A politcal junkie comes to fix Meet the Press

08/15/2014 7:00 PM

08/15/2014 12:19 PM

Three weeks from Sunday, Chuck Todd, the political obsessive with a knack for polling data and a love of “the game,” will take the reins at NBC’s Meet the Press and try, against all odds, to prove a morning news show can still set the national agenda.

Todd won’t need to prove anything to Washington. This town’s political-media establishment has already sanctified him: He is described by his colleagues and contemporaries as a whip-smart campaign junkie. They say that if anyone can restore passion and credibility to the once-dominant public affairs program, it’s him.

“He is a virtual vacuum sweeper when it comes to political facts, figures and analysis,” said Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief.

A national audience outside the Beltway, disenchanted with both politics and appointment viewing, will take more convincing.

In fact, even Todd’s bosses needed to be persuaded. Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, was lukewarm on him, sources at the network said. Disappointed by the program’s poor ratings under host David Gregory, she had entertained all manner of revisions: Moving the show to New York and handing it over to a more affable, nonpolitical personality like Savannah Guthrie, the co-host of the Today show; changing the show’s name; perhaps even canceling it and starting over. That Turness was considering such diverse and radical options right up until the end — while Gregory was left to twist in the wind, enduring an onslaught of criticism and negative press — shows just how uncertain she was about the appropriate solution.

In the end, Turness decided to double-down on the formula that had made Meet the Press an institution: a Washington-based pure politics program moderated by a veteran political reporter. Under the late Tim Russert, who died in 2008, Meet had spent 15 years as the No. 1 Sunday public affairs program, and he and the show occupied a sacred space in American politics.

On Thursday, Turness sent a memo to staff announcing that Gregory would leave NBC and that Todd would “take the helm” on Sept. 7.

“There is no one with a bigger passion for politics than Chuck,” she wrote. “His unique ability to deliver that passion with razor sharp analysis and infectious enthusiasm makes him the perfect next generation moderator of this beloved broadcast. Chuck will ensure that Meet the Press is the beating heart of politics, the place where newsmakers come to make news, where the agenda is set.” Turness also promised the addition of “some exciting plans to evolve and update the broadcast under Chuck’s leadership that we will be sharing with you shortly,” as well as “some new names that we will announce in the coming days.”

In a tweet on Thursday night, Todd wrote that he was “honored and humbled to be in the company of great [Meet the Press] moderators,” including Russert, Tom Brokaw, who moderated the show briefly after Russert’s death, and Gregory. “All three taught me so much,” he wrote.

Todd’s tweet was especially kind to Gregory; it was widely known within NBC that the two were not close. Neither Todd nor Turness responded to requests for interviews.

However, it will take more than Turness’ touting of “razor sharp analysis and infectious enthusiasm” to win over a national audience. Todd is well known for his analytical skills, his grasp of data and historical knowledge, but rattling off stats about House districts is not the same skill set as grilling evasive high-ranking politicians and officials on the issues of the day.

Viewers expect more than political trivia from Sunday morning shows — they want a program that goes beyond the recitation of familiar talking points, network execs believe. Americans already believe that the political press corps is too cozy with the politicians it covers. They are hungry for someone who can hold their guests’ feet to the fire, they say.

Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold write for Politico.

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