Journalism's Tim Russert Problem
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.
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