Second, his border policies themselves were illegal. They turned asylum-seekers away without due process. Third, his administration violated human rights. The “child-separation policy”—i.e., a policy of kidnapping children from parents as a form of deterrence—scarred kids for life, according to a January report in Pediatrics. “The treatment of children at the border constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment that rises to the level of torture.”3
Biden’s policies are a return to normal, which is to say, a return to decency and the rule of law. Asylum-seekers are now being vetted according to applicable law. Children are no longer being kidnapped. (They are instead being taken in, cared for, and in some cases connected to family already residing legally in the United States.) All of this is a major undertaking that will demand management, skill and luck. All of this is a major problem in that it’s an old mess the new administration must clean up. But it is not a “political crisis” unless Chuck Todd thinks decency and law constitute political crises.
Again, the solution isn’t neutrality. Chuck Todd is hiding behind it to launder right-wing propaganda that inflames passions while creating the appearance of partisan conflict the Washington press corps loves to report on. By calling him biased, you’re calling on him to be neutral, which brings us back to where we started. The real solution, one that would account for the context above and that would take extra-special precautions against manufacturing political reality, would be more morality. That, however, is unlikely. That would put Todd squarely on the liberals’ side.
The Washington press corps is diverse and hardly monolithic, but there are some things nearly all of its members share. Key to the entire enterprise is focusing on conflict.
In this paragraph and the preceding one, I’m quoting directly and paraphrasing Professor Alan Wolfe’s characterization of liberals and conservatives in his 2004 essay “A Fascist Philosopher Helps Us Understand Contemporary Politics.” I have swapped “Republican” for “conservative,” because, as I say, the GOP has gone fascist. It is no longer conservative.
My stress above and below. The Trump administration’s “treatment of children at the border meets the criteria for torture as outlined above. Targeted physical and psychological abuse is inflicted on children. Their suffering can be painful and severe, especially given their stage of development and vulnerability. It is a purposeful US strategy to use children to reduce border crossings by their parents. Numerous national and international organizations and experts have concluded the treatment of children at the border constitutes torture.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
Excellent piece. Thanks. By the way, what is meant by “Cancel Culture” and what is wrong with people who are “too far to the left”? Thanks
Wish I could believe Chuck Todd was this calculating; think he’s just another example of a lucky white guy who failed upwards. No discernment whatsoever.
Spot on as always, John. And the solution, as always, is to talk past the press–over their heads if you will or barrel right into them. Talking over their heads means resetting terms of debate on a regular basis: unity is not necessarily bipartisanship; leadership is not necessarily compromise; negotiation is not necessarily division. Barreling into them–which the Biden team, DSCC and DCCC need to do far more of–means flooding their bookers. Joe Manchin did a Sunday show rounds recently. Democratic reps should be doing that stuff on a much more regular basis. Media appearances–PR, if you will–IS a part of one’s governance duties.