Russert RIP; and yet…

I was opening my “write new post” window to say this, when I saw that John Cole got here first.

I wish to extend my condolences to Tim Russert’s family, friends and colleagues — especially his son Luke; I lost my father much too early, and I know something of how wretched that is.

But Cole caught my thought exactly: the reaction to Mr. Russert’s death illustrates the depth to which our broadcast journalism has sunk.

It’s been coming for a while. I remember, at the very start of my TV training meeting Fred Friendly, one of the great pioneers (one of the Murrow gang at CBS) and then Tom Bettag who has held just about every position worth having in the TV news business. They both talked in different ways about the tension between the way the camera creates and rewards stars and the need to do the kind of work rarely associated with stars.

What each man was trying to say to our tiny class of would – be tv producers and reporters is that the danger faced by all journalists comes when you take the part, and even the persona of your sources. The camera, the celebrity that a presence in the ether produces, turbocharges that danger — and back in the mid ’80s, the consequences were already apparent, with the habit, then just starting, for network anchors to pick up their massive baggage trains and go to host a broadcast at whatever location became significant. It cost a bomb, defeated the purpose of having a foreign correspondent out there doing the daily work, and was, if we had the wit to see it, a clear sign of the decline of American TV foreign coverage. (The newspapers held out longer, but a similar dynamic followed soon enough).

The price paid, or one of them, is that the news reader becomes the story. That’s death to clear thinking, to reporting, just to keeping hold of the screen real estate needed to convey a story more complicated than a gotcha.

Russert, I think, was better than many, maybe most. Certainly, he did a job that is much harder than the audience realizes and did it better than most — his colleagues’ memorialzing of his talent is right on.

But the bottom line for me, past my sympathy to those who knew him and feel the loss on a personal level, is that we need that talent without the face time than he received. It’s the stories that should lead, not the storytellers. (I know that this is an impossible goal. The whole structure of the medium is against it. But what that really says is that the medium is structurally unsuited for the job it claims to do).

All of which is to say that the wall-wall NBC and other network coverage of the death of a man who would always retained his claim on the blue-collar heritage he genuinely possessed is an instance of a deep and dangerous pathology Russert both resisted and embodied.

And with all that, 58 is way too young. Tim Russert, RIP.

Image:  licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.  Source;  Wikimedia Commons

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One Comment on “Russert RIP; and yet…”

  1. Ellen Abell Says:

    “…the news reader becomes the story. That’s death to clear thinking, to reporting,…”

    “But what that really says is that the medium is structurally unsuited for the job it claims to do.”

    You have put into words so well the thinking behind my active rejecion of network and cable news programming for over 3 years now. I get my news from a variety of sources on the internet (e.g., New York Times and Christian Science Monitor on line), from my local newspaper, and from the radio (XM channels like XMPR, BBC, POTUS). The motive to entertain and make personalities out of news reporters is notably minimized from the sources I most often choose to consult when I want to know and understand what is going on.

    Writing this makes me think of Walter Cronkite . In my childhood years, my father always tuned in to the CBS Evening News. 40+ years later, I can immediately call up in my memory WC’s voice and face. But he never, in my memory, b-e-c-a-m-e the news. (Except when he retired. Good heavens! How would we go on without him?) We watched him, because we trusted the objectivity of the information he read to us and (our belief in) his personal authenticity in delivering it.

    Would Tim Russert have been able to garner a similar assessment if he had been reading the news back in the 60s? Or can this question even be asked meaningfully, given the public’s apparently unquestioning comfort with the blending of fact, opinion, and entertainment? Could Walter Cronkite be successful in today’s “news reporting” environment? Would he even have wanted to be a part of it?

    To me, Mr Russert seemed like a reporter of integrity and genuinely interested in provoking thought (although combined with a healthy dose of provocation). My first thought upon hearing of his death was, “Oh, no!” Yes, 58 is too young and, whatever one may think of his medium, he was at the top of his profession. Such a loss is shocking and sad. RIP, indeed.


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