Chuck Todd Replaces David Gregory at Meet the Press

Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw on the set of Meet the Press; image courtesy of NBC News

Chuck Todd Replaces David Gregory at
Meet the Press
| published September 9, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The new moderator of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, introduced his stewardship of the show last weekend with two key things: an exclusive one-on-one with the President of the United States (thumbs-up), and a debut show complete with a few rough edges and a few glitches (also, thumbs-up). Yes, thumbs-up.

It’s an age-old tension in electronic media: looks, charisma and starpower versus gumshoe journalism and fearless questioning of authority.

Meet the Press, a show so old that it is the longest running television show in the history—on any network, in any country where there are TVs—has itself ebbed and flowed under the tidal weight of this dynamic. The show was invented for radio in 1945, and its co-creator, Martha Rountree, ushered it effectively into TV only two years later. Rountree was a reporter, producer, and writer, and—by most accounts—an innovator in television in a day when it was not clear that TV would have much of a future. Even in the late 1940s she recognized the tension between the reporting process familiar in print, and the new template developing around a technology which could easily punish or reward looks and delivery.

Even in the earliest days of radio, old school print reporters groused bitterly that their rivals with the microphones were little more than actors with scripts and cue cards. Television changed the dynamic more, but reached a kind of stasis by the middle 1960s. By then, TV viewers in the U.S. liked the comforting visages of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Frank Reynolds, Harry Reasoner, and others. But looks would prevail, and the rise of the slick, handsome anchor (Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, David Muir) would become common to our understanding of networks and their fierce battles over ratings (and revenue).

But Meet the Press was never about all of that—or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. Meet the Press was never designed to be “news” in the traditional sense. It’s goal—and that of its competitor’s similar programs—was to break free of the newsbite-soundbite formula prevalent in the typical evening newscast (include something about dogs or cats or kids, talk about the “wild weather,” and always end on something upbeat). Meet the Press was meant to be the show that required a cup of coffee by the participants, and it was also crafted to break free of either template.

If viewers really wanted Brian Williams to host Meet the Press, NBC would have moved him to that position years ago.

But when the beloved Tim Russert died of a heart attack suddenly in 2008, NBC needed to make a quick decision. After a few months of letting Tom Brokaw fill in as temporary host, the network settled on David Gregory—a capable reporter and gifted TV journalist. Gregory has everything that the suits at NBC figured would be ideal: urbane looks, a natty sense of grooming and dress, a slick delivery, and what amounted to an anchor-desk-style approach to the show. He was seen as the logical, upward arc of a show which had been the home to the likes of Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley, and of course Brokaw and Russert.

Arguments remain heated to this day about what role the host (in Meet the Press parlance, “moderator”) should play, and how important looks, delivery and slickness should be to the overall format of the program, which had more of a kinship with newspaper reporting. Rountree was herself a creature of print. Born in Gainesville, Florida in 1911 and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, she would work first as a reporter for The Columbia Record, and later, The Tampa Tribune. She never completed college, and the newspaper jobs were meant to keep her finances afloat until she could one day return to school. But her love of journalism and her mostly self-taught, hard-fought skills became her life’s work. About as old school as it gets. But then, in 1938, she moved to New York City, where—improbably, perhaps, inevitably—she went to work writing advertising copy for magazines and radio, and where she would later develop and write “singing commercials” for radio broadcasts, an advertising specialty she excelled at. In that sense, she was perfectly prepared for the strange mix of style and substance required in those earliest days of television news.

But Meet the Press always pushed back from the desk of style and slickness. And that tendency to repudiate canned, pre-prepared, scripted news is what gave the show its voice. Meet the Press was not even a press conference, per se, but rather an opportunity for one or two or perhaps four reporters to dig in on an issue—or a set of issues—with their guest. And this meant not letting the guest off-the-hook, as it were.

This is why Tim Russert fit the show so well for so many years (Russert held the post of moderator longer than any other host, from 1991 until his death in 2008; Ned Brooks held the job the second-longest, from 1953 to 1965).

Russert didn’t look or act or feel like a television reporter. He was often rumpled and on the verge of being disheveled, hunkered down in a stance that leaned in toward his guests. His delivery was neither smooth, nor polished, nor alliteratively glossy (“a lot of light alliteration from anxious anchormen placed in powerful posts…”), nor did he ever seem overly impressed with his guests. He hovered at the very edge of irreverence, all the while being cordial, polite, and smiling. Some said he reminded them of an impish, irreverent college professor—the kind you might have a beer with after class. He was also unsparing and blunt, but never sarcastic, something his Irish Catholic upbringing (perhaps) had taught him was possible while still being impeccably well-mannered and jovial. Because he exuded a kind of comfortable everyman charm and a bit of street savvy, Russert’s guests understood ahead of time they were required to answer candidly, or face a second hit—this time harder.

Gregory, for all his likeability and skills, did not fit that particular suit. Where Russert was direct but engaging, at times even blunt, the strategically adept Gregory was perhaps, at times, conciliatory to the point of deference. But at other times, Gregory was caught-up in showmanship (as in the occasion he brought a gun magazine for an assault rifle onto the set with him as a show-and-tell piece for an interview with an NRA spokesman). And Gregory’s impeccable delivery and pacing and diction mean that he bore a closer resemblance to Brian Williams, or to David Muir—who was recently promoted to the job of anchor at ABC World News after the departure of the Dianne Sawyer.

Is this where Chuck Todd makes an ideal compromise? Todd, like Russert, disdains the showmanship aspect of the process (though he does make a halfhearted attempt to conceal an obviously receding hairline by combing his thin dark hair forward). But Todd, like Russert, is otherwise suspicious of the kind of slickness personified by Gregory. Todd is also a bit of an everyman—from that now ubiquitous goatee, which means he could easily be mistaken for your air conditioning repairman or the guy who drives the boat on your next fishing trip—to the language of a questioner devoid of sugar-coating and equivocation. When President Obama seemed to hint that the U.S. would have to forge some kind of partnership with Syrian ground forces in order to fight ISIS, Todd winced and interjected an incredulous “who?” Todd (like Russert) is not afraid of contesting the remarks of powerful people. And Todd (like Russert) is not concerned, at least at the moment, with pleasing powerful people, and this point is perhaps the most important; Gregory, for all his numerous skills and talents, often seemed to be trying to win approval of his guests.

Though it is not clear what will happen to that glossy, colorful set—which is a far cry from the primitive-looking stage sets of the Meet the Press of past decades—Todd may also be in favor of downsizing the aught years set and its grand collection of books. (Disclosure: I happen to love that part of the current set, and some Sundays I expend measurable energy trying to read those numerous titles). Some parts of the set were apparently already in a state of transition this past Sunday, and Todd likened it to living in a house while it is being remodeled. The panel of journalists and commentators helps to return the show top its roots as a group process, and in that sense the glittering set and the impeccable lighting should be secondary anyway.

When the iconic show began to look like a long-form version of short form news, it began a slow process of decline. Meet the Press must again prove its relevance (and not just in the ratings battles) by inching away from the network news model.

Related Thursday Review articles:

TV Optics, Foreign Policy Optics; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 9, 2014.

Debating America Each Week; The Eclipse of Equality, Solon Simmons; book review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review (Media Page).