Chuck Todd had what he describes as a “heart attack moment” around 6:45 a.m. on Saturday. “We lost track of Portman and we thought Ryan hadn’t left his house,” says Todd, referring to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
A still-at-home Ryan spelled curtains for Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent. At midnight, he had told MSNBC’s audience that Ryan was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice and would be introduced as such at an event in Virginia, according to three sources. The correspondent’s panic, however, soon fizzled, thanks to an official campaign announcement. Ryan that morning joined Romney for an appearance in front of the USS Wisconsin.
Phfew! If ever the TV news industry needed reassurance that its people could get a big story right the first time. In June, CNN and Fox News inverted the decision of the Supreme Court vis-a-vis the Affordable Care Act. And in July, ABC News’s Brian Ross tied the Aurora, Colo., shootings to the wrong guy.
When asked whether recent reportorial failures had weighed on the process, Todd replied, “What I’d argue is that these things always hang over us. NBC has the largest news division, so to be honest, we know we have the biggest target on our back ... I feel that specter’s always hanging over our head.”
Todd, who gets up at 4:30 in the morning, was sleeping Friday night when he got the call that the Romney campaign would announce its vice president choice on Saturday morning. As he was getting dressed, he started pressing sources. Dialing them up, actually. “A good old-fashioned phone call matters more than e-mail,” says Todd. ”It’s easy to ignore e-mail.”
From there, he slipped into a conference call with other big shots at NBC News. They had two sources for reporting that Ryan was the pick. They decided to nail a third source before going on air with the information. (The Weekly Standard reported at 10:52 p.m. that the campaign had prepared for a Ryan pick but left open the possibility that it might not materialize).
The frenzy capped off a week of vice presidential focus for Todd. ”I felt all week we were close,” he says. An important hunchy moment came when Todd interviewed Romney on Thursday. The candidate noted that he wanted someone with “a vision for the country, that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country.”
Politicians and their advisers speak in code, and Todd, having worked the story, had no trouble deciphering Romney’s signals. They tracked very closely to the case in favor of Ryan. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Ryan.... Those arguments weren’t being made about” the other short-list candidates. From there, it was just a matter of getting confirmations. “I’m a ground-level political guy,” says Todd. “I like talking to folks involved in all aspects of the campaign.”
Embeds tailing the short-listers, Todd working overtime on the story, others chipping in with reporting: NBC News put its resources behind the breaking of the vice president story. Bad decision, says Ryan Lizza, a New Yorker reporter who recently completed a big profile of the Wisconsin congressman. “It’s a massive waste of political journalistic resources,” says Lizza. “A huge waste of time.”
Todd acknowledges that arriving first to the vice presidential pick isn’t a world-changing act. He has no plans to put this credential on his resume. He pooh-poohs the first-at-all-costs news culture.
Yet! That frame of reference, he suggests, neglects the enduring value of the chase: “The amount of resources that we dedicate to getting this... All the time we spend following these guys around — it only helps to inform your own reporting, your own context, about who this person is, how they handle pressure,” says Todd.