Tuned In

Russert: The Backlash to the Backlash Begins

  • Share
  • Read Later

Today’s Romenesko has several links to writers debating whether Tim Russert’s death was overcovered, leading with Slate’s Jack Shafer, who writes:

Did the grievers really think Russert was so important, so vital to the nation’s course, and such an elevated human being that he deserved hour upon hour of tribute? I wonder whether any of the responsible journalists paused to think, Hey, this is really weird. We’re using our unchecked editorial power to soak the nation with our tears about our friend, and that’s unseemly!

I’m a big fan of Shafer, who has an uncomfortable-making habit of being right when most of the rest of the media (and media critics) are wrong. I’m solidly with him, for instance, that political journalists should disclose their votes, which he advocated long before I did. Here, though, I mainly have to agree with Aaron Barnhart, who writes a lengthy rebuttal at TV Barn.

The easiest argument that a media critic can make is that cable news overcovers news stories. That’s what cable news does; that’s why it exists. And yes, as Shafer writes, the media—but MSNBC and the properties of NBC in general—covered Russert’s passing like the death of a political leader. But as Barnhart writes, you need to consider the context here. First, most of the coverage occured over a weekend in summer, a relatively slow news period (and it’s not as if the news media forgot what other breaking news there was, such as the flooding in the Midwest). Second, if the Russert tributes were disproportional, keep in mind that any audience watching cable-news on a weekend is likely to be disproportionately interested in someone like Russert. Finally, the viewers of MSNBC (on which Russert regularly appeared) and Meet the Press (which he hosted) are going to be the most disproportionately interested at all. And as Lisa de Moraes reports in the Washington Post, those viewers were not exactly turned off: around 6 million people watched MTP’s tribute to Russert.

You could make a more compelling argument against the content, rather than the quantity, of the Russert coverage, which Shafer hints at in his title—”The Canonization of Saint Russert”—and spends a little time arguing in his column. When any public figure dies suddenly, be it a TV journalist or a former president, the hagiography is naturally going to kick in first. After time, you have an obligation—especially in remembering a journalist—to place his career in an honest context, for good and bad.

I’ll admit I had a tough time doing this in the appreciation I wrote of Russert last Friday afternoon. As a person, I felt awful about his sudden death. As a writer, I admired his accomplishment. But as a critic, I had my problems in the past with some aspects of Meet the Press, in which I wasn’t alone. While Russert did a good thing by making the show more adversarial and less genteel, his signature move—reading an interviewee’s earlier quote that contradicted something he or she said later—often obsessed on the inconsistency rather than the substance of the issue (or the simple fact that it might be a good thing for an intelligent politician to change his or her mind sometimes). Conversely, while he was masterly at understanding the workings of power in Washington and applying that knowledge, he could also be an example of the pitfalls of journalists getting too close to power. When he testified at the Scooter Libby trial, he remarked that he considered any call from a senior government official to be off the record unless specified otherwise—a courtesy reporters don’t automatically extend to ordinary subjects.

I knew all that, and tried to at least indicate that while you might disagree about how Washington journalism should be, Russert was indisputably a master of Washington journalism as it is. But let’s face it: the day a man dies suddenly at his office—leaving as a survivor, two days before Father’s Day, the dad he remembered in two books—you’re going to err on the side of generosity.

If the remembrance of Russert going forward whitewashes what would be legitimate criticisms of him if he were still alive, that would be a disservice to reporting, and really to his memory. But I’m not sure that’s the case yet. A David Carr piece in the New York Times, for instance, which Shafer characterizes as “gently lamenting his passing” is really about Russert’s death as a metaphor for the dying model of establishment Beltway journalism.

Don’t get me wrong; I definitely believe journalists lose their sense of perspective when covering one of their own. But it bothers me much more when they do so in covering their living peers, such as when journalists lost all sense of objectivity in defending Ted Koppel when ABC considered canceling Nightline. As for Russert’s death, coming on a slow summer news weekend in the middle of a heated election that would have to go on without him, too much may have been more or less enough.