Good morning Austin:
Tuesday, he’s leading a discussion of the pernicious effect big data is having on our politics and government.
In between, he was kind enough to visit the Statesman, where, for about 45 minutes he had an off-the-record conversation with reporters and editors in which he said incredibly provocative and interesting things, and then, after that, he spoke with me on the record, for what I also found to be a very interesting conversation.
Here is our Q and A.
(The photos are from the earlier session.)
First Reading: Trump has been good for business?
Chuck Todd: The Trump presidency, if it’s making journalists feel as if there is a renewed interest in our work, that’s great. I get why folks say that Trump’s good for business. That was actually used as an attack on the cable networks for over-coverage of Trump.
I guess I’m uncomfortable with that description only because — I feel like even though sometimes, because we work for for-profit companies, we can’t ignore what’s good for business — I really want this out of our heads. Because I don’t want it to impact how we cover Trump, or what we cover of him, or have it sort of as part of the conversation.
Am I using it as an opportunity to get more resources for more reporters in the D.C. bureau? Absolutely. And has it worked. Absolutely. In that respect, that’s great. In that respect it’s creating jobs.
So if the bean counters in all of our companies say, `Hey it’s good for business and we’ve been making an editorial argument that we need more investigative or we need more on campaign finance, or we need more foreign bureaus, all of a sudden in that respect, you can’t avoid looking at that as positive.
Newsonomics: Trump Bump Grows Into Subscription Surge — and Not Just for The New York Times
First Reading: Do you think this is a precarious moment for press freedoms?
Chuck Todd: Yes, with press freedom, I think the threat isn’t coming from the White House, from Trump. The threat comes from the public because of our lack of credibility with a large chunk of the public makes us vulnerable to losing press freedoms.
It’s easy to erode a press freedom if the public doesn’t care. That’s our challenge, is winning back, not the full trust, but I view our job as communicating again with that 40 percent who we are not communicating with the so-called mainstream media.
I am more and more jaded about man-and-woman-in the-street interviews about politicians but especially now because I think the public is conditioned to act like political pundits. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’ve noticed that the more you talk to regular voters, the more they are sounding like the advocates sound on television. I feel like we’ve so nationalized conversations that’s taking place in diners that, what are we getting out of it? Is that helping us any more?
I think what we’ve got to get better at is not getting their opinions about what’s going on, and their take. I think we’ve got to get better at figuring out what’s going on in their lives. Tell us about your day-to-day life, walk us through it. That’s step one in restoring this relationship with this jaded consumer.
First Reading: But we live in a time when everything can be spun as fake or a conspiracy, that they don’t have to believe what they don’t want to believe.
Chuck Todd: This is the danger of the internet. Imagine what the internet would have done to Holocaust denialism at the time of the Holocaust, at the discovery of the concentration camps. I’ve thought about that. In this moment we are in now. Now any revelation that comes out today there is automatically a counter story circulating somewhere that basically tells the exact opposite tale.
There was the movie Capricorn 1 with O.J. Simpson about the faking of a Mars landing.
Imagine if we had social media and the internet during the moon landing. I mean for all we know Alex Jones would claim that he was doing his show from the studio that they faked the moon landing and we would probably would have polls with a larger chunk of people believing that.
It so easy to comfort ourselves by finding, instead of co-conspirators, co-believers in conspiracies.
We’ve gotten so polarized where the losing side comforts themselves with conspiracies — Obama had to have been a plant, must have been born in another country, they just know. And now it’s the Russians, they hacked the vote, they stole it.
There’s always been that fringe element, but we’ve mainstreamed it.
I feel like we haven’t had — and I know Sean Hannity would say, “What do you mean, it’s called The New York Times, it’s called the mainstream media, whatever a president has said they have regurgitated it” — we have never had a president who has been able to spin an alternative yarn and have an echo chamber for it and it’s powerful, a powerful alternative echo chamber.
And the question is, do journalists bog ourselves down about this problem, or do you just realize, it’s no different, every president wants to spin their version of the story. Do we sit there and wring our hands about, look at how awful that is, look at how awful that is, or are we wasting our time?
First Reading: Is exhausting the press an administration strategy?
Chuck Todd: If the press corps gets exhausted, that’s how the abnormal things becomes normal because you just sort of give up or give in.
First Reading: Well, now (White House Press Secretary) Sean Spicer says the president says the Labor Department jobs numbers are no longer phony, and because he says it with a smile …
Chuck Todd: He’s learning how to sell it with humor. It’s very smart.
So we should think it’s OK we delegitimized another government institution for over a year.
The problem is our democracy was supposed to be immune to the idea that our government’s truth was not based on the party that was in power. We didn’t deem a government more truthful or less truthful based on whether they had the same party ID as me and now we’re in that.
Democracies that we would describe as fledgling have that issue. We weren’t supposed to have this issue.
First Reading: Is this going to be the test of the power of our institutions.
Chuck Todd: The strengths of our institutions — we don’t really know if they are weak or strong until they are at their breaking point.
So I don’t know. I think they are stronger than we realize.
Just look at the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution. And when you read it you’ve got to hand to them. They thought of everything.
They thought of every possible scenario, even to the point they were worried about a foreign government, then it was more the British, they were worried about foreign government having undue influence on our government. The whole idea of the three branches, realizing they couldn’t have one. We saw what happened, Germany didn’t have three branches and look at how quickly they had an autocrat suddenly consolidate power.
When you see that, you realize our institutions are stronger than we give them credit for, but we don’t truly know their strength, until they are right at their breaking point, and I don’t think we’re there yet.
First Reading: There has been a post-election surge in civic activism.
Chuck Todd: I read in the state of Virginia, it was something like they had more candidates for state legislative races, they’ve already twice the number than they’ve had in 20 years — candidates wanting to run.
I’ll say, every time we’ve had an election like this — we did have a re-engagement in civics right after the 2000 election. People didn’t realize the 2000 election was important until after it happened. And I think the same thing with ’16. It’s the same, wow, OK, it did matter, my vote would have mattered.
You get the renewed sense that every vote does count. Look 40,000 votes here, 14,000 votes there.
You see more members of Congress realizing that they have allowed the executive branch to get too strong.
Now, one of things I worry about is that we will over-correct. We always over-correct. We will weaken the presidency after this. Sort of the way we did after FDR, we realized that went too far. I have a feeling we will probably go too far, then we’ll say, wait a minute, the executive branch needs to be a little stronger.
The legislative branch had allowed itself to get too weak. The judiciary’s pretty strong, The executive’s been very strong. But the legislative has been extraordinarily weak.
First Reading: What will you be talking about at SXSW Tuesday?
Mar 14, 2017
2016 was a bad year to use data to create odds. From wins by the Cavaliers and Cubs, to Brexit and Trump becoming president, we got it wrong. But lost in the debate over whether the data was good or bad is whether data is good or bad for the American political system. Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of “Meet the Press,” asks if a case should be made that the better and more effective tools used to gather big campaign data are the exact cause for the country’s polarization. Has data helped to increase polarization and to short-circuit our ability to govern?
Chuck Todd: Big data is all the rage in anything, whether it’s you’re a baseball fanatic, in any sport, if you’re in medicine, in politics, but the way political professionals have used big data has broken politics, is my argument. That essentially, whether you’re a politician in charge of drawing maps, essentially creating the rules for politics, or you’re a political strategist deciding how to conduct campaigns — we have used the data to reinforce our polarization.
So now we have this incredible data and this incredible ability to go block by block and move voters into districts and create these safe districts, so you no longer have any swing districts. So when you don’t have any swing districts then you no longer have lawmakers that feel like they have to persuade voters, they only have to win like-minded voters.
Now they run the campaigns where even if you are in a 50-50 state you don’t believe there are 10 percent of swing voters. You believe there are voters who agree with you that haven’t been mined yet. So then you use big data to find like-minded voters. Now you see both parties at the end (of a campaign), they don’t advertise, they’re debating one issue and trying to persuade you on it. Instead, at the end they’re running on their core base issues, that they think, oh, we don’t have as many women as we should have, let’s run a Planned Parenthood ad. Boy, rural men aren’t showing up in our polls as much as they should, let’s run a gun ad. So it’s all about trying to just get your 50 percent plus one. Well, if that’s the way you get elected then what’s your incentive to compromise.
Basically big data has been used to erase the incentives for what politics is supposed to be. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. You used to try to get to some sort of compromise, some sort of common place to fix a problem and we essentially now have elected a whole bunch of people who don’t have to practice politics any more.
The big data revolution has been bad for our democracy and it’s bad for governing. The reason why governing is dysfunctional is that big data has been used to sort of reinforce the dysfunction.
What’s interesting is the more I’ve talked to political strategists about this, there is 100 percent agreement in it and everybody agrees with what the No. 1 fix needs to be, which is you start with the boundaries. If you draw more competitive boundaries starting at the state legislative level on up, then you will get politicians that get elected assuming they have to persuade and if you win by persuasion then you are more likely to compromise and you’re more likely to govern.
If you truly said the goal should be always be compact, you make the most compact districts that you can geographically, if you did pursue that and you just did that, and you never thought about race and you never thought about D versus R, you’d still have some diverse congressional districts, but you’d have more competitive congressional districts.
And, then if you get more competitive congressional districts, you’re still going to have conservatives and liberals, but you are going to have conservatives and liberals who don’t feel like they have to make 100 percent promises any more, that they make 70 percent promises to their base, that gives them the room to maneuver for the 30 percent and then we see legislators working the way they used to work.
And this is a recent phenomenon.
You see it in little ways. The number of straight ticket votes for legislation in Congress has more than doubled. It used to be, pre-2004, the most conservative Democrat would be to the right of the most liberal Republicans. You used to have five or six Republicans that way. In the House, it might be 15 on each side. Now the streams don’t cross any more. Now I think occasionally Susan Collins is to the left of Joe Manchin, but not often.
And look at who the senators are. A lot of them came from the House, so when you are elected that way you are conditioned as a politician and you are culturally that kind of politician.
First Reading: Thanks very much.