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Monday, June 16, 2008

Too much testimonializing about Tim Russert?

The day after Tim Russert died, I briefly posted a somewhat contrarian view to the avalanche of praise and testimonials to the late "Meet the Press" moderator, only to think the better of it and pull the item. My second thoughts were partly due to "respect for the dead," and partly due to a feeling of collegiality with a fellow journalist.

But after watching Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition" yesterday, which featured numerous clips of Russert (including several self-serving ones designed to show what great friends Russert and Blitzer had been), and after reading William Kristol telling us in the New York Times today what an "awfully good guy" Russert had been, I now feel that something contrarian does indeed need to be said (or at least the need to link to those who have already said it quite well.)

In my original post, I linked to Marc Cooper's day-after-death comments, "Requiem for Pope Russert," in which Marc points out the real context for the fawning over Russert:

It should come as little surprise that, precisely at a time when the sanctimony of the Old Media stands threatened by blasphemes, bloggers and an increasingly agnostic public, the choirboys, priests and cardinals of the Media Church should treat the passing of a figure like Tim Russert as if it were the demise of the Pope.

This sounds pretty harsh right after a man's death--a man who, by all accounts, was a pretty "nice guy"--but television journalists like Russert and Blitzer were/are masters at pretending to be tough interviewers while pulling their punches just enough to insure they maintain their access to the great and powerful. Again, as Marc put it:

But with all due respect for the dead, I would rate Russert as a journalist perhaps just above the median average. He certainly mounted his weekly pulpit of Meet The Press well-prepared by a hard-working research staff. He'd have his quotes and video clips lined up meticulously to at least, briefly, put his subject on the spot.

But what was baffling, if not downright maddening about Russert's style, was that he would inevitably pull that knock-out punch and end the encounter with an embrace rather than a roundhouse right. Just when he'd get his guest to start backtracking, dissembling and stumbling, he'd gently let him - or her--go.

Strangely enough, during his prolonged liturgy for Russert Friday afternoon, Bishop Blitzer - chummily reminiscing with former General Powell--noted the same tendency by Russert. But Blitzer found it praiseworthy. He always asked "the tough questions," said the Bishop of Russert. And then he added, admiringly: "But there was always the soft landing." Ah yes, "the soft landing," Colin Powell concurred.

Indeed, without unfailingly pulling that last punch Russert knew very well he would risk excommunication from the Inner Sanctum of the Beltway. A harder landing for his guests could dry up that most cherished of press commodities - access and kinship with the powerful.

Indeed, this kind of "tough" interviewing is just the journalistic style that brings politicians and government officials to give up their Sundays to be interviewed on programs like "Meet the Press" and "Late Edition" every week. Why else would the likes of Dick Cheney have agreed to appear with Russert both before and after the launching of the war in Iraq? In a March 2003 interview with Cheney, just before the invasion (transcript here), Russert did ask some "tough" questions, but then routinely failed to follow them up--thereby letting Cheney off the hook. In a second interview with Cheney in September 2003 (transcript here), Russert pursued a similar style of questioning--lobbing a few challenging questions but ultimately letting the man off. That interviewing style works to the benefit of both the interviewer, who gets to sound tough, and the interviewee, who comes off looking courageous just by showing up.

Some readers may have seen a BBC interview program called "Hard Talk", which has been hosted by a number of the network's experienced journalists over the years, most recently Stephen Sackur. Here the interviewing style is relentless and uncompromising, which at times is uncomfortable for both the person being grilled and the audience watching. And yet the beauty of this approach is that lines of questioning are not immediately dropped as soon as they might make the guest squirm a little, which has always been the hit-and-run style of Russert, Blitzer, et al.

Meanwhile, as Russert is lionized, journalists who have really shown the courage to "speak truth to power"--such as the Knight-Ridder reporters who dug deeply into the Bush administration's justifications for war and found them lacking--work in relative obscurity. How many Americans have heard the names Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay? Not many. I don't even know whether or not they are "nice guys" (sometimes it is the bastards who make the best journalists.) But it would be nice if one day soon, reporters like them received just a tenth of the accolades now being thrown at Tim Russert--may he nonetheless rest in peace.

Photo by AJ Mast/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Addendum: Those who want to pursue the Russert issue further can also check out the Huffington Post's Russert Watch. As many here know, Arianna Huffington and Russert had been feuding pretty heavily lately over her criticisms of him in her new book "Right is Wrong." Examples of her critiques can be found here. I haven't read the book, and Huffington tends to be a bit too gleefully strident for my taste (and a little too arrogant for someone who used to spout right-wing platitudes not all that long ago), but it at least presents an alternative to the sainthood squad.

Another take on Russert: From Thomas Levenson at the Inverse Square Blog, on the dangers of journalists becoming part of the story.

Yet another take: Since I think a lot of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, here is his more sympathetic portrait on Truthdig today (ie June 18.)

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