Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on Tim Russert

Tim Russert's death is a tragedy for his family and friends, but the first wave of stories about his career bear all the signs of Washington insider journalism: consensual, conventional, and congratulatory. Russert deserves a tougher appraisal. However decent he may have been as a human being, I've always had very mixed feelings about him as a journalist. In many ways, he embodied some of the worst aspects of today's news culture.

To begin by giving credit where it is due: as a former political staffer, Russert realized that politicians do important work. He didn't embrace the standard view, far too common among journalists, that all politicians are sinners and all reporters are saints.

Russert also, in the late days of the recent Hillary Clinton campaign, struck a blow for truly independent journalism by pointing out that the simple fact of the race was that Clinton didn't have the delegate votes to win the nomination. He didn't stick to the "he says, she says, figure it out for yourself" formula of conventional news reporting that often obscures more than it reveals.

But beyond that, there is much that bothers me about Russert's work.

He wasn't the first political insider to become a journalist, but his career path accelerated the revolving door between politics and the news media. And that reinforces voters' perception that politics and journalism are an elite game--one that is cynical, irrelevant, and beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Russert made much of his Buffalo roots, but ultimately he was a Washington insider. His questions reflected conventional Washington assumptions about what works and what matters.

In truth, I followed the reactions to Russert's work more than I watched Russert himself. But when I did tune in to the occasional episode of "Meet the Press" or special event coverage, I wasn't always impressed. He had some good moments, but he could also be bombastic. A lot of his allegedly tough questioning amounted to hammering people who were already on the ropes before they went on his show. And he had a bad habit of asking questions soaked in a very flawed conventional wisdom.

I'll never forget one episode with John Kerry during the 2004 election when Kerry knocked Russert back onto his heels.

Russert opened the interview with an old clip of Kerry, when he was a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, criticizing the atrocities that US troops had committed in Vietnam.

Russert played the clip, turned to Kerry, and asked him if he wanted to add anything.

Lamely, Kerry joked about how much more hair he had back then.

Russert pressed forward. He asked Kerry if he didn't want to recognize that many of these old allegations about atrocities in Vietnam had been proven false.

Kerry stiffened. Then he came right back at Russert and stated the facts of the matter: atrocities were committed and subsequent investigations had revealed that they were an even bigger problem than we knew during the war.

Russert backed off and pursued another line of questioning. But if he had been a consistently tough and searching reporter, he never would have asked a question grounded in false premises in the first place.

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