NBC's Meet the Press anchor and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert died of a heart attack on June 13. The outpouring from media and political elites only underscored Russert's status as one of most important figures in mainstream journalism. But amidst all of the accolades, critical assessments about Russert's record were scarce.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone more admired by fellow journalists. "He was the preeminent political journalist in America," declared pundit Al Hunt (6/15/08). "He was an American character right from Mark Twain," offered NBC colleague Chris Matthews (6/15/08). "He had an authority and insight in covering politics that the rest of us could only aspire to," remarked Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace (6/15/08).
Many of the tributes celebrated Russert's preparation for his Sunday morning interviews, the kind of performances that earned Russert his reputation as a particularly tough interviewer. "Tim Russert always did his homework," explained NBC's David Gregory. "He was always prepared for interviews." NBC producer Betsy Fischer agreed (6/15/08): "He would spend all week preparing for this show, reading everything."
Aside from the fact that this is somewhat unusual praise--shouldn't all journalists prepare for interviews?--Russert's supposedly aggressively posture was at times put to rather dubious ends. When Barack Obama appeared on Meet the Press (1/22/06), Russert grilled him about comments made by left-wing actor and entertainer Harry Belafonte: "I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?"
Russert followed up on the issue, despite the fact that the only apparent connection between the two men was the fact they were both black. When Russert moderated a debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton (2/26/08), he asked Obama about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, despite the fact that the two had no discernable ties. Years earlier, Russert quizzed civil rights activist Al Sharpton about Farrakhan's views, telling him (8/25/00), "A leader in black America has said that Saddam Hussein is no more terrible than the president of the United States."
And Russert's tenacious interviewing style would alternate with a much more deferential one--depending on who was being interviewed. Surprisingly, some of Russert's journalistic colleagues praised him for being tough on the Bush administration over the Iraq War. CBS Evening News correspondent Anthony Mason said (6/13/08), "In 2003, as the United States prepared to go to war in Iraq, Russert pressed Vice President Dick Cheney about White House assumptions."
In reality, Meet the Press was the venue for some of the White House's most audacious lies about the Iraq War--most of which went unchallenged by Russert. On the morning that the New York Times published a front-page article falsely touting the now-famous "aluminum tubes" as components of an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press (9/8/02), where Russert pursued open-ended questions that seemed to invite spin from the vice president on Iraqi nuclear weapons.
Recalling such softball questioning, it's easy to believe the advice that Cheney press aide Cathie Martin says she gave when the Bush administration had to respond to charges that it manipulated pre-Iraq War intelligence: "I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used," she said (Salon, 1/26/07). "It's our best format."
In Bill Moyers' documentary "Buying the War" (PBS, 4/25/07), Russert expressed the wish that dissenting sources would have contacted him: "My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them." Of course, any journalist could have found such sources--and certainly few critics of the war would have passed up an opportunity to air their views on such a prominent media platform.
As David Folkenflik pointed out in the Baltimore Sun (5/19/04), Russert seemed to think the media were merely following public opinion in the run up to the war:
"I don't think the public was, at that time, particularly receptive to hearing it," Russert says. "Back in October of 2002, when there was a debate in Congress about the war in Iraq--three-fourths of both houses of Congress voted with the president to go. Those in favor were so dominant. We don't make up the facts. We cover the facts as they were."Folkenflik commented:
Russert's remarks would suggest a form of journalism that does not raise the insolent question from outside polite political discourse--so, if an administration's political foes aren't making an opposing case, it's unlikely to get made. In the words of one of my former editors, journalists can read the polls just like anybody else.Indeed, the reticence to actually render judgment on those in power--particularly the Bush White House--was what many critics found so frustrating, especially coming from someone who enjoyed a reputation as a dogged interviewer. When author and comedian Al Franken appeared on Russert's CNBC show on April 1, 2006, the two got into a disagreement about the White House's oft-repeated claim that Congress had access to the same intelligence about Iraq's WMDs as the White House. Franken's point was that the president receives a daily briefing that Congress does not receive, so the claim is false. As Franken put it, "So what the president's saying isn't true, isn't that right, Tim?" Russert would only say, "I'll leave that for you to make a judgment."
But is it inconsistent for John Kerry to be criticizing the missing weapons of mass destruction when, if he had been president of the United States, Saddam may be in power with all those potential biological, chemical weapons or munitions, however you want to describe them?It's not clear what Russert meant, since Iraq did not have such weapons.
Well, you know, there's really no alternative. There are a lot of people on the far right or the far left who want someone in my situation to yell and scream or lean over and choke somebody or slap them around and a lot of histrionics, but you really don't achieve anything because you make your guest immediately sympathetic, and I much prefer just to try to steady as you go, draw people out.He added that the White House claims:
...were judgments, and there was no way at that time to say, 'You're wrong. How could you possibly say that? You're lying.' That's just not the style of Meet The Press, nor I think the style of good journalism, but we now have a permanent record as to the judgments believed by the Bush administration going into the war and you can look at them three years later and decide whether they were correct or not.In fact, there are journalists who examine the claims made by politicians at the time that they make them, and some of them were doing just that with the assertions Bush administration officials used to justify the invasion of Iraq (Extra!, 3-4/06). Had a journalist with the prominence of Tim Russert done so, it's possible that the debate could have had an entirely different outcome.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on June 20, 2008.