Journalism’s Tim Russert Problem
Skull & Bones on the Potomac
My sympathies go to Tim Russert’s family. My father died the same way: massive heart attack in the middle of the day, in the prime of his life (he was 46, Russert was 58). Shock doesn’t begin to describe the effect on those who stay behind. Try anger, try a sense of loss that, contrary to greeting-card drivel, never fades until, I expect, one’s own final collapse. Russert wasn’t family, but it’s fair to say, as the casket-lidded lines at the end of obituaries usually do, that his survivors include the 3 million viewers who tuned in every Sunday to watch “Meet the Press,” and even the procession of politicians who’ve been squirming their way through his show since 1991. Sadly for us, television personalities can seem closer to us than family members. Russert, however, never had that effect on me.
Respect for the man aside, there’s a matter of respecting journalism when assessing Russert’s place in the trade. That respect has been lacking in the almost universally fawning tributes to Russert and the craft he represented. Journalists and politicians from the president on down have formed yet another procession of praise and prostrations worthy of, say, Diana or Elvis. But Tim Russert?
That’s what journalism as we know it today is, primarily: an adjunct to the cult of celebrity, a shareholder in the business of image management to protect, foremost, the business of America. When the powerful pay tribute to Russert (“he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades,” were President Bush’s autopilot words) they’re paying tribute to themselves—to the establishment Russert represented, defended and, unfortunately for us, encrusted.
You expect politics to be a game between scoundrels, to be “the art of governing mankind by deceiving them,” as Isaac Disraeli (Benjamin’s son) put it. You don’t expect journalists to enable the fraud, but to unravel it, at least occasionally. Russert’s reputation rested on the no-nonsense interview designed to do just that. It was more reputation than reality. Since the Age of Reagan, the perception of tough journalism has paralleled the perception of integrity in politics when, all along, politics and journalism have been complicit in legitimizing spin—interpretation ahead of fact. In more honest days, we’d call that propaganda. But that’s one of those “shrill” words not to be used in polite company, and Russert’s court was nothing if not a weekly oath to the appropriate.
The late Michael Kelly, a reporter and editor whose death in Iraq in 2003 was to my mind a greater blow to journalism than Russert’s, described this in a piece for The New York Times Magazine in 1993 (two years into Russert’s stint at “Meet”): “On the Sunday talk shows, the celebrity host and the celebrity reporter and the celebrity political strategist sit side by side, and the distinctions between them are not apparent to the naked eye. In effect, they are one, members of the faith, the stars of a culture they themselves have created. Indeed, they have acknowledged their oneness. They have given themselves a name, the Insiders, and a language. The language reveals, as all languages do, a great deal about how its speakers see themselves and the world. It is self-referential, self-important, self-mocking and very nearly (if subconsciously) self-loathing. It is deeply cynical. It portrays a society where to be knowing is to admit the fraud of one’s functions in the act of performing them.” At least, they have the loathing right.
Two weeks before the Iraq war, I attended a taping of “Meet the Press.” Among Russert’s guests: Fred Thompson, the actor and occasional conservative senator (talk about oneness), and Mike Farrell, the liberal activist, actor and star of M*A*S*H. Farrell had produced an ad for Citizens United, arguing against going to war, “endangering the lives of our troops, expending horrendous amounts of money . . . that has not been budgeted for, and the American people haven’t been told about the expense of it,” all over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist while “Osama bin Forgotten” remained at large. Thompson, who was featured in his own ad name-calling war opponents, was brought on to ridicule Farrell, and did, with this one line: “Oh, my goodness, where do you start?” The last five years, of course, kept providing the answer (at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and soon to be $1 trillion): You start by not going to war, an answer Farrell and like-minded, ridiculed war opponents already knew.
And Russert that day? His questions to Farrell were straight out of the White House playbook: “How can you say inspections are working when here we are 12 years after the Persian Gulf War, VX, anthrax, mustard still unaccounted for and inspectors have not been in Iraq for the last four years? We don’t know what the state of a potential nuclear program is.” Actually, United Nations inspectors were trying to do their job in Iraq, and various parts of the American intelligence community were discrediting the WMD allegations. We just weren’t told, and Russert wasn’t the kind of institution that questioned White House gospel.
In an interview with President Bush a year later, Russert posed all the right questions: “There’s a sense in the country that the intelligence that was given was ambiguous, and that you took it and molded it and shaped it—your opponents have said ‘hyped’ it—and rushed to war”; “Looking back, in your mind, is it worth the loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 injuries?”; “In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?” Those are the kind of questions that gave Russert his reputation as a tough interviewer. But, in every case, the question was a set-up for Bush to give his standard, pre-packaged answer, knowing he could trust Russert never to ridicule the packaging. Russert never did.
The truth is that on any night of the week Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” does more in a two-minute segment to show in politicians’ own words how venal, dishonest, contradictory and just plain dense they can be than Russert did in his Sunday services. Russert’s master was always the political structure he grilled, but never fundamentally questioned. You always knew whose side he was on: power, not truth—and, by power, I don’t mean his own, of which he had plenty, but the powerful men and occasional women he invited to his Versailles.
I mourn his death. But I wish I could mourn the death of the journalism he represented. To the detriment of journalism and malinformed citizens, that parody lives on.
From the email bin (most recent at the top, mostly):
As a former journalist and Hill staffer, I say, well-put.
A bigger bite, and a deeper bite, than the usual cry in the wilderness of journalism where printed thought's destiny is to be crapped on tomorrow by birds in brassy cages, ignored by the indifferent, the only consolation for which is the occasional response. While it might live in its paper form no longer, a reformation of its central point with the Russert (or any other hook's) distraction chiseled a way, there is a classic there, hidden in the stone. It doesn't need "repackaging," it needs stripping naked. First-rate writing.
Thanks for helping me to better understand why I was never really satisfied with russert´s line of questioning and who he questioned.
All the wannabe Katie Courics, Brian Williamses and Charlie Gibsons are complicit in keeping the spin going. I mourn the loss of the likes of Cronkite and Edw. R. Murrow. As we have witnessed, since the '80's, the media appear to be interested in selling the latest administration folly. ( I was riveted to the TV during Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings.) It may be a long time with more decline of our democracy and the environment for us to experience integrity, ethics and honesty in our government. Sad to see. Thanks, Pierre, for telling it like it is,
Nice article on Russert. It's very telling that Bush went to his funeral--and not to any of the soldiers he helped murder. And then--can you imagine Bush going to, say, Michael Moore's funeral?!
May I suggest you read the wonderful article by Roger Simon on Politico.com. I am sorry you just do not get what the rest of do. I do admire your writing and your intellect, but I must take exception with this particular article.
Check out this page:
Maybe this will give you a different point of view.
Thank you for this very important column. An outstanding piece of insight and perspective. I am spreading it around and will mention it on my show tomorrow.
Lynnell Mickelsen, Co-host
Truth to Tell & CivicMedia/Minnesota
KFAI Radio, 90.3 Minneapolis/106.7 St. Paul
As you are aware, CommonDreams picked up your column, "Journalism's Tim Russert Problem" and it has been distributed far and wide. To the gentleman who forwarded it to me, I responded thusly:
I agree 100% with Tristam, although I wouldn't have used 9 paragraphs to say what I really thought about Russert. And even though Tristam tried to be a bit deferential when he wrote, "I mourn his death", I couldn't even go that far. I'll not soon forget Russert's involvement in pillorying Bill Clinton during the Lewinski debacle. His roughing up Gore while soft-balling Jr. during the 2000 campaign still galls me. And let's not forget his involvement in the Valerie Plame case.
It is a slam against the likes of Cronkite and Murrow for someone like Timmeh to be branded the ultimate journalist.
I detested the man.
Thanks for telling it like it is,
I've been flipping thru channels and deleting emails to avoid the ad nauseam tributes to Russert. I was left feeling a bit like I'm a heartless creature when finally I read your comments in The Smirking Chimp.
I had grown increasingly disgusted with "Meet the Press" for a long time now but often returned to see who Russert was pandering to this week. Russert seemed apologetic thru his jovial mannerisms but I thought it was a cover up of his true alliances. The only time he truly seemed tough was when he would interview non-conservatives. Then he could be merciless.
Rascals die the same as heroes; only, in this place in time... political rascals are celebrated.
Thanks for speaking real.
Thank you for exposing that the Emperor has no clothes. I did not watch Russert often because it was two seconds into a program when I knew he was coddling the Repugs. When celebrities die, the news media goes into reverse, then charges ahead with everything short of sainthood. Your article was most refreshing.
PS I also read an article about Russert, when he worked for Cuomo in Albany. Ugh.
You sound like yet another third-stringer who doesn’t deserve to lick Russert’s shoes. Anyone who believes a comedy show is more newsworthy than Meet the Press is either a comedian himself or a blathering idiot.
Pierre who? The Daytona Beach what?
Well said. Yes he us being made a saint. Matthews even made him the leader of 911 analysis. When will the censorship stop??? If any of the pet issues of the left were censored as the scientific based events that happened in NYC on 9-11 my my what would be said. Do you have any ideas why the censorship of simple science. All fallin gobjects take teh path of LEAST resistance not the path of greatest resistance!! That is as basic as it gets and an absolute proof the the official story is not true, is a lie. Call me if you have questions Peace
Almost all of the questions asked the pols are fake and Tim was one of the best at making himself appear tough. But he did nail Kucinich on UFOs.
I just read your piece entitled "Journalism’s Tim Russert Problem" and I could not agree with you more. I lost what little respect I had for the man as a journalist when he was questioning the democratic presidential candidates and made it a point to ridicule Dennis Kucinich publicly by asking him about his UFO sighting, implying that he was mentally unstable and "out there" in his views. To me, Kucinich is one of the few politicians who actually has the courage to tell it like it is concerning the occupation in Iraq (I refuse to call it a war), as well as being a breath of sanity on other topics, especially in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and America's lopsided favoritism. But Russert asked inane and vapid questions that were mostly fluff and tabloidish. I fail to see what all the praise for him is. I do mourn the death of any man, but let it be with earned praise that is given. Regards,
Excellent piece on Russert. And my sentiments excactly. When we (millions
of us all over the world) were on the streets protesting this grotesque Iraq
war crime, Tim in there day after day pitching the soft balls.
Thanks for writing this piece - I have been waiting for someone to step up
to the plate. So to speak.
All the best,
- Louis Dunn
Right on Sir. I cannot believe once again what is happening in the US media. It just never stops, does it? And the people take it all without the slightest protest.
Truly, the country ought to read Rick Shenkman's book: Are we really that stupid?
Yes, the American people are if they put up with all of this and it isn't getting any better at all, in fact it seems to get worse and worse.
Soon, there will be no democracy left.
I fully agree with your assessment of Tim Russert as a journalist. I could not bear listening to him any longer, especially not after 9/11.
Thanks for your good work,
Nice job on your article on Tim Russert - - it reflects exactly my thoughts about him for years. Certainly likeable and very sad that he has passed away. However, his enabling of the phony journalism characteristic of the conservative dark age is something few are willing properly to shout from the rooftops for fear of an MSM fatwah being issued upon one's head.
Thank you so much, and best wishes.
I read your article on CommonDreams.org--a wonderful link to
progressive opinion like yours throughout the nation & the world for
us here in the desert sun of El Paso, TX.
Thank you. The praise that has been put forth of Tim Russert as a
paragon of progressive journalism has made me doubt my judgment, if
not my sanity. I appreciate your thoughtful and well-documented editorial.
I now and then browse Common Dreams, but I dislike the blogging that follows a piece - they are mostly about the egos of the bloggers. So responding by email instead. As you say in your article, Tim Russert is interchangeable with x or y. The problem is television itself, at least the American brand of it. The capitalists probably never could have imagined a more perfect means of suppressing thought and/or analysis than the electronic medium, where news and sports are but the fillings between the slices of commercials. Whatever the news content, no matter how watered down, the subliminal message is buy buy buy consume consume consume - Buy-Consume is interchangeable with Demoracy and Patriotism. It seems no matter how desperate our citizens become, losing their homes to sub-prime mortage, unable to afford to drive their cars to work, etc etc, they will sit passive in fron the the TV. And now cellphones, text messaging are but an extension of this idiocy. Even Bill Moyers has to watch it he doesn't get too sharp - and he is also somewhat muffled by his preacherism. Now I sound like one of those bloggers, hey? There is so much talk about the disappearance of newspapers - this is only another aspect of how electronic media (granted, I am using the internet) helps to undermine literacy and thought. I myself am from the working class, and proud of it, however, my working class brothers and sisters do not, for the most part, read!
I like the title of your web page. My own is www.debslaborensemble.org - Bill Witherup, Seattle
I read your pieces regularly and enjoy them. I really liked your piece on Russert and was wondering when someone would write the piece you did. Tim sounded like a much better person than a professional. I am amazed at how much attention and ridiculous praise has been heaped upon him. I watched regularly with disgust as he would slaughter the likes of Dean or Kucinich while giving BushCo softballs with no follow up or clarifying editorials. More than any other, he created the celebrity talking head which has been devastating for politics and journalism as you rightly point out.
He was no Lawrence Spivak, let alone no Edward R Murrow. It would have been illuminating to hear the network execs’ discussions fire up the propaganda machine for their boy. I do feel for his family but will not miss his lopped sided, self-serving rubbish.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for your Russert piece. I was wondering when/if someone was going to step up and say with intelligence and guts what had to be said.
Sincerely, Chuck Nakell
just wanted to say thank you...
Regarding your comments on Tim Russert in the June 17 issue of The News-Journal:
I, once again, agree with you completely. He may have been a smart man and even a good man but certainly not the saint the media is portraying.
I continually appreciate the way you look through the fluff and get at the real story.
I always enjoy your work and find it to be a voice of reason in the circus of celebrity journalism.
Thanks for keeping it real.
Ormond Beach, FL
I met you at the UU Church in Ormond Beach not so long ago when you addressed the Volusia/Flagler Chapter of the ACLU there. We chatted for a minute after your talk. I appreciate the fact that in your article, you have gotten beyond the façade in the praising of Tim Russert and put it in some context. It is absolutely true that Russert was aggressive within a clearly marked field and in the end was lockstep with the establishment. He was one of the cheerleaders for the company line and the war machine, to be sure. Your remarks were refreshing and on point. Thanks.
Russell Mootry, Jr.
While I agree with many of your sentiments. I also have been around long enough to
look at how questions are asked. Russert often asked what seemed to be to be "dumb" questions, but I believe they were asked with the hope that the person answering the question will fill in blank spots, or say something that defines the question.
The two main kinds of reporters - in my mind - are opinionated- partisan reporters and reporters who report the facts without coloring the news with their point of view.
The Daily show is brilliant at what it does. It has a very definite view point. Apples and oranges / Daily and Russert. I would not say one is better than the other. They do serve different masters and different audiences. Yes there should be more reporters digging for truth. Newspapers did not keep Bush out of the white house. Television did not get Gore in. Radio failed. The internet is getting stronger. The biggest problem is not that reporters didn't tell the truth. . . but that interest groups like religion, industry, politicians, spread the lies because their definition of freedom means freedom to cheat, lie, steal.