The Tim Russert media response, explained

His death is receiving media treatment usually reserved for former presidents, and that's because he represented the higher standards of an era that seems to be passing away.
(NBC)

(NBC) None

"Breaking News" flashed on my MSNBC screen last week. Then a sober NBC senior-statesman Tom Brokaw appeared. Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," Brokaw announced, had just died of a heart attack at 58.

I checked the other cable news channels. All were carrying the same bulletin. There then ensued non-stop hours, then days, then a full week of tributes, panel discussions, retrospectives and other electronic and print media coverage devoted to Russert. Funeral and memorial services were held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, June 18, with presidential candidates, capital political and media figures, and the usual see-and-be-seen attention seekers in attendance, hoping to be photographed or, with good luck, interviewed.

A non-political friend called me from Florida: "I did not realize," she said, "that Russert was a former president of the United States."

It is important to separate Russert, the person and professional, from the spectacle that has followed his death. What is going on?

During my last years of many in Washington, D.C. policy and politics, I became increasingly aware of Russert and his wife, magazine writer Maureen Orth, as part of a circle of on-the-move men and women of their age who meant to make their mark on the capital. I observed Russert's rise from an aide to New York Sen. Pat Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo to his host position at the influential "Meet the Press" Sunday interview show and, at the same, NBC News' capital bureau chief. Network news bureau chiefs traditionally had been inside players who seldom appeared on the air. Russert not only ran the bureau but became its most visible on-air talent.

I thought Russert did a tough, no-holds-barred professional job as "Meet the Press" host and a regular commentator on political issues on NBC and MSNBC. Moreover, although he himself came from classic blue-collar Democratic lineage (Roman Catholic boy from Buffalo), he let no bias slip through as he dealt tough hands to guests of all political outlooks. I saw him as a throwback to the pre-boomer era when that was pretty much the style of all political journalists. He stood in contrast, for example, to MSNBC's Chris Matthews and ABC's George Stephanopolous, who also had come up as Democratic political aides but whose own biases often became all too clear as they interviewed guests or expressed themselves on the air. (Matthews, in fact, appeared for a time during this year's Democratic presidential nominating season to have appointed himself a one-man wrecking gang of Sen. Hilllary Clinton's candidacy, often prefacing his commentary with such phrases as "In private, Hillary can be charming but ... etc."). Russert was a generation-younger version of CBS' Bob Schieffer, a thorough professional with the same ego as other performers but who knew that his guests and his subject matter were the stories and that he was not. He also, by all accounts, kept a sharp eye on his own interests, limiting his appearances on MSNBC so as not to devalue his association with main-tent NBC.

Thinking back, I can remember a wonderful Washington National Cathedral memorial service for Peter Lisagor, a universally respected Chicago Daily News correspondent also frequently on television. The closing tribute to Lisagor noted that "If Pete were here, he would be laughing at this whole spectacle." And he would have. New York Times columnist James Reston, perhaps the most influential journalistic voice in the country over a 20-year period, died at the end of 1995. His service was attended by Times executives and staff, family, and perhaps 100 others in the capital who had known or worked with him over the years. It was a modest occasion, as he would have wished it. Why would Russert draw stronger and longer public tributes than a Lisagor, a Reston, former NBC anchorman John Chancellor, CBS' Howard K. Smith, or even the legendary Edward R. Murrow? Or, for that matter, distinguished public servants, scientists, authors, and others who had died recently?


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 18, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Russert spectacle shows media at its worst: I think Tim Russert was an exceptionally good journalist. He was virtually the only TV news interviewer who could drill past the sound bites and really make politicians answer questions. He also did an excellent job parking his political biases (which were great) and treated all of his subject with the same professional intensity.

Having said that, as a journalist myself, I am embarrassed by the coverage of his death, especially by NBC – his home network. It was a perfect example of the media's view of its own self-importance. Did you know that CNN delayed reporting its story for fear that Russert's family (who were traveling in Europe) did not have to hear the news on TV? Can you imagine them doing that for anyone else?

MSNBC – whose biased, sloppy journalism has marginalized itself almost beyond repair – ran a 36-hour Russert-A-Thon immediately after his death (not counting their wall-to-wall coverage of his funeral today.) It was stunning over-reaction.

The only reason all of this happened is because Russert was one of them. He was a well-known, well-liked journalist. What he wasn't was a public figure whose contribution to society merited this level of coverage.

The media did all of this for one reason : They did it because they could. As a result, they have further promoted the image of themselves as self-absorbed, navel-gazing snobs. An impression that may not be that far from the truth.
Bruce

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 6:06 a.m. Inappropriate

"Tim Russert Award for Journalism": Please let me be the 1st to call for the creation of the "Tim Russert Award for Journalism"
Crucial criteria;
1 Distinction in the practice of a strictly non-partisan approach to covering the news and interviewing news makers (Russert was a liberal but he never wore it on his sleeve)
2 Distinction in the practice fairness by covering the pros and cons of any issue with a fair sense of balance
3 Distinction in the practice in uncovering new facts and information that enlightens the public debate. Aggressive pursuit of the facts and the truth.
4 Distinction in the practice of practicing journalism that presents information, positions and options but DOES NOT ADVOCATES a position point of view or policy.
5 Distinction in the practice of providing facts, research and information that is credible and not pseudo science or advocacy group positions (unidentified experts cited) masquerading as legitimate studies
6 Distinction in the practice of using named souses and minimizing unnamed sources.
7 Distinction in the practice of thorough journalism that avoids omission of relevant facts
Any award that uses Russert's name that does not use this crucial criteria would be a travesty and disservice to him and his brand of fair journalism.

Steve L

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Response by Ted Van Dyk: Excellent comments. Others of similar quality have been received via e-mail.
There is one factor I neglected to mention: Although the politicos and public officials paying tribute to Russert no doubt meant their tributes genuinely, I can assure you that many of them also felt themselves part of made-for-TV celebrity events rather than genuine mourning. I mentioned that, at Peter Lisagor's years-ago memorial service, it was noted that he would have laughed at the whole business. Russert, if still NBC News' Washington, DC bureau chief, no doubt would have told told his colleagues to calm themselves.

Russert was a good man and professional journalist. The circus surrounding his death should in no way mar his reputation.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Another word about Tiim Russert: Tim Russert apparently led an exemplary personal life, and was strong on dedication to his job, commitment to his family. The better people knew him, and/or worked with him, the more they seemed to admire and like him.

But "great journalist"? Not IMHO. A provocative, energetic pundit, commentator, and interviewer, but less than exemplary in his penchant for "when did you stop beating your wife?" questions, needlessly excessive confrontational style, picking at less than important details in interviews to score "gotchas," forcing interviewees to re-hash responses to his questions often based on unstated or unjustified assumptions, etc.

He did not "Meet the Press." But that show never has or did, even in the days of Lawrence Spivak. It has always consisted of interviews with newsmakers, which is something quite different.

However, "de mortuis nil nisi bonum." Let's rather acknowledge that the medium of TV pushes Russert and all talking heads toward providing infotainment. Or else their ratings dip and they become toast to their corporate managements.
Charlton

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 5:55 p.m. Inappropriate

don't watch it if you don't like it: NBC and other channels broadcast about Russert but he was one of their own and they should do that. America loved it and watched it. If you didn't want to watch it turn the channel and stop complaining.

cater

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 7:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Cheney's "Go to Guy": Lest we forget, Russert was Cheney's "go to guy", Rove's boy, when they wanted to get their message out. How quickly everyone has forgotten the Libby trial.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Apparently Russert's death is now supposed to be a learning experience: This in the New York Times' "Well" blog post "Could a Defibrillator Have Saved Tim Russert?":

"One of the many lessons from Mr. Russert's death is that everybody should find out whether their building has a portable defibrillator and where it is located, and then learn how to use it."

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Apparently Russert's death is now supposed to be a learning experience: Here's another from the Times: "From a Prominent Death, Some Painful Truths."

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