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Meet the Press

Marvin Kalb on Trump & Nixon’s ‘Credible Irrationality’

When Marvin Kalb stepped into Studio A at NBC News, which has been home to the premiere of the Muppets, a presidential debate and Meet the Press, he was shocked by how much has changed. Kalb, who moderated Meet the Press from 1984 to 1987, says he doubts he could play the same role today.

“What it is that you’re doing, in my judgment, is an enormously important and profitable blend of the essence of Meet the Press and live within the environment of today’s needs,” Kalb told NBC’s Chuck Todd for the latest edition of “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast.”

“What the industry needs more of is not just more conversation, but exploration, more depth into issues that concern people,” said Kalb, who was among the last newsmen hired by Edward R. Murrow at CBS News before eventually moving to NBC.

He noted that the current business model, which often hinders a journalist’s ability to travel to all parts of the country and tell stories outside the Washington beltway, led to inadequate coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Where do you get your news from? How do you know what is going on in the world? The only way you know it is from the journalist who tells that to you,” Kalb said. “And if the journalist is restricted in where he or she can go to cover a story, your information is going to be restricted as a direct result.”

This has a direct correlation with what Kalb sees as a “cheapening of content” in news. Some networks are more absorbed with talk and profits than meaning.

Kalb hearkened back to his days at CBS and suggested that it was about the bottom line even in the 1960s. That being said, he recalls that Bill Paley, the broadcasting pioneer who built that network, also affirmed its commitment to good journalism.

“He cared about all of the people who represented news,” Kalb said. “That was to him a cloak of legitimacy, yes, but it was also an opportunity to help the people of America understand the world in which we function.”

Kalb has covered a number of presidents throughout his career, and thinks comparing President Trump to President Richard Nixon is particularly apt due to what he calls a sense of “credible irrationality.”

“And I think right now the question of whether President Trump is also playing with the concept of credible irrationality or whether it is not a game with him, but simply an outcome of personality, background,” Kalb said.

The mood of the country in Kalb’s view is similar to when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. The U.S. was in the midst of the worst depression in its history and Americans longed for the immediate relief of The New Deal. People looked for Roosevelt to act in an authoritarian way.

“That kind of desperation lurks today, I believe, in many parts of western Europe and in the United States,” Kalb said. “And that’s why my deepest concern at the moment, there’s a creeping authoritarianism which becomes in a daily way, weekly, monthly, becomes more normal and you see it as simply the way things are and you ride with it. But at what point does it cut into what you feel is a fundamental right that you have?”

According to Kalb, the next few years in American politics will be, “the test of whether democracy can actually survive,” and he urges both reporters and the American people ask tough questions.

“’Why’ is a simple three letter word, but it cuts so deeply into American politics,” Kalb said. “Why are you doing this? Why must it continue this way? Why?”