Lynn native Steve Chaggaris guides CBS News’ coverage
By MEAGHAN CASEY
As much insight as Steve Chaggaris may have had as CBS News’ senior political editor, even he couldn’t have written the end to the 2016 presidential election.
“I had a pretty good sense that it would be a historic campaign, but I never imagined a businessman/celebrity with no political background would be elected,” said Chaggaris, now CBS News’ political director.
“It was unbelievable, but fascinating. I think it’ll go down as one of the most interesting election years, at least from a history standpoint.”
Chaggaris, a Lynn native and St. John’s Prep graduate, leads CBS News’ political and campaign coverage and provides on-air reporting and analysis across the network’s broadcast and digital platforms.
Having run the network’s political unit that covered the election, Chaggaris says early days on the campaign trail suggested business as usual.
“It was a pretty traditional start with candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton — names we were all familiar with,” Chaggaris said. “When Jeb announced he had already raised $100 million, we were thinking it would be a Bush/Clinton election. There was speculation that maybe [Marco] Rubio or [Chris] Christie would make a splash, but Trump really wasn’t on the radar early on.”
Yet, Chaggaris, who has been with CBS News since 1999, wasn’t ruling Trump out once he hit the campaign trail.
“I was one of the few to say, on the record, that he had the money and had a message, and he was polling pretty well,” Chaggaris said. “Whether you took him seriously or not, he was a candidate.”
During a CBS News broadcast in July of 2015 — exactly a month after Trump officially declared his candidacy — Chaggaris said on air: “It’s a combination of name recognition and of the message he’s sending to Republicans that you need a tough talker in order to get things done. Whether he’s the one at the end of the day who gets the nomination remains to be seen, but it should be a signal to the other dozen or so candidates that members of the party, conservatives at least, are looking for someone who’s going to slam Obama, who’s going to talk about what he’s going to get done as president and basically who’s going to be a fighter against Hillary Clinton in the general election.”
He attributed a lot of Trump’s popularity to the “simmering frustration” among part of the Republican party after losing the elections in 2008 and 2012.
“In the end, he wound up connecting with voters,” said Chaggaris. “People just wanted someone to shake the system up. It wasn’t something that anyone could have predicted, but I think it’s telling that there are a lot of people who are fed up with Washington and with politicians.”
Chaggaris had his first hint that Trump had a real shot of winning the general election when he was home for Easter in the spring of 2016.
“I remember driving to Lynnfield from Logan and seeing a number of Trump signs,” he said. “In hindsight, it was a wakeup call that I saw more signs for Trump than Clinton in a blue state like Massachusetts. I started thinking, this guy is resonating with people you don’t expect.”
In the meantime, Chaggaris faces his own challenges in terms of how to present news during a time in which journalism itself has come under attack. “As political director, my goal is to cover politics without bias and to tell both sides of the story,” he said. “In this time of fake news and partisan news, we’re just trying to be real news.”
Chaggaris participates in a weekly podcast, “The Takeout,” with CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett. Discussing politics, policy and pop culture, the two chat with guests and analyze the week’s political news over lunch at D.C. restaurants.
“I’ve learned so much working with the likes of Major Garrett, Bob Schieffer, John Dickerson and so many more,” said Chaggaris. “It’s incredible that these people are my peers now. I’ll never take those things for granted.”
Chaggaris also had an interesting role in prepping CBS News’ Elaine Quijano for the vice presidential debate last year, which she moderated.
“For three weeks we were sequestered, putting questions together,” he said. “To have such a key role in that was pretty cool. It’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
Chaggaris says his interest in broadcast journalism and politics developed at an early age.
“I watched a lot of TV and news as a kid,” said Chaggaris, who attended Shoemaker Elementary School in Lynn. He split his middle school years between Pickering Middle School in Lynn and Lynnfield Middle School.
After graduating from St. John’s Prep in 1990, he went to Ithaca College, earning a television-radio degree. He was particularly inspired by one of his professors, Alan Schroeder, a former journalist, television producer and diplomat and author of several books, including “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail” and “Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House” (ironically published in 2004). Chaggaris got his foot in the door at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., where he worked as a production assistant for nearly a year before he made the move to D.C.
“I had some friends in D.C. so I saved enough for a few months’ rent and went down there,” he said. “I had made some thin connections with people there so I started out with some odd jobs — camera work, research for documentaries.”
In the summer of 1995, Chaggaris got his break and was hired by C-SPAN for a temporary position in the promotions department. That led to a four-year career with C-SPAN on the programming side. Among the many standout moments of his career, the first would be the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego. “It was my first political convention and as a 23-year-old kid, it was amazing,” he said.
He began his CBS News career in 1999 as an associate producer in the political unit. He vividly remembers the coverage of his first major election in 2000 — recount and all.
“When it wasn’t called, they sent us home at 7 a.m.,” said Chaggaris. “That was something. It was also pretty incredible because I was sitting on set with the anchors, just feet away from Dan Rather.”
During the 9/11 attacks, Chaggaris was sent out to cover the Pentagon, sitting in on a briefing with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“It was heart-wrenching and it can’t compare to anything else I’ve done,” said Chaggaris. “It was the one time I truly felt the weight of history.”
Other major assignments have included covering Congress and working as an embedded campaign reporter covering John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run.
“As a kid from Massachusetts, it was amazing to be in Boston for the convention and see Kerry announced as the Democratic candidate,” said Chaggaris.
Although he doesn’t return to the North Shore as often as he’d like (especially for stops at Kowloon, Kelly’s and Land ’n Sea), Chaggaris says he’s still in touch with childhood friends, including Brian Field and Taso Nikolakopoulos, who are both seeking councilor-at-large seats in Lynn.
“It’ll be fun to follow them from afar,” said Chaggaris. “Seth Moulton is also an interesting story. We briefly covered him in 2014, and that was another election where voter connection mattered. It was a reminder to never take tenure for granted.”
As for Chaggaris, he doesn’t need anyone reminding him that he’s right where he wants to be.
“Somehow, I stumbled into a job that’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said. “I’m so grateful for that.”