Saturday, June 14, 2008

More on Tim Russert

I agree with everything Rob says about the late Tim Russert in his post, but in the spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, let me try to say something nice. Yes, he could flog the conventional wisdom unmercifully, was awfully full of himself, and often descended to trivialities and bullying, and his behavior in the Valarie Plame case was dishonorable. But though he laid it on rather thickly, with those pseudo working class airs, many in western New York liked his frequent mentions of his dying home city of Buffalo, as a means of keeping faith with those, like himself, who left, and those who had no choice but to stay. (He had a typical diaspora mentality, never forgetting one’s sadly traduced place of birth, no matter how far or how high you travel.)

And while “gotcha” journalism, of which Russert was the leading exponent, could be very annoying, in many ways it was preferable to the insipidity that passed for most television news interviewing that Russert supplanted. Hard questions were really sort of an innovation, and he certainly exposed his share of hypocrites in his time.

I guess these thoughts were prompted by reading a transcript of Russert at his best, querying Dick Cheney in September 2002 on the administrations march to war. He asked Cheney lots of tough questions; on the lack of concrete evidence for weapons of mass destruction, the diffidence of allies to the prospective war, and the seeming lack of planning for post-war Iraq. Reading the transcript one wonders why there weren’t more interviews like that. Part of the reason was in Cheney’s answer, in which he referred to an article that appeared in the Times that very day, one of Judith Miller’s infamous “reports” that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, and part of the problem was simply that the Democrats were far too divided on this issue to serve as an effective opposition. It was less that tough questions weren’t asked, but that misleading answers were not effectively rebutted by people in positions of influence. Russert has his share of responsibility for this, but so does the New York Times and other media outlets, and the Democratic Party as a whole. In the end—and I am paraphrasing something Rob has told me many times---if our politicians are not courageous, it is foolish to think that the press can or will act in their stead. I hope the best of what Tim Russert represented, his sometime speaking truth to power, will live on, and his successors learn to speak more powerfully, and with greater truthfulness.

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