Russert died Friday, which, in the news cycle world, allowed the electronic media to memorialize him, but not the print world, and its online versions. Some of their reactions came earlier this week, and they were not, to put it charitably, very kind, although they were more critical of the smotherage of Russert’s death than of Russert himself.
NBC and its half-sibling MSNBC did the most over the weekend, which isn’t surprising, given that Russert hosted “Meet the Press” on NBC and his own show on MSNBC. More surprising is the amount of coverage by Russert’s competitors, CBS (which opened its Friday news with his death), CNN, Fox and ABC. In an ordinary world, this would be considered respect for someone’s good work and good life — as the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Ruttan put it, for “the right man at the right time with the right technique.”
The opposing view started Monday with Orlando Sentinel writer Hal Boedecker, who began with a half-true statement that nonetheless comes across as nasty to Russert: “Here’s one thing you can say about journalists: Surely no one loves us as much as we love ourselves. That’s one lesson of the Tim Russert coverage.”
The half-true statement is “Surely no one loves as much as we love ourselves.” At the same time, though, no one hates the media as much as the media hates itself. (If the media could be condensed into a single person, psychotherapists could make a career of one patient.) Which is, I think, what some of the anti-Russert’s death coverage is about.
Boedecker tried to wear the sage-voice-of-the-newsroom cloak when he wrote, “People needed to be reminded about the Iowa floods — people are suffering on a grand scale there. But, of course, those people live far from the Washington Beltway, and so they won’t gain the vast air time accorded to journalists and politicians.”
Again, a half-true statement — heaven knows there is far too much non-news coverage of Washington and politics, something I think Russert grasped. (However, as demonstrated in the annual editions of the will-Brett-retire-or-not volumes, that phenomenon is not limited to politics, nor sports, if you recall the coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who was famous for, shall we say, her appearance.) A bigger problem with the news media is its mawkish voyeurism of someone else’s bad times, as if sticking a camera or microphone or notebook in the face of someone who is watching his accumulated life drown in his house will make everything better. How does watching TV coverage of the Iowa floods reduce the suffering of the people suffering through them?
Those who think coverage of Russert’s death was excessive should rewind to July 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash. Cable news networks spent the entire day on the deathwatch of someone who was famous mainly because his father was famous and he was handsome with a glamorous wife.
Slate.com’s Jack Shafer writes for a publication that fancies itself as a cynical, ironic, smarter-than-thou observer of politics and life in general. (If Slate.com were a TV show, the lead character would be played by David Spade in his “Just Shoot Me” persona.) Shafer’s sense of self-importance oozes through in his negative assessment of the Russert death coverage:
I wonder whether the media grievers gave a moment of thought to how this Russert torrent they produced played with viewers and readers. 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! On days like this, I, too, hate the press.Well, how did this play with viewers? The media is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is ratings. Ratings for “Meet the Press” Sunday were almost 60 percent higher than for a typical Sunday, and second only to the “Meet the Press” that ran five days after Sept. 11, 2001. (And “Meet the Press” under Russert got the best ratings of any of the Sunday-morning political talk shows.)
This criticism strikes me as being unseemly given that it is about someone who hadn’t even had his funeral yet. Boedecker demonstrates that media people outside Washington can be every bit as snarky as those within the Beltway. And those who objected to the wall-to-wall coverage of Russert’s death, the solution, of course, was to change the channel.
I have discovered something odd about the media from being in the media for, now, 20 years: Celebrity. Just having your picture in a magazine on a regular basis, and making TV appearances from time to time, puts you on a first-name basis with people you don’t know, but who (think they) know you. I discovered this for the first time when I started appearing on the Wisconsin Public Television “WeekEnd” show an average of once a month starting in the late 1990s. People started coming up to me and saying they watched me on “WeekEnd,” a show that I thought was viewed by, perhaps, tens of people. Any of the news anchors on Green Bay TV have this happen much more than I have.
Russert, therefore, was “known” by many, many more people than he personally knew. (Perhaps his realization that this would be the case explains his initial reticence to host the show.) To regular viewers of “Meet the Press,” he was the constant through 17 years, three presidents, 9/11, the Iraq war and numerous traumatic or indecipherable events. He was the guy who asked questions they’d like to ask, who came across, despite his Democratic political background, as being the guy who would hammer Democrat or Republican for inconsistency or the inability to explain why the guest believed what the guest believed.
Russert also — and I think this is the big punch line of all this — had a life outside of journalism and outside of politics. I wrote Monday about his love of his father, his being married to the same woman for much longer than your typical big media type, and his love of his son. And if you’re not touched by this, I would check your heart to see if it’s still there.
One of the responses to Boedecker’s rant described the Russert death coverage as “almost as overdone as the Orlando Sentinel’s continuous lauding of Tim Tebow,” the Florida Gators’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. (Next time, Hal, look in the mirror before you write.) One of the responses to Shafer’s screed quoted Shafer: “‘He was thoughtful. He was kind. Of the highest integrity. Generous. Loyal. And so on. Just because it's true doesn't make it news.’ Uh, these days the death of one with those qualities should make news.”
The tributes to Russert, I would argue, were not just a tribute to the quality of his work, but a tribute to his ability to have a life that was worth living outside of his work. And the critics of said tributes might just be jealous that they haven’t done anything in their careers, or their lives, worthy of such retrospective praise.