Only with Tim Russert's sudden death at the age of 58 has his true stature as a landmark journalist become as widely recognized as it has long deserved to be.
To ask who will replace him as host of "Meet the Press" is to confront the reality that there is no one comparable on the horizon. Those of us who have followed "Meet the Press" since the long ago days of Lawrence Spivak know that Russert was the best of some very good hosts.
What made Tim Russert special was not some trademark catchword or contrived persona. What you saw was what you got-- a down to earth guy who came on the air having thoroughly researched the subject and having a keen insight into politics and politicians.
He didn't flaunt his knowledge. He was one of the few very smart people who seemed to feel no need to impress others that he was smart. But, if you knew the subject that he was talking about, you realized that he had really done his homework.
There was something else that set Tim Russert apart from many other journalists, whether print journalists or broadcast journalists: His agenda was bringing out the facts.
He didn't let the politicians he interviewed get away with slippery statements and inconsistent positions. But it was not "gotcha" journalism. It was not trying to filter or slant information to promote some political or ideological agenda.
No doubt Tim Russert had his own opinions. He had, after all, been on the staff of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and on the staff of former New York governor Mario Cuomo.
But, whatever Tim Russert's political opinions were then or later, that was not what his program was about. He was there to serve the audience by bringing out the facts about the political world, a world where spin is the usually name of the game.
Often critics who complain about media bias argue as if what is needed is to be "fair" to "both sides." But what is far more important is to be honest with the audience-- who are seeking information and understanding about the real world, not about the ideology or the agenda of the journalist.
This is not to denigrate opinion journalists, who have a valuable role to play, just as reporters like Tim Russert do. But, with both opinion journalists and reporters, the question is whether you play it straight with the audience, instead of filtering out inconvenient facts in order to manipulate the audience in favor of some agenda.
In short, the issue is honesty rather than "fairness." The question is whether journalists put their cards on the table. Russert put his cards on the table-- and they were high cards.