If folks in the news business wonder why the public hates us, they should look to the orgy of coverage over the untimely death of NBC TV's Tim Russert. It's not as if Russert wasn't an extraordinary journalist. On "Meet the Press," Russert gave the best-prepared interviews in Washington. He asked tough questions without the sort of ego-filled posturing that made the questions about him, when they should be about the answers. Most important, Russert cared deeply about policy, not just the horserace and latest polls.
To top it off, Russert was a giant of a man who left a strong, positive impression on just about everyone. So it made sense for Sunday's "Meet the Press" to devote the hour to the man who sat in the anchor chair for nearly 17 years.
Overall, however, the hours and hours of tributes across the cable spectrum show the news media at their worst. For me, the Russert Weekend only served to confirm my suspicion that in 2008, cable TV stations can only do one story at a time -- and then they overdo it and beat it silly. You now know more about Tim Russert than Vladimir Putin.
To wit: His father, Big Russ, was a sanitation worker. He still loved his hometown, Buffalo. Russert told his son, Luke -- named after St. Luke the Evangelist, who wrote, "To whom much is given, much is expected" -- that he loved him every day.
Do you get the feeling that some talking heads think that if you're on TV, then you're too big to have come from a working-class family or love your hometown? I do.
You now know more about Russert than you know about Paul R. Smith, Jason L. Dunham, Michael P. Murphy, Michael A. Monsoor and Ross A. McGinnis. Who are they? Men who received the Medal of Honor for their service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But they weren't on TV.
Here's a question that seems not to have occurred to the network suits: How are viewers supposed to see NBC -- or other networks -- as impartial when they air segments with numerous politicians calling Russert their "friend"? Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama issued a statement in which he said he was "grief-stricken" over the loss of his "friend." "I was proud to call him a friend," said the statement by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. Obama guru David Axelrod talked on CNN Friday and MSNBC Monday. He was a Friend of Russert, too. The rap all shared about Russert was that he was "tough but fair." But the cozy schmoozing made the bond between politicos and journalists appear downright incestuous.
Where's the news? It's not as if anyone is going to say anything critical about Russert. The guy just died. There's a mournful brass horn playing with his photo between segments. You get on TV by fawning about how much Russert loved his son, and no politician or regular guest is going to depart from the script. It's a bit like watching "Larry King Live" after an octogenarian Hollywood star dies, and fellow hoofers rush to reminisce about their tales with the deceased. Even in death, everyone wants in on the act.
The Republican National Committee sent out a statement. Ditto California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. California first lady Maria Shriver's statement said that Russert "was one of a kind to me and I was lucky enough to have had him as a best friend."
In this game, crass opportunism is rewarded. Shriver appeared via satellite from Sun Valley, Idaho, on Sunday's special edition of "Meet the Press" -- on which she started or repeated the thread about Russert being the product of nuns, Jesuits and parochial education.
Part of the Russert Weekend phenomenon can be credited to a profession's prerogative. Figure that doctors receive the best medical attention, bartenders pour generous drinks for each other and mortuary owners rate posh funerals. Likewise, one of the perks of journalism is that when we kick the bucket, we get a nice sendoff story.
An outstanding journalist of Russert's stripe rated more than a nice sendoff story. But there is another tenet of the profession that Washington TV news bureaus seem to have forgotten in the shock of Russert's passing: We are not the story.
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