Tim Russert was loved even by those he
made look bad. It seems that Russert, before he died June 13 at age 58,
earned a reputation as the hardest worker around. He made his native
Buffalo proud, becoming a figure recognized nationwide and respected
and feared by those in power coast to coast. He became an endearing
figure to many families through the books he wrote about his
relationship with his dad. Even Bruce Springsteen interrupted his
concert in Great Britain the night Russert died to dedicate “Thunder
Road” to the man he described as an “unreplacable (sic) important voice
in American journalism.”
There have been many tributes to
Russert. People in the news world, running the gamut from Christopher
Hitchens to Tom Brokaw, spoke of him with admiration and awe. Mary
Matlin and James Carville agree about very little, at least in public,
but both broke down in the Meet the Press studio on June 15
contemplating his empty chair. His work ethic, his personality, his
long career impressed a nation. He has been lauded as a political
operative, a commentator, an analyst, an interviewer and a journalist.
Journalist? Although it is considered
unseemly to do anything but praise the newly departed, I have to ask a
question: Was Tim Russert really a journalist?
He began his career in politics, working
for years on the staff of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York state’s
academic senator, and then for Gov. Mario Cuomo. These were heavyweight
politicians and serious thinkers, and good training for someone who
later moderated presidential debates. He helped frame policy issues for
both the senator and the governor with a lawyer’s clarity and a
Then, like Bill Moyers before him and
George Stephanopoulous after him, he made the leap from working for the
politicians to covering them. Russert joined NBC’s Washington, D.C.,
news bureau and within four years became its chief. He reigned on
television through the 1990s and into the new century, becoming the
voice-over we heard during the replay of many important events, ranging
from the stolen 2000 election to the terrorist attacks on the World
Trade Center. He was the voice of even-handed moderation in many a
discussion, and could always be counted on to remind his guests of
their previous statements, especially if they were contradictory.
But a journalist, in the end, is someone
who goes somewhere, finds out what’s happening, and tells us about it.
A journalist digs into the unknown and makes it known, she shines light
on things that heretofore have been kept in the dark. Journalists
Russert wasn’t about investigating, he
was about interrogating. He wasn’t about breaking news, he was about
analyzing, framing, putting things in context. He was no media pretty
boy; he asked tough questions, and did it in a way that both informed
and, for some of us, entertained. He was a debater, eager to find the
flaw in his guest’s argument and challenge it. He did it all very well,
but I don’t think what he did qualifies as journalism.
Why should it matter? Because the
Russert period in American journalism will, sadly, be known as a time
when personality came to mean much more than substance. It is the
period when the news cycle expanded and the information imparted
diminished. And it is the period when talking heads replaced
hard-headed reporters in controlling what passed for a common
understanding of what was happening in the news. In the Ronald Reagan
years and their aftermath, perception not only came to matter more than
reality, it became reality.
Why should it matter? What’s the difference? On Sept. 8, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press. That same morning the New York Times
broke the story that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire aluminum
tubes to be used to produce nuclear weapons. Cheney talked about the Times’
story as a fact, and Russert didn’t question the claims. The story
later turned out to be false, planted by questionable sources connected
to the Bush administration. But in the moment, the double whammy of a New York Times story and its endorsement on Meet the Press went a long way toward helping the administration sell what has become a disastrous war.
Moyers, in his 2007 documentary Buying the War,
interviews Russert about the omission. Here’s what Moyers had to say to
Russert: “Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times. And then the vice president comes on your show and points to the New York Times. It’s a circular, self-confirming leak.”
Russert responded that he only learned of the Times
story when he read it in the paper. He expressed the wish that the
people within the CIA who had doubts about the claims had called him.
“My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other
government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung.”
Reporters don’t wait for the phone to
ring. Bob Simon of ABC and Jonathan Landay of Knight-Ridder did the
hard reporting that questioned the sources behind the administration’s
claims. But it was too late: The administration’s manipulation of the
Times and the Sunday talk shows went a long way toward convincing a
frightened public to allow this war.
It is part of the American character to
be skeptical and to question authority. At his best, Russert embodied
this national trait well. But he worked in an era in which the number
of actual reporters shrank while the numbers of pundits, analysts and
“on-camera talent” mushroomed. Russert, like the rest of us, relied on
those pesky reporters to help tease out fact from fiction.