Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press for 17 years who died suddenly on June 13, seemed like a thoroughly decent guy to me. In the following days, Washington journalists, politicians, and his viewing public lauded him as a fine political analyst, a straight shooter, and a great family man.
In fact, we heard those things over and over again in what seemed to be an avalanche of memorial coverage. Was there too much. Was it out of proportion?
One way to determine this is to look at TV news coverage of the last big TV news figure to die, ABC’s Peter Jennings, on August 7, 2008. Jennings was a TV news anchor and reporter for more than 40 years, and was the chief anchor of World News Tonight for 22 years – one of the “Big Three” anchors through the 1980s and 1990s with Tom Brokaw at NBC and Dan Rather at CBS.
Here’s the breakdown, based on story times from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, of the first full day of evening news coverage for each.
|Jennings Death, Aug. 8, 2005||Russert Death, June 13, 2008|
Interestly, NBC devoted the entire 28:30 minutes of its Nightly News program on Russert’s death, even with Brian Williams anchoring via satellite from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In 2005 on ABC World News Tonight, most of the program covered Jennings’ death, but anchor Charles Gibson also saved five minutes for stories on a postponed Space Shuttle landing, an Iraqi sandstorm, energy policy, and gasoline prices.
The network news was about even in special coverage for the two. After Jenning’s death, ABC had three special commemorative broadcasts: an entire Nightline devoted to his memory, a half-hour tribute on the day he died, and a two-hour primetime tribute show three days later. After Russert’s death last week, NBC ran special remembrance editions of Dateline NBC, the Today Show, and Meet the Press. But, as Jack Shafer in Slate and others have observed, the praise-as-news about Russert continued to reverberate heavily through cable, blogs, and newspapers.
The results are interesting, given that Jennings had a much longer on-air career, and that he anchored five days a week, compared to Russert’s much smaller audiences for a niche Sunday morning program.
Of course, Russert was younger at 58, and his death by heart attack was more sudden than Jennings, who was 67 and signed off his last broadcast about three months before he died of lung cancer.
But, it’s also worth considering the competing news agenda. When Jennings died there were no other big news stories. When Russert died, there was the major continuing saga of 500-year floods in Iowa and the Upper Midwest.
Given the comparison to Jennings, I think the coverage of Russert’s death – with no disrespect to him or his family – was out of proportion.
Why? My analysis is that there is more to these narratives than just that a national news personality died.
Jennings, despite his long successful career (his newscast was rated first or second for most of his tenure) was more of a political outsider. Born in Canada, Jennings had a more international outlook of any of his anchor peers, and had spent several years as a foreign correspondent. It wasn’t until 2003 that he acquired U.S. citizenship, but conservatives regularly attacked him for “liberal bias” and a “European agenda.”
Russert, on the other hand, was one of the elite Washington beltway gang. As the son of a Buffalo, New York sanitation worker (Russert celebrated his dad “Big Russ” in a book) he was roundly praised for his “blue-collar sensibility.” But it was the mythology of his blue-collar origins that belied the fact that he was truly a Washington insider. He worked in politics with New York Sen. Daniel Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo before he got into news, and he clearly loved the “inside game” of politics.
Politicians of both parties liked him, because for all of his storied tough questioning, he was a guy who played by the polite rules of Washington, where the worst a liar can do is “misspeak.” Tellingly, Cathie Martin, Dick Cheney’s spokesperson, testified in the 2007 perjury trial of Scooter Libby that when the administration was criticized for overstating the case for war against Iraq, their strategy was to put Cheney on Russert’s show, where they thought they could control the message. “I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used,” she said. “It’s our best format.”
Being favored by Dick Cheney’s handlers doesn’t sound like a case for the journalism hall of fame, though.
In the case of Russert, we should consider what small impact “public affairs” journalism like Meet the Press has in these days of The Daily Show, social networking on the Internet, and Obama’s nontraditional campaign. I think the New York Times’ Media Equation columnist David Carr got it right when he observed that the mourning seemed not only for Russert, but an attempt to celebrate and shore up the increasingly irrelevant establishment political journalism.