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The Unsolvable Problem of Election Coverage

Chuck Todd talks about reporting on scandals and whether or not the media could have done a better job during the campaign

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Even in hindsight, it’s unclear how media outlets could have given the American public a clearer picture of the presidential election, especially when presented with obscuring factors including fake news and the influence of Russian hackers. On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer brought on Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd to look back on the avoidable and unavoidable errors in this cycle’s election coverage.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Dan Pfeiffer: There’s been a lot of debate about the role of Russian hacking, right? And what is a dumb debate is, “Is Russian hacking the reason why Hillary Clinton won or lost?” It’s an unanswerable debate. It’s like trying to determine the outcome of a football game [or] a one-point basketball game based on one play in the middle of the game. You just don’t know. It could be a thousand things that led to [the end result]. But do you think there are lessons to be learned for the press in how Russian intelligence used the U.S. media as a tool here?

Chuck Todd: Here’s the thing … we’ve had this debate about WikiLeaks for five months. It wasn’t just a post-election debate. We’ve had [it] internally. … I’d like to think we did less WikiLeaks [coverage] than anybody. I’m not going to say we never did it … but the only question I ever asked John Podesta about it the first time [was] on a debate night. … I don’t want to get into the context, but I wanted him to talk about it. He didn’t want to talk about it. But I just think nobody knows. That’s a weird feeling to be digitally stripped naked for the world to see. It’s something that nobody wishes upon anybody. And so … I wanted to know, what is that like? What is your person? You know John Podesta. The guy doesn’t like to talk about himself and so he just punted. But I thought Marco Rubio’s stance was a fascinating one that didn’t get enough attention, if you recall. …

Rubio said, “You know what? I’m not going to do it.” Now, he’s somebody that’s pretty passionate in his anti-Putin feelings, right? And he’s somebody that believed the intelligence. But … we don’t have the power to say something’s not out there. So if you have something that’s impacting the campaign … how do you avoid covering it? There’s not a right answer here. I think the more context you can give to the whole thing, the better. But Donald Trump was touting WikiLeaks at his rallies, so he was inserting it into the debate as well. And it’s not like you can censor him. So this is just a gigantic challenge. And I have to say, it’s only made me more paranoid about everything. About more secure phones. I don’t email much beyond informational emails, or you know, you don’t email anything that you don’t expect to be in public. I have one source that I’m dealing with on the Russia stuff that … we don’t talk on the phone anymore. It’s all in person now. …

And part of it is this person’s been a target. And so the point is that … I don’t think the answer is you can completely ignore it. And so if that’s not the answer, then how much do you do? And I think that’s an open interpretation.

Jon Favreau: Do you think that the overall coverage of the email issue — which is the server, WikiLeaks, and [James] Comey, that were all sort of mashed together at times — do you think that that was proportional to the importance of those issues in the race?

C.T.: I don’t think it was proportional. Fair or not, I would say the number-one issue for [Clinton] with many voters was her trustworthiness. And it’s been an issue for her in her career. And a Clinton partisan can make a very rational argument to say this has been made up and trumped up about her since the very beginning. And look, I’ve got this whole theory on her and it goes back to 1980, and how it’s always been an antagonistic relationship with her when it comes to politics in the media because she was treated unfairly, I think, by the Arkansas press back in 1980. But let me set that aside. I think the fairest criticism of us was we covered her like she was going to be president of the United States, and we covered him like he was a celebrity involved in scandal. So he, in some ways, got more coverage. It was more salacious than the type of coverage she got. Her coverage was more substantive. … And frankly, voters didn’t care about his personal problems. We didn’t cover his conflict-of-interest stuff enough because, frankly, I think some media organizations decided, “It’s not worth the effort. He’s not going to win. What’s it matter?”