Monday, June 16, 2008

The TV Set: The Relevance of Russert

Photo credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images for Meet the Press

Here's my less than two cents considering the brinks truck worth of coverage we've gotten from NBC:

This isn't an obituary. I wouldn't know how to write that column. By now you've surely had your fill of the eulogies that overran the usual chatter produced by the cable nets and the political blogosphere last weekend when news of Tim Russert's shocking death was brought to us by Tom Brokaw on Friday the 13th. This is my feeble, bumbling, uncertain attempt at sorting out what Tim Russert meant to television and to the people that love television because I know, that at the very least, I've logged enough hours in front of the box to get away with that.

"Meet the Press" is the longest running show on television, but it is Russert that built it into an institution. I'm not using that word, "institution", as filler. And I don't mean it in an abstract, textbookish way—though to be sure just as I learned about Edward R. Murrow when I was studying television, kids will learn about Tim Russert. I mean it in a very personal sense. That genius, self-adulating sign-off of his that he said at the end of every broadcast, "If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press," was a universal truth in my house while I was growing up. Just as my dad religiously read the Daily News and the Post, he always watched "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Long before I cared to know what all the old guys in suits were blathering on about, it was the sound of Tim Russert's voice insistently needling a politician about something that they now clearly wished they hadn't said that is indelibly tied to my memories of Sundays with my father and the creepy way television has of making people who wouldn't know you from Adam one of the touchstones of your life.

You're probably coming to the wrong conclusion. I apologize. I warned you there would be ineptitude. My goal isn't a girly homage to the greatness of Russert as journalist. Frankly, that's debatable. SNL's caricature of him as an overzealous, pop-eyed interviewer bent on interrogating for interrogating's sake was hilariously right on. But there is no denying that he presided over an hour of television that as an adult, I've come to appreciate for what it was. The first half hour was a nice way to see how your candidate responded under pressure. The second half hour of panelists that consisted of Republican and Democratic strategists and Beltway politicos I found even more special because it was a space in time when regular people were afforded a rare glimpse into the fraternal order of Washington and how that comfortably compromised city really works.

As much as we've been reminded—and re-reminded and re-re-reminded—that Russert was a son of Buffalo who never forgot where he came from, he was also a retired D.C. player. As is the trend in sports broadcasting, he went from playing the game to covering and analyzing it. In Russert's style, we can see the development of a strain of political journalism that has run wild on cable news. The objective isn't so much the unearthing of useful information or keeping our government honest, but to gather a chorus of talking heads eager to demonstrate how good they are at detecting and analyzing "spin". You can see the seeds of this in the debate around Russert's table which usually wasn't centered on the honesty of a politician's policies, but on how that politician's positions might poll.

So I wasn't a fan of his style of journalism, but I was a fan of his style of broadcasting. He wasn't too cool, or too pretty or mean. Russert was sincere, and happy to be there, and he wanted you to know what he knew. I'll miss that, and mourn the loss of it. You should too.