Anyone with any news background or passion for traditional news reporting has to feel a special sharp stab to their hearts today with the news that NBC’s Tim Russert — one of the early 21st century’s towering news figures and a journalistic descendant of 20th century journalism greats — died suddenly of a heart attack while on the job at the NBC News bureau at age 58. It’s a day they will remember with tremendous sadness.
To those of us who are old enough to remember, there were similar days of sadness when news figures passed away or passed from the working news scene. When CBS’s Edward R. Murrow died of lung cancer in 1965 many wondered whether it was the end of an era. It was. When CBS forced Walter Cronkite’s retirement in 1981 many wondered whether it was the end of an era. It was.
Will this be the end of yet another era? He may not have been completely appreciated when he was alive, but in fact Russert was one of the last giant figures in journalism with broad-based credibility. And although there are some similar news people with great potential, his particular kind of working journalist isn’t easy to find.
Why was Russert so special?
1. Russert was frequently under fire from people on both the right and left. In these days when journalism actually has to be defined as “fact-based journalism” and “opinion-based journalism,” Russert was an equal opportunity infuriator. If he was hard on a Democrat or liberal, those partisans would insist he was biased. If he was hard on a Republican or conservative, those partisans would insist he was biased. In fact, Russert approached each interview the same way: as a nuts-and-bolts journeyman journalist who asked the tough questions, but seldom seemed to be on the verge of morphing into Rush Limbaugh or Randi Rhodes…as some TV news staffers and news personalities seem to be these days.
2. Russert did his homework. When he threw past quotes out at politicians to have them comment on their flip flops, or gave them pointed quotes from critics, it’s because he spent a lot of time doing his homework. He wasn’t about ideology and electing candidate X or Y. He didn’t have a political axe to grind. But those on the left and right accused him of having just that if “their” candidates were being toughly grilled and looked bad. Which would often happen when Russert questioned a politico trying to parrot talking points.
3. Russert seldom made a candidate look bad but they would have to be at their best to “survive” an interview with him and look good. A candidate appearing on Meet The Press would have to make sure he/she was well-prepared. Russert could not have been pleased when it came out that Vice President Cheney liked being interviewed by him because he felt he could get his message out the best on Meet The Press. Even so, it’s more likely Cheney felt that other interviewers would be foaming at the mouth and Russert, in contrast, would given him the best shot at getting his point across if he was prepared (and Cheney always was).
4. No one can accuse Russert of getting where he was due to his voice, his looks, or because he had a cousin who ran NBC. He got where he was because he was a great interviewer who did his homework, used old-school reporting and interviewing standards, was nimble in adjusting his often-aggressive questioning to the answers of his often-spinning guests — and was well connected with excellent sources.
The loss of Russert — especially in a major election year — is the loss of journalist’s journalist, a centrist’s newsman, and someone with a large reservoir of credibility on many fronts.
It’s the loss of someone who had been expected to continue to professionally grow and remain a part of the media and political scenes for several more decades to come. Hopefully young people who want to enter the world of journalism watched Russert closely while he was in our midst — since he was a great role model.
It is the end of an era.
But, yes, there will be others. We will likely see the emergence over the next few years of some media figure who fits into the old-school mold.
But there will never be another Tim Russert.
And we’ll all be a bit poorer because of that.
RUSSERT’S DEATH HAS SPARKED AN OUTPOURING OF REACTION FROM THE NEWS MEDIA AND NEW MEDIA. HERE IS A CROSS SECTION:
—Los Angeles Times Top Of The Ticket blog:
There will be a lot of assessments over the next few days of Russert’s role and influence. But his personal style and informal delivery helped loosen up the Sunday morning talks shows.
His passion for politics helped enliven interviews, and his role as a reporter got him a turn in the witness seat at the perjury trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
He also was easily approached, and talked occasionally of fellow Buffalonians — or at least Bills football fans — buying him drinks when they encountered him. In the run up to the Iowa caucuses this year, he could be seen going going over notes while grabbing a late-night supper at the hotel bar, or in the back of room where a candidate was talking, trying to absorb what he could from the moment.
—The New York Times The Caucus blog has an extensive list of tributes from politicians and news people. Many of the top news people are reported to have been in tears.
–The Politico has THIS VIDEO of Barack Obama on Russert’s death.
It’s a shocking piece of news. There were limits to the Russert style of gotcha-interviewing. But he took political accountability to new levels in journalism, and always treated his subjects fairly. He was also extremely kind and courteous in my own interactions with him. Say a prayer for his family, if prayer is your thing. Especially his dad, for whom this coming Sunday may be extremely painful.
He was a fixture of Beltway political journalism, good on the entitlement crisis, and by all accounts, a good-humored guy. One small personal experience: When I was a lowly videotape library aide at NBC News in 1992, I sent him a critique of the information-gathering system–and he was kind enough to send a reply.
—The Detroit News’ Rochelle Riley in a column that needs to be read in full:
I nearly dismissed the first news flash as a hoax.
But within minutes, it became clear that Tim Russert, indeed, had died.
You may wonder why it matters to a Detroit newspaper columnist miles from Washington and not in a TV studio. I’ll tell you why: Tim Russert has been part of an American family of journalists who trusted him to deliver news we could quote, who asked questions we would have asked and who made sense of complex issues.
I never met Tim Russert, who died Friday of a heart attack, but I had an appointment with him almost every Sunday morning for Meet the Press. I watched the program to get my dose of political news, but more to watch Russert work. He epitomized what a journalist should be–smart, tough, fair and very well prepared…. He could be relentless at times in trying surface a point, often to the extent of making his guests sweat and silently pray for their segment to end. An interview could turn into an interrogation if Russert was on to something and the guest was avoiding questions. I learned from Russert that interviews are all about the homework, being thoroughly prepared and having the “evidence” at hand. He will be greatly missed.
One of the most capable, influential and powerful figures in the history of political television left us today. I grew up watching him, and I will miss him the way you miss an old friend – he had the ability to put anyone, no matter how much they would squirm on the MTP set, on the spot. Whatever you thought of Tim Russert’s personal politics, he leaves a giant hole behind.
I can’t imagine following American political news without Russert. He had such a distinctive touch — especially in presenting the presidential campaigns. It hardly seems right to keep watching the 2008 race without him watching it alongside us. He made it feel so immediate and alive. Death makes things like elections seem small, and yet, it feels really sad that he didn’t get to see who won.
Brian Williams just tossed to Andrea Mitchell who is on now. I don’t know how they are doing it. They are all so obviously devastated. My heart aches for them. I can’t imagine having to stay composed and report on the loss of a friend. Brian Williams sums it up: “Even this coverage is being compiled by family members of a very sad family.
Tim Russert, the Democratic operative turned NBC commentator who revolutionized Sunday morning television and infused journalism with his passion for politics, died this afternoon.
Russert, 58, collapsed while recording voiceovers for his Sunday morning interview program, NBC reported. He was initially reported to have suffered a heart attack while working in his office on Washington’s Nebraska Avenue, but the network said later only that he was “stricken at the bureau” and subsequently died. Further details were not immediately available.
—Tom Watson’s post needs to be read in full. Part of it:
My office political buddy – the one who helped me get through Florida ’00 – called me with the news even before it broke this afternoon. “You won’t believe it, Tim Russert died,” she said. Russert’s sudden death at only 58 is a tragedy for his family and friends, and it also marks the passing of perhaps the signature personality of the era of what Jim Wolcott affectionately termed the “attack poodles” of talking head TV. The man quite literally was the rock upon which the modern television punditocracy of political insiders was constructed. We all loved to bash Russert, of course. Hell, I did it just a month ago when he declared the Democratic primary race over. But he did define his era, the latter stages of the long and vital period when television dominated national politics.
–How strong was the consensus that Russert was a major journalistic figure, a real pro, and a decent human being? Talk show radio hosts are lamenting his passing…
–Hot Air has a great roundup…including Tom Browkaw announcing the shocking news. CLICK HERE to see it. It also contains this comment by Ed Morrissey:
Russert made the tough transition from politico to journalist about as well as anyone ever has; Chris Matthews, for instance, can only wish that he had Russert’s credibility. Russert got criticized from time to time about his performance, but even that criticism recognized Russert’s normal professionalism and excellence. MTP will not be the same with his passing, and it’s going to be tough to see how NBC can replace him. I think he will only be succeeded on Sunday mornings. He left us far too young at 58(!).
Wow, what shocking news. My heart goes out to his friends and family. When moments like these arrive, it’s a reminder to us all just how precious and fleeting our lives really are..
We’ll be reading a lot over the next few days about Tim Russert’s impact on the Sunday News Show format, his integrity and hard work, his preparedness, and also about his gregariousness, his humor and humanity. One hopes that his colleagues, out of respect for Russert’s memory and by example of his own ethics, may rededicate themselves to the ideals of journalism that have been subsumed over the past 10 years by the urge to sensationalism, bias and cartoonish bravado, a temptation Russert mostly managed to avoid.
Russert didn’t need to sink to those levels; he was a journalist. He just did his homework and asked the pertinent questions, no matter who that ticked off, right (usually) or left (recently).
Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice