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A Conversation with Chuck Todd and John Dickerson

So, as the moderator of one of the most popular and longest-running Sunday morning talk programs, how do you prepare to interview Donald Trump?

That was a question posed to Chuck Todd of NBC's Meet the Press and John Dickerson of CBS's Face the Nation during the question-and-answer session with the audience following the November 9 Kalb Report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

After all, Trump has made his foray to the top tier in the Republican presidential race by contesting every interviewer and making repeated exaggerated assertions.

Both Todd and Dickerson had interviewed Trump.

Todd began his response with a quip, "Well, we do it like Trump. We always wing it." But then he got serious.

"I never looked forward to an interview less than the first face-to-face I did with Trump because … he had personalized—and I am just going to be honest—he had personalized everything I had ever said," Todd said.

Marvin Kalb gave Todd a quizzical look. "What does that mean?"

Trump "just personally attacked me in his book, because I was the guy bringing the information that said he was the most unpopular person here," Todd replied. "He internalized it as me doing this. So I had no idea what to expect."

But then in the interview, Todd said he realized that Trump was no different from every other politician. "They're desperate for you to like them all the time. No matter what. I prepped for him the same way I prepped for any other interview."

Dickerson said that for him, the challenge was not in the preparation but how to manage the interview once it had started. When Trump says something, it is often so outrageous that deciding how to follow up is difficult.

"You can interject and correct," he said, "but when there's five different things, which one do you pick? And it's not necessarily a correction, but where do you press?"

Todd agreed that following a Trump answer is challenging. "I could go there, there, there, which is the beauty of him," he said. "I call it the spread offensive of political talk. You don't know where it's going."

"That adds to the excitement," Dickerson added.

Kalb, who was himself the moderator of Meet the Press in the 1980s, wanted to know how these two venerable shows—which go back 60 years—were faring and changing in this new generation of news media.

Todd said both Meet the Press and Face the Nation still provide an oasis of thought and understanding in an increasingly frantic news environment.

"We are 'sitting-back' television on Sunday mornings," Todd said. "[Viewers] are choosing, and they want to have a conversation, and they want a little bit more. You don't have to scream at them to keep their attention. We have the luxury of still being one of the few programs where … ahhh, take a breath, sit back, enjoy your cup of coffee."

Dickerson said the public's shredded attention span gives these shows a chance to be something different.

"There should be a place that's a bit of a sanctuary from the madness, where you can put things into context, let an answer develop, and have a conversation … that this is something worth pausing for."

And as the presidential election picks up, so are the numbers of people turning to the Sunday shows, Todd said.

"The audiences are gathering around again on Sunday," he said. "It's a nice feeling. I think we're seeing all of our boats rise."

Watch the program.

The Kalb Report is a joint project of the National Press Club, University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University, and Harvard University. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.