Monday, June 16, 2008

Tim Russert Was No Walter Cronkite

Russert with James Carville, one of the mad dogs of the punditocracy
I am not a contrarian by nature and feel bad when I hurt people's feelings, and I have held off writing about NBC News's Tim Russert, who passed away on Friday of a heart attack at age 58, because of the strange double standard we have about speaking ill of the famous dead.
But a hopefully respectful amount of time has passed, as well as Father's Day, so here goes:
I felt embarrassed watching the orgy of self-important coverage about Russert on the networks and cable news shows. You would have thought that someone really big like the Pope had died. This is because at heart I remain an old-school journalist who believes that becoming part of a story – which Russert did with proud regularity – is a cardinal sin and that the death, marriage or the winning of an award by one of our own should be duly and briefly noted, but then it is time to get back to work.
The "Meet the Press" host was by all accounts a loving husband, father and son who went about his business joyously, but I am at a loss to understand why that made him so special.
Russert was praised for asking tough questions in a business where everyone should ask tough questions, and if they can't need to find another line of work. Like becoming a White House press secretary.
Russert was praised for his integrity, but I fail to see what was so principled about his obsession with playing the "Gotcha" game and needling his guests to respond to the latest media feeding frenzy over some non-issue.
Russert was praised for his modesty, but what I saw was an outsized sense of his $5 million per year self worth that is typical in the business, while it was noted amidst all of the clubbish praise that he was jealously protective of the "Tim Russert brand" and careful not to overexpose himself.
Russert was praised for his love of politics, but that deep affection pretty much blinded him to the Inside the Beltway rot that certainly did not begin with the Age of Bush but has taken on a toxicity that has driven many Americans to drop out when it comes to their citizenly obligations.
Calling Tim Russert one of the pre-eminent journalists of his generation – and excrebly comparing him to Walter Cronkite, which some of his colleagues did -- is damning him and the industry with faint praise. Besides which, Russert wasn't even a journalist in the traditional sense. He was an interviewer with a research staff.
The big and not least bit surprising message that I took away from the non-stop coverage on Friday night is that the journos praising Russert as well as the dear departed himself considered themselves to be insiders and integral to the process of politics and government. It should come as no surprise that I would put it slightly differently: Members of the Washington press corps are pretty much bought, as the harsh reactions to Scott McClellan's observations about it in his blockbuster best seller showed.
Don't misunderstand me. Tim Russert was very good at what he did, and I acknowledge that a cynicism born of personal experience colors my views of the passing of this leading news media celebrity. But Russert was a bigger part of the problem than the solution, and if he was an exemplar of the best the news business has to offer then it indeed has fallen far.
Photograph by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Finally! Somebody other than myself thinks that the coverage of TR's death was an orgy of MSM self-centered navel gazing. I'm sad for his family and his colleges, but after a half hour of hearing Wolf Blitzer bleet on about it, I kept thinking to myself, "So, how many soldiers died in Iraq today?"