Saturday, June 14, 2008

Grieving For Tim Russert

Unless hermetically sealed in a dungeon you know that Tim Russert sadly died from a heart attack yesterday at the age of 58. Death is an egocentric experience for survivors. When loved ones or public figures pass on it's human nature to think about our own mortality and even grieve over people we've never met. And so I find myself grieving over the passing of Tim Russert. Yes Russert was integral to a corporate media I’ve come to despise but somehow I always cared about what he said while others were easy to tune out.

Tim Russert represented a new breed of journalist I’m not comfortable with: someone who crossed over from the world of politics. Legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell used to derisively refer to the "jockocracy" of former athletes who crossed over to sports journalism as "analysts" but added little value at the expense of professionalism. That's often been my feeling about people such as Tony Snow and George Stephanopolous who cashed in on their celebrity and exploited the corporatization of broadcast media.

On the surface, Russert seemed to personify this new breed. Watch video of New York Governor Mario Cuomo's iconic speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention and you'll see his smiling adviser Tim Russert sitting in the front row. Russert was an insider’s insider having served as Chief of Staff to New York’s legendary cerebral Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. How could such a man ever represent the people while covering the establishment?

And yet this new breed as represented by Tim Russert turned out to be a throwback to a bygone era. He relentlessly held the powerful accountable for their words and deeds. Russert first won my respect in 1992 when he grilled independent presidential candidate Ross Perot. At the time I didn’t watch Meet the Press regularly. I grew up watching ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley and regarded Russert as an unworthy upstart.

If you think back, at one point it seemed plausible that Ross Perot might prevail over a weak incumbent in George Herbert Walker Bush as well as a young embattled governor from a small state in Bill Clinton. Russert however skillfully exposed Perot as being out of his depth as well as illustrating a temperment not suitable for the presidency. Prior to that interview the media was consumed by Perot’s spell and Russert broke through in a way lifelong professionals hadn’t.

And so whenever Russert fell short I was instinctively more critical because I expected more from him. When someone establishes a threshold of excellence they have the burden of not falling below the standard they’ve set. And I always expected more from Tim Russert.

The shallow mediocrity of today’s media has become routine: horserace questions at the expense of substance, celebrity hype and regurgitation of the propaganda machine from the powerful in order to maintain access and preserve corporate interests. General Electric owns NBC so naturally their news division and Russert himself were not immune to those prerogatives and it frustrated me because I knew this smart guy with working class roots from Buffalo had to know better.

For example, Tim Russert consistently regurgitated the propaganda that Social Security was on the abyss, a position advocated by corporate interests represented in the media who wanted to privatize it. As Media Matters noted in December 2004:
“Media outlets and personalities, like NBC's Tim Russert, have generally repeated the Bush administration line that Social Security 'faces a crisis.' In fact, Social Security assets are not projected to be exhausted until 2042, at the earliest -- hardly the dire emergency the administration and the media portray. And even if no changes are made, tax income at that point would still cover 73 percent of costs, and the system could still pay out 68 percent by 2078.”
And as the Washington Bureau Chief of NBC News, Russert was complicit with the rest of the corporate media for failing to challenge the Bush Administration’s rationale for war. This exchange between Russert and Bill Moyers during a PBS documentary last year angered the hell out of me:
BILL MOYERS: What do you make of the fact that of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department?

TIM RUSSERT: It's important that you have a-- an oppos-- opposition party. That's our system of government.

BILL MOYERS: So, it's not news unless there's somebody-

TIM RUSSERT: No, no, no. I didn't say that. But it's important to have an opposition party, your opposit-- opposing views.
In a post at the time, I wrote:
“How the hell does any reporter justify allowing a political party to interpret the truth? Political parties are not about truth. Political parties are self-serving entities dedicated to obtaining and maintaining power. Since the Democrats were spineless and didn’t provide an alternative dialogue, Pincus and Russert believe they should be excused from doing their jobs? Ridiculous. Yes, Republicans were feculent and irresponsible while Democrats were feckless and cowardly. All the more reason for the press to do their job and relentlessly pursue the truth.”
The Pincus I refer to in that post is longtime Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus. I expected more of people such as Pincus and Tim Russert. Nevertheless, Russert was superior at holding the Bush Administration accountable for their lies and misdeeds afterwards.

We’ve all seen the famous clip of Dick Cheney telling Russert Americans would be regarded as liberators in Iraq. Russert was infinitely more thorough than his colleagues at preparing for interviews and challenging presidential aspirants. As Republican nominee John McCain recalled:
“I once told him I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation at prison camp.''
Barack Obama couldn’t be considered a serious candidate until he went one on one with Russert. Hillary Clinton’s ultra cautious staff knew that Tim Russert could not be ducked. You were not presidential timber if you avoided Tim Russert.

Personalities at NBC such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman have come under scrutiny for sexist remarks regarding Hillary Clinton this election season. Russert managed to be tough and hold Clinton accountable on issues such as the war or NAFTA without disrespecting her gender. As a man, a father, husband, brother and son, Russert wasn’t compelled to belittle women. Nor was he going to disrespect the first viable female presidential candidate by taking it easy on her. So many in the media struggled with the right protocol for covering Hillary Clinton’s candidacy while Russert simply remained a tough, thorough and fair professional.

Perhaps, Russert’s greatest legacy is cultural. His references to his father as “Big Russ” helped promote the ideal standards for fathers, sons and husbands: accountability, devotion to one’s family, respecting our wives and mothers, an optimistic work ethic and appreciation for our dads.

Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I grieve for Russert’s father who suffered the worst parental nightmare: outliving their children. How sad for Russert’s own son poised to celebrate Father’s Day following his graduation at Boston University to lose his Dad. For the rest of his life Father's Day will bring pangs of pain and I'm in pain just thinking about it.

I know that every Sunday morning I’m going to miss Tim Russert. This campaign it's become routine for me to go online and play some snippet of daily analysis from Russert. Now, every time I watch some pseudo journalist ask one horserace question after another in some short sound bite interview I will feel his absence.

Thankfully, I still have my own Dad to call on Father’s Day and talk about politics and life with. Nobody should ever take that for granted.


upinVermont said...

The problem with America's media, as I see it, is in their self-congratulatory dictum that they be "fair and balanced". They like to claim that if they get equal complaints from both the "Left" and a "Right", then they've done their job.

Then someone like Charlie Gibson glibly states that "it's not our job to debate them [the Bush Administration], it's our job to ask questions."

Well, it's none of the above. The media's job is *not* to be fair and balanced. Where this canard comes from, God only knows; but it's a cheap way to dodge responsible reporting. It's also not the media's job to simply "ask questions".

The media's job is to report the TRUTH. Period. If the truth isn't "fair and balanced", then it's not. It's not the media's job to *make* it fair and balanced. And finding the truth frequently involves more than just "asking questions". It may involve debating an administration.

In a nutshell -- the *TRUTH* is never fair or balanced. Until the American media rids itself of this smug dictum, that they be fair and balanced, they are going to remain a mediocre and compromised enterprise.

thepoetryman said...

In a nutshell -- A fantastic comment!