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Speaking Honestly of the Dead

Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Okay, as promised I'll tell you why I wasn't a fan of Tim Russert. I'll start by acknowledging his virtues: Russert was a very energetic and engaging host, he had enormous enthusiasm about politics, and he did seem like a geneuinely nice person. However, I don't think he was a very good journalist. He had extraordinary influence over the way politics was covered in this country over the last two decades, and if you consider for a moment the quality of that coverage, this is no compliment. Now I don't want to blame Russert for the putrid state of political journalism, but I think it fair to say he did nothing to address it - and there is reason to believe he accentuated many negative trends.

I used to be an avid watcher of Meet the Press. Just ask Brazen Hussy! Every Sunday, I dropped what I was doing to see Russert grill some hapless pol. But as time passed, I started to notice things.

First, he was basically a one-trick pony: he'd look at a politician's statements about some issue, and try to find someplace where the politician had said something different. I suppose there is some value in this, but it's scarcely a well-informed and thorough interview process.

Second, he wasn't very good with follow-up questions. I watched guests throw out some real whoppers on his show, and most of time Russert didn't call them on it - he just went on to the next question. I'm sorry, but the smart follow-up is the essence of good interviewing. Anybody can blather out an answer about something. You only really learn about the interviewee if you explore their statements in some depth. And Russert very, very rarely did.

Third, Russert's roundtable was hardly representative. Like most morning news shows, the lineup usually consisted of a) a moderate, b) a conservative, and c) Attila the Hun. His selection of guests was also heavily weighted to Republicans and those on the political right. The Democrats on the show, if they weren't in the leadership, nearly always tended to be on the center-right of the party. In addition, he tended to bring the same people on the show week after week. Frankly it got a little boring. Even though they're Democrats, one can only take so much of Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer.

I could talk about other things, like for example how Russert was very conventional in his focus on process stories over substance, or how he deferred to the White House, but you get my point. Were there some interesting things about his show? Sure. But he was hardly the reincarnation of Ed Murrow.

By the way Linda Hirshman has a good critique of Russert here.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:19 PM
  • Totally agree. Didn't somebody in the WH say that they loved getting with Russert, as he'd do whatever they asked, accept uncritically whatever they said? Isn't that hackdom?

    By Blogger Belle, at 7:21 PM  
  • Oh, that wasn't especially mean. Seemed a pretty level headed critique of his career...

    I was expecting something way more rant-like.

    Good post though.

    By Blogger Jesse, at 11:16 AM  
  • I thought you were going to rant too. Fair assessment.

    By Blogger Seeking Solace, at 9:41 AM  
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