It’s Monday, I’m cranky, but it has to be said: Tim Russert was not a "great" journalist

So, I wasn’t going to write anything about Tim Russert’s recent death. Of course it’s sad that he leaves behind a wife and son. It’s always sad when people die. (Look at the “US Deaths in Iraq” counter to the right — there’s 4,099 US military families that are extremely sad right now.) If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that I didn’t like Tim Russert very much. But we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. So I won’t. But I will speak ill of the media, in general.

Does anyone out there remember when the journalist was not the story? Once upon a time — pre-Olbermann, pre-Matthews, pre -Russert — journalists had one job: deliver the news. But somewhere along the way they became more important than the news itself. I suppose when we had multiple 24-hour “news” channels, and not enough actual “news” to fill them, the “journalists” started pontificating a little bit — really just to fill the dead air. But then they started believing that the dead-air fill-talk was actually important or insightful.

Thus began the death of true journalism.

There’s a few “old school” journalists out there: Bill Moyers, for example. But for the most part, our news is now delivered with a large dose of the journalists’ personal opinion, given under the guise of “analysis.” Combine an inflated sense of personal insight with celebrity status, and you have Tim Russert. I’m sorry. I had to say it. I will never forget that in Democratic presidential debates of October 2007, Russert finally asked a question of Dennis Kucinich — the only candidate pushing for impeachment, the only candidate pushing for equal marriage — but the question Russert asked Kucinich was whether he had seen a UFO.

Tim Russert was a leader in this movement away from true reporting. Again, I am saddened that he leaves behind a family. But the mooning of the media over the past 48 hours, as though Russert were some iconic über journalist, I don’t buy it.

UPDATE: Again, I hate to be so cranky, but if we can all just take a deep breath and remember this article written last fall by Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, you’ll see it’s not just me. In November 2007, Waldman wrote:

As much as any politician, Russert has constructed a persona for the benefit of the public, an identity meant to give him the authority that his actual work might not. Like most well-designed personas, it has a basis in truth but has been polished and honed to a fine sheen.

If nothing else, at least we’re deep enough into the presidential campaign that we don’t have to suffer through Russert’s endless “Are you running for president? Are you? Are you?” quizzing of potential candidates. But that’s what passes for being a “tough” interviewer these days: the pose of confrontation rather than genuinely challenging questions, the query designed to embarrass rather than enlighten, the worship of, rather than the challenge to, conventional wisdom.

The two parties’ nominees will be decided three months from now, and we can be sure that in that time, at least one or two candidates will have their campaigns upended by the answer they gave to an absurd question, delivered by Tim Russert or someone like him, about what their favorite Bible verse is, or whom they want to win the Super Bowl, or what kind of beer they like. “Aha!” the reporters will shout, as though they actually unearthed something revealing on which the race for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth should be decided. The one whose tiny little mind devised the question will be praised to the stars for his journalistic acumen.

And they’ll continue to wonder why so many Americans are so cynical about our electoral process.

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12 comments

  1. While I can understand your point of view, I have a slightly different one. I have grown up in the age of the 24-Hr news network and have seen the rise of the “pontificating anchor”. Given the lack of true old-school journalists on the air today, I would say that Tim Russert was the lesser of the evils.

    I enjoyed his insider knowledge and I liked his style. I have to confess, I was terribly sad when I learned of his passing.

  2. Christy, I know he has a lot of fans, and I don’t meant o offend anyone by disparaging him. But I guess I long for the days when it was “Meet the Press” and not “the Tim Russert show.” See, it used to be a panel of questioners, and back then the guest and the topic were the focus of the show. I just think Russert became too much the focus of the show.

    I agree with you that he was generally much better than Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann and their ilk, but that’s not saying much. So I just find all this memorialization on the airwaves a little much to take.

  3. I agree with you 100%, sue j. This sudden sainthood that is being awarded Tim Russert is a bit much. His family deserves our sympathy for their loss, that goes unsaid. However, his true legacy is his full support of George W. Bush and his propagandizing the war in Iraq. I certainly won’t miss him on Meet the Press. In fact, maybe now I can actually stomach the show without wanting to kick in the TV.

    I just hope they don’t come up with some kind of journalistic award for excellence in his name. Ugh.

  4. Well, I just read that they’re naming the street outside the Buffalo Bills’ stadium in his honor. I say that’s good enough.

  5. …very true indeed.
    May I give one -among others (please folks elaborate)- unfortunate reason why this happened. “Old school” journalists got SICK of misinterpretation. News reporting is nothing and useless and sometimes dangerous when misunderstood and then “misforwarded”. It happens too many times in this low educated country where too many just don’t get it. As a result, some reporters felt the need to give some insight and then more personal opinion as they heard how people wrongly reacted to their reported news. I’ve heard some pathetic reactions from West Virgina’s voters for example. These voters are dangerous because if nobody else spreads the correct analysis / interpretation, they end up acting like a sect spreading the wrong words around. I’m not saying that journalists got compelled to do some editorial work but they felt the need for it to some extent.
    There is a fine line between news report and editorial news and journalists should clearly chose their camp so nobody gets offended when a genuine journalist reports the news only (rare) and when a genuine “Editorialist” gives his opinion on the news as expected.
    There seem to be more Editorial news than pure news reports in this country than in Europe. I truly believe one of the reason is the lack of education and/or the poor education of the average listener.

  6. Fred, I understand what you’re saying, but I have trouble with the phrase “the correct analysis / interpretation”.

    “Correct” according to whom?

  7. Tough question which I am not sure I can answer accurately. Let’s put it this way, what we learn in [good] school is not supposed to be according to somebody’s opinion. We (in Europe at least) learn civic rules for example, the do’s and don’ts in life, politeness, Politics, etc… These are what parents consider “accepted rules” regardless of WHO wrote them in the first place. Other examples would be issues like racism, machismo, war. These are bad things not according to me or you or the neighbor or the Journalist/Edito but they are just wrong. Say if a left leaning Edito spoke out on those issues, the degree of acceptance would vary upon who’s listening (left or right leaning).
    In the news, it is either according to the genuine Editorialist when he is the one who speaks out (and you’re the one listening to it for a reason) or it is according to what’s generally, commonly accepted. Most of the times, it’s common sense to me so I don’t need to know according to virtually whom it is or I don’t need the Edito’s opinion to make up my mind anyway.
    So sometimes, wondering “according to whom” may be irrelevant and misleading. Irrelevant because it’s common sense. Misleading because it may come from somebody either politically left or right leaning and as a result the political color will immediately influence the uneducated or low-educated read/listener.
    “Universal Health Care” is good, according to whomever because it’s good common sense.
    Now read that: “Universal Health Care” is good, McCain. Ouch! some people will try to find every single flaw to argue with that.

  8. Fred – we stopped getting “the news” when network television decided to move the news division under the direction of the entertainment division.

    It’s not “cost effective” for television networks, or newspapers for that matter, to deliver the news. To truly give us the news they would need reporters out in the field, researchers verifying what government officials are claiming, and real “investigative” reporting. That hasn’t happened in decades.

    It’s unfair to blame individuals for their ignorance when no one is presenting them with the information they need to MAKE an informed comment on current issues.

    Before Ronald Reagan became president a corporation was limited in the number of media outlets it could own. There were hundreds of different owners of television and radio stations nationwide. Today, almost ALL media is owned by about five corporations.

    We are told what THEY want us to hear. And THAT is why if you live in the DC area you’ve seen non-stop coverage of Tim Russert’s death over the past six days.

    From all that I’ve seen it appears that Russert was a good husband, father, son and co-worker. But he was not a good journalist/reporter. At least not by the end of his career.

    BAC

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