Monday, June 23, 2008

burying the Russert

As memorialized by one Jon Swift (via Scott McLemee):
...Russert brought something to television journalism that had never been tried before. Instead of asking questions off the top of his head, he had his staff do research on his interviewees and actually used some of that research in his interviews. Many politicians had never been confronted with their own words before and his unique interview style caught many of them off guard, but it also gave them a chance to look good by showing that they could withstand tough questioning by giving vague, noncommittal answers. Unfortunately, Russert's shoes will be very hard to fill because while many television journalists do have staffs that have access to LEXIS/NEXIS, few of them know what follow-up questions to ask after an interviewee gives his boilerplate answer and will simply go on to another topic. Russert's ability to ask the same question over and over again using different words is one that has sadly died with him. He will be missed. [...]

The fact that politicians could trust that Russert would safeguard their secrets instead of releasing them to the public prematurely where they might get distorted made him the go-to guy for administration officials who wanted to get their side of the story out without having to worry about being contradicted or embarrassed while still looking like they were being vetted by Russert's very tough-looking questions. When Dick Cheney wanted to sell the War in Iraq to the American people, his staff immediately called up Russert to book Cheney on NBC's Meet the Press (which Cheney's communications director called "our best format") to say that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear bomb, citing as evidence a story that appeared in the New York Times that morning, which his assistant Scooter Libby had conveniently leaked to reporter Judith Miller. He knew that citing a Times story he himself planted would be all the evidence he would need and he wouldn't have to worry about Russert asking the kinds of skeptical questions that might throw him off message.

In one of the many moving tributes Russert received, Chris Matthews pointed out that one of the secrets of Russert's success was that he was not smarter or more sophisticated than his audience. "It may be tricky to say this," Matthews said, "and I'll say it, when we went to war with Iraq, he and I had a little discussion about that, and this is where Tim is Everyman, he is Us as a country. I said: 'How can you believe this war is justified?' And he said: 'The nuclear thing. If they have a bomb that they can use, we gotta deal with it. We can't walk away from that.' And that, to me, was the essence of what was wrong with the whole case for the war. They knew that argument would sell with Mr. America, with The Regular Guy, with the True American Patriot. They knew the argument that would sell, that would get us into that war. Tim was right on the nail. He was Us, the American People. . . . That was the thing that sold America, and the guys who wanted the War used that one thing that would sell the Patriot in Tim Russert." What could be more patriotic than a journalist who believes what the government is telling him instead of questioning it like some reporters used to do back in the 1970s before they got columns and wrote best-selling books? And if there is anything members of the Washington elite hate it is someone who seems too elite by looking like they are intelligent and thoughtful and not the salt of the earth. Perhaps there is no greater tribute to Russert than the fact that the Washington elite accepted this humble man from Buffalo as a member of their club and went on television and showed up at his funeral to proclaim in unison, "One of us! One of us!"

Even though Russert was a Democrat and a liberal, he was not one of those radical, un-American liberals. His mentor was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, every conservative's favorite Democrat until Joe Lieberman came along. Moynihan worked in the Nixon administration where he helped develop Nixon's Civil Rights policy of "benign neglect" toward African-Americans where nothing was actually accomplished even though it appeared on the surface that progress was being made. That was the kind of liberalism Russert subscribed to. And unlike many members of the liberal media, Russert bent over backwards to appear to be "fair" by asking liberals harder questions and taking it easy on conservatives, something conservative journalists don't need to do because our views are so rarely aired. Russert inspired a whole generation of liberal journalists who compensated for their partisan views by bashing liberals and praising conservatives whenever they could to demonstrate their objectivity, a legacy that is much appreciated by this conservative.

The whole thing worth reading from the start.


Homeless said...

great! thanks for sharing

Matt said...

there's more...