Meet the Press and the American Film Institute are staging their annual film festival in Washington on Sunday and Monday, a showcase of documentary shorts touching on issues like climate change, education, and immigration.
But it is taking place as D.C.’s attention, quite obviously, is riveted on something else: the impeachment inquiry and President Donald Trump’s response to it, a fast-moving crisis that is dominating just about every moment on the news channels.
More from Deadline
- 'Meet The Press' And 'This Week' See Trump Officials Say No Ukraine Transcripts Will Be Released
- 'Meet The Press', AFI Announce Slate Of Projects For October Film Festival
- 'Meet The Press' Guest Megan Rapinoe Says She Will Not Become A Politician
On Thursday, after Trump publicly urged Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Chuck Todd opened Meet the Press Daily by telling viewers that “a national nightmare is upon us,” and that the “basic rules of democracy are under attack from the President.”
Todd said that this type of moment, with an all-dominant story consuming media attention, is “the exact reason” why a film festival makes so much sense for the Meet the Press brand.
“One of the biggest frustrations I had on a normal news week is carving out more time in this news cycle, particularly in the Trump era, to do deeper dives, whether it is on criminal justice reform, climate change, fixing the public school system,” Todd said. “So I look at it and think, ‘Thank God, we have the film festival,’ especially in this era. It is a way of frankly saying, ‘Hey, you know we are focused, we are stuck covering the story that we have. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know there are a whole series of issues of importance in the policy arena that need more attention.'”
The festival will open on Sunday at the United States Navy Memorial with the US premiere of Toxic Beauty, which explores the unregulated market for beauty products with chemicals and toxins. The movie is the first feature-length documentary to be among the selections.
“We already regulate the chemicals we ingest in the foods we eat, but we don’t do a good enough job regulating chemicals that we accidentally ingest because we have rubbed it on our face or our elbows or our feet,” Todd said of the project.
The event also has been timed to be a kickoff for award season, as dozens of titles compete for the Oscar for documentary short. In 2017, three of the entrants ended up as Academy Award nominees.
Todd will moderate panels with filmmakers, along with along with NBC News and MSNBC personalities Andrea Mitchell, Hallie Jackson, Katy Tur, Jacob Soboroff, Morgan Radford and Kristen Welker. The rest of the event, to be held at the Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema in Washington, will split up the documentary shorts into eight themed segments.
Among the other entries are St. Louis Superman, about Bruce Franks Jr., a rapper and state representative from St. Louis, Mo.; and Water’s Edge, about Louisiana’s efforts to restore its bayous and marshes. Some of the shorts will be posted online for streaming over the next month.
Todd said the festival also is a way for Meet the Press to extend its brand in a different way, perhaps to new audiences that don’t watch the 72-year-old Sunday show, yet will see it as analytical and relevant.
“In the 21st century, we have to go where consumers and viewers are,” Todd said. “You can’t expect them to come find you.” He says that he would like to get into producing their own Meet the Press-branded documentaries.
“For instance, there are a few filmmakers that we are talking about, and we go ‘OK, do we do a co-production, where we have some resources, they have an idea, or visa versa?’ Where we go and find a filmmaker that we know knows this stuff. That is likely how we step into this next,” he said.
He also thinks that documentary projects have come to resonate more with audiences, particularly millennials, as they have become a staple of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Part of the reason is that issues are presented in a different way than the typical right-left divide. Todd said that they looked for entries that presented issues outside of those partisan lines.
“Filmmakers realize that people are stuck in a left right prism too often, and you almost see that they realize they have to figure out how to break through that,” he said. “I think about this all the time every day on my own show. I know there is a left-right prism or a red-blue prism that people get stuck in, that has become sort of a habit for people in how they think about politics.”
That “red-blue prism” certainly is a factor in how the impeachment inquiry is being viewed by the public, as a kind of information warfare is played out across news channels, radio and online outlets and across social media.
Todd said that he felt compelled to open his show on Thursday by warning of a “national nightmare,” because what Trump said was so stunning. Trump’s call for China to investigate the Bidens certainly led news coverage, but no one quite framed the moment like Todd did.
“I’ll be honest, I’m surprised I am alone on this,” he said of the reaction. “It was like getting the Nixon tapes in real time. He was just confessing. I just don’t think people realize condoning this will change the fabric of a democracy. Again, I go back to [the fact that] we are stuck in this left/right prism all the time. We have got to get out of it. Does anyone realize the consequences of condoning this? Do we realize where this headed?”
He added, “I know sometimes that people have sounded alarms so often that they don’t hear the sound anymore. And I am aware of that. But at the same time, I sort of view this as just speaking as an American.”
Todd also had a moment last week that went viral across social media. On the day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, one of Todd’s guests on “Meet the Press Daily” was Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), and the interview got testy.
As Kennedy argued that it was fair to investigate claims that Joe Biden tried to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son, Hunter, Todd accused the lawmaker of trying to play a game of, “We have no idea if it’s true, but make them deny it.”
As Kennedy protested, Todd said, “I am trying to be fair here, but you can’t gaslight us, sir. Don’t gaslight us!”
Todd, though, believes that such moments are essential. “One of the fairest critiques of the professional press corps over the past 25 years has been this idea that we are so worried about attacks of fairness, that we sort of go out of our way to sort of file down the edges of something. We’ll try to explain: ‘ What so and so really meant to say.” And you are sitting there going, You know what, it turns out you can’t explain some of this stuff away. It turns out that softening it actually only conditions it to go forward.
“So I kind of think our job as journalists is to kind of throw cold water on people’s faces when they are not paying attention, or throw hot water on their faces when they are not paying attention. The point being, make them uncomfortable, so that they start to think about a problem as a citizen rather than as a partisan.”
Rudy Giuliani’s appearances on news channels, in which he has quickly recited a fusillade of claims against the Bidens, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been a particular challenge for on air journalists to fact check in real time.
“We haven’t been able to figure out in an age of social media how to deal with the gaslighting of America that is taking place in the conservative eco chamber. We haven’t solved this problem,” Todd said. “It’s a huge problem — it may take the republic down type of huge problem. I think we are all grasping here. The basic fact check doesn’t work anymore, but I do think there is a way to sort of speak more authentically when you see what is going on.”
He added, “That is why I use the word gaslighting. And you know what, make them say, ‘I am not gaslighting.’ This is what I am doing. I think we spend too long accepting a criticism and taking somebody’s criticisms and saying, ‘Hey, so and so said this about you, what do you think?” We shouldn’t just pass on somebody’s criticism if we don’t think there’s truth to it.”
He said that in his opener on Thursday, “I was just hoping it got through to somebody. I think we have been covering Trump too casually. This is pretty serious. This time is different. And think tone matters a lot here right now. I think if you want people to take us seriously — that this is republic is on the line stuff — then our tone needs to reflect it.”