Tim Russert is being called a great journalist merely because he recently died.

| June 13, 2008 | 4 Replies

Tim Russert is dead and it is certainly a tragedy for his family and friends. May he rest in peace.

Contrary to what numerous media sources are now reporting, however, Russert was not a great journalist. Rather, he was one of the many modern celebrity journalists who got so incredibly cozy with the politicians who appeared on his show that he either refused to hold their feet to the fire on substantive issues or forgot how to do this. For a guy who had such a great quantity of airtime, what’s most amazing is the lack of original insights attributed to Russert. He was Mr. Status Quo. Nothing meant more to him than playing footsie with those already in power.

Consider this recent appearance, where Russert appears to be at least two years behind the times when asked about the “revelations” of Scott McClellan’s recent book.

Russert too often refused to ask obvious questions about obviously important topics.

There have always been two legitimate sides to stories for Russert, the Republican and the Democratic, regardless of the fact that the Republican version has all too often consisted of shameless lies. He preferred to maintain access to celebrity politicians rather than practice substantive hard-hitting passionate and truth-seeking journalism that could actually achieve important things–such as save lives. Go here for dozens of additional illustrations.

On Meet the Press, Russert’s job was not serious journalism. He seemed like a pleasant fellow, but journalism will not suffer much without him.  Russert fulfilled the role of question reader, but that’s about all.  He had no stomach for aggressive pursuit.  He didn’t know how to puncture the official media bubbles generated by conniving pubic officials.  When powerful public officials sat across from him, he became a “pussycat.”

Being the well-recognized happy and familiar face welcoming the audience (and the conniving public officials) to a show doesn’t make someone a great journalist.   It’s time to set aside the spate of hagiographies and to try to put his death in better perspective.

For those wanting to see a great journalist at work, go to DemocracyNow and watch Amy Goodman for five minutes.

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Category: Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ebonmuse says:

    Tim Russert said at one point that, whenever he was talking to a government official, he assured them that everything they said to him would be off the record unless they gave him specific permission to use it.

    It's a tragedy that he died so suddenly, but this sort of practice is the opposite of what responsible journalism should be. Russert, like many other members of the mainstream media, had come to value the friendship of the rich and powerful more than he valued telling the public the truth about what they were doing. I'm sorry that he's deceased, but I wish he had used his power more wisely when he had the chance.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Gad . . . This Saint Tim hype is oozing in from all over–it's dripping onto my desk through the edges of my computer monitor.

    This is unwarranted praise of Diana-esque proportions. See here.

    Some might think that we should not speak ill of the dead. I wouldn't have written anything at all, except that Tim Russert has been hoisted onto every available pedestal when he was actually a big part of the problem: media excelling at trying to LOOK LIKE it is doing its job rather than doing its job.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Sorry, but I must criticize Tim Russert once more–no respect for the dead from me. Actually, this is an excerpt from Lewis Lapham's Notebook, a feature of Harper's Magazine. This edition of Notebook was titled "Elegy for a Rubber Stamp."

    The important personage was free to choose from a menu offering three forms of response—silence, spin, rancid lie. If silence, Russert moved on to another topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if rancid lie, he swallowed it. The highlight reels for the most part show him in the act of swallowing . . .

    I don’t doubt that Russert was as good at the game as anybody in Washington, but why the five-star goodbye? Why the scattering of incense for a journalist who so prided himself on being in the loop that off-camera he assured his informed sources that nothing they said was on the record? For a second-tier talk-show host, his audience a fraction of the size of Rush Limbaugh’s or Howard Stern’s, whose stock in trade was the deftly pulled punch? Why a requiem mass for a pet canary?

    Lapham's article is worth a full read. Truly, whatever was being celebrated about Russert, it wasn't first rate journalism.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    “Tim Russert was forced by a judicial proceeding to admit that when any senior government official calls him, his communications with them are presumptively off the record. In other words, by virtue of the limits he voluntarily imposed on himself, Russert was only free to report what he heard if these government officials give him advance, explicit permission to report it. As Dan Froomkin, then of the Washington Post, put it at the time: “That’s not reporting, that’s enabling. That’s how you treat your friends when you’re having an innocent chat, not the people you’re supposed to be holding accountable.” In some sense, [AP's Ron] Fournier’s confessed practice [admitted in 2013] is worse: he doesn’t presumptively keep everything off the record: he gives them a standing, permanent offer to say what they want while hiding behind a shield of anonymity and he then spreads it to the world with no accountability possible.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/28/fournier-anonymity-white-house-journalism

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