Swans Commentary » swans.com June 16, 2008  



Tim Russert In Retrospect


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - June 16, 2008)   Tim Russert, the dean of inside-the-beltway television news shows, died on June 13, 2008, at the age of 58 from a massive heart attack. Notwithstanding the reverential coverage on television and in newspapers, his career was symptomatic of everything that is wrong with American journalism.

Like George Stephanopoulos, who moderates a competing Sunday morning news show on the ABC network, Russert began as a political operative. Shortly after graduating from law school in 1976, Russert worked on Daniel Patrick Moynihan's senatorial campaign in New York State. After Moynihan's election, Russert was promoted to chief of staff. Moynihan had been Richard Nixon's top domestic adviser, calling for confrontation with the USSR and Third-World countries. He was also notorious for sending a memo to Nixon stating that "the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect'. The subject has been too much talked about....We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades." Given Moynihan's dubious credentials, it appeared a natural fit for somebody like Russert who would carve out a television career based on deference to the rich and the powerful.

Russert's next political job was serving as counselor to New York State Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-84, a smooth-talking liberal not so nearly as toxic as Moynihan. In late 1984, Russert left politics behind and became a vice president of NBC news. Seven years later he became moderator of "Meet the Press," a show that began on the radio in 1945 and switched to television two years later, where it is the longest-running in history.

For the entire time up until 1991, when Russert became host, the show was very similar to the PBS NewsHour -- a snooze-inducing series of interviews with top government officials. Russert, trained as an attorney, livened things up by employing a prosecutorial style with government officials, at least when public opinion favored such an approach. His goal was to reveal inconsistencies in their current stand on issues versus what they might have said some years earlier so as to yield the impression that they were "flip-floppers." Russert's interview with Senator John Kerry during the 2004 campaign was typical.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to talk about Vietnam. You are a decorated war hero of Vietnam, prominently used in your advertising. You first appeared on MEET THE PRESS back in 1971, your first appearance. I want to roll what you told the country then and come back and talk about it:

(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):

MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.

SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That's a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it's an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

MR. RUSSERT: You used the word "war criminals."

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don't like it when I hear it today. I don't like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn't talking about the soldiers and the soldiers' blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier -- I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I'm not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony...

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

Russert pursued this dogged line of questioning for several minutes longer with the clear intention of putting Kerry on the spot for having the temerity to call attention to war crimes in Vietnam in 1971. His prosecutorial style earned him the reputation of being a bulldog, but somehow he lacked both bark and bite when the interviewees were members of the Bush administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.

On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the invasion, Russert interviewed Vice President Cheney. The interview consisted of a number of questions that simply allowed the case for war to be made. Russert never followed up once with a challenge to the obvious falsehoods being put forward.

MR. RUSSERT: Many Americans and many people around the world are asking one question: Why is it acceptable for the United States to lead a military attack against a nation that has not attacked the United States? What's your answer?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, we have, I think admittedly, a new and unique set of circumstances we're trying to deal with here. If you think back to the way we were organized in the last century, the 20th century, to deal with threats to the United States, or to our friends and allies, we had to deal with large states, significant military forces, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the kinds of threats we dealt with throughout the period of the Cold War, all of that changed on September 11 of a year and a half ago. Since that time, we've had to deal with the proposition that truly deadly weapons could be delivered to the United States by a handful of terrorists. We saw on 9/11 19 men hijack aircraft with airline tickets and box cutters, kill 3,000 Americans in a couple of hours. That attack would pale into insignificance compared to what could happen, for example, if they had a nuclear weapon and detonated it in the middle of one of our cities, or if they had unleashed weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons of some kind, smallpox or anthrax, on a major attack on the United States. That's a whole different proposition for us to think about, how we deal with that.

A real bulldog reporter might have followed up with a question about American support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. To drive home such a point, Russert might have put a graphic up on the screen showing Saddam shaking hands with Rumsfeld back in 1984 -- an image that was displayed prominently across the Internet, including the Truthdig webzine.

However, Russert had no appetite for asking tough questions like these, especially during post-September 11, 2001, war fever. In one of the first shows after the attack on the WTC and the Pentagon, Russert showed up on "Meet the Press" with a red-white-and-blue ribbon on his lapel. No wonder he didn't want to challenge Cheney. He saw the world in exactly the same way.

Around the same time that he began sporting the ribbon, Russert asked William Safire, a regular on "Meet the Press" if he would wager that Saddam would be out of power by the end of 2002. Safire replied, "Absolutely. I'll see you here a year from now." It probably never dawned on Russert that this kind of banter made a mockery out of objective reporting.

In contrast to Russert, some journalists saw their role as challenging war propaganda from the very beginning, including PBS's Bill Moyers, who produced a documentary called "Buying the War" in April 2007. Here is Moyers turning the tables on Russert, asking tough questions about Cheney's appearance on "Meet the Press," where he touted the need for a preemptive strike against Saddam's non-existent nuclear weapons program.

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story [about nuclear weapons] appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean-

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't have the -- This is, you know -- on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tubes story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September 8, 2002, and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES. And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

The last thing in the world that Russert should complain about is not having access. The man practically defined access to government officials. He was just not that interested in getting to the bottom of things in the run-up to the war but in selling the war to the American people, just as his counterparts at CNN, Fox News, and even MSNBC were. He and they (except for Fox) only retreated from war-boosting after it became painfully obvious that the U.S. would not succeed.

Moyers followed up with another question to Russert and other reporters who had been forced to acknowledge that the war had been built on lies: "How do you explain that the further you get away from official Washington, the closer you get to reality?" Russert replied, "Look, I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo. I know who my sources are. I work 'em very hard. It's the mid-level people that tell you the truth."

This was part of the persona that Russert had carefully wrought over a lifetime in journalism. He tried to get viewers to identify with him because he was supposedly just like them. Of course, he was about as "regular folks" as a politician who is careful to be filmed in a bowling alley or at a church barbecue during an election campaign. In journalism and in politics, image is everything.

In 2004, Russert published a memoir about growing up in Buffalo under the influence of his father, a garbage man. Titled Big Russ & Me, it is a kind of Norman Rockwell salute to Americana that is blithely unaware of the social and economic contradictions that drove many of Russert's contemporaries into rebellion. About the closest Russert ever came to this movement was showing up at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1967 with a case of beer.

A New Yorker Magazine article on Russert's book conveys the rather conventional values that he adhered to growing up:

"Hardly a day goes by when I don't remember or rely on something that Big Russ taught me," Russert writes. Big Russ's credo entails simplicity, thrift, hard work, and moral clarity. He taught Russert how to shake hands firmly and how to tie a necktie, and conferred on him the ideal-typical nineteen-fifties American boyhood. Tim watched "Howdy Doody" and "Gunsmoke" and "I Love Lucy," trudged to school in the snow, worshipped baseball, minded the priests and nuns, and ate hearty: the butcher, he fondly recalls, had a display case that perfectly evoked Buffalo's version of multiculturalism and good health, full of "pork neck bone, smoked pork neck bone, jellied tongue, Polish bacon, slab bacon, double smoked hunter bacon, German-style wieners, Italian sausage, pork roll sausage, hot or mild beef sausage, barley sausage, beer sausage, double smoked hunter bacon . . . chopped ham, smoked hocks, turkey gizzards, smoked turkey parts, chicken feet, chicken liver, chicken fat, fresh ox tails, and ribs of every type." Buffalo itself had "a powerful, simple strength."

While one would never gloat over the death of a fellow human being, one does have to wonder whether eating "hearty" growing up in Buffalo might have led to poor Mr. Russert's fatal heart attack. A more unconventional, even Californian, diet of tofu and bean sprouts might have been more beneficial.

Even at an early age, Tim Russert appeared to gravitate toward officialdom in the same way that a moth is drawn to the flame:

Together, Big Russ and the youthful Russert plan a way of making contact with John F. Kennedy during a Presidential visit to Buffalo. The carefully laid plan works. "I touched him! I touched him!" Russert exultantly reports to his dad; "Finally, a Russert has met a president of the United States," a gratified Big Russ says. (It's interesting that both Bill Clinton and John Kerry also had their own versions of this life-shaping youthful brief encounter with Kennedy.) During the Cuban missile crisis, in the world Big Russ made, Russert approvingly recalls, "nobody even considered being critical of the president during a time of crisis."

Big Russ made sure to remind his son that the Bush administration was going through just such a crisis in 2001 and to go easy on them:

Just after the September 11th attacks, Russert bags an interview at Camp David with Cheney. Beforehand, naturally, he calls Big Russ for advice, and it is "Just let him talk. Let him help get us through this." Bingo: "Dad was so right. Without his advice, I would have focused mostly on the future, on our response to terrorism." Instead, though we now know that planning for the war in Iraq was already under way, he had Cheney reminisce about 9/11. On the drive home, he checks back in with Big Russ. "That was great. Thank you," he says. A year later, with war plainly on the horizon, Russert gets another interview with Cheney. The vice president's manner -- gruff, plainspoken, and perpetually alert to the world's manifold perils -- could have been custom-designed to have a positive effect on Big Russ's son.

After nearly a decade of journalistic complicity in a war that has assumed genocidal proportions, the real verdict on Tim Russert's life must be as scathing as his career deserved. Contrary to his "regular folks" image, this was a man accustomed to political power and personal wealth. He embodied what Julian Benda called La Trahison des Clercs. In the ongoing struggle to transform American society and to build a world devoted to peace and social justice, we will encounter all sorts of enemies in our path. Based on the fawning memorials to him in the establishment press, it was clear that our enemies considered Tim Russert one of their greatest standard-bearers. The only thing one can learn from his sordid career is negative lessons on how not to conduct oneself in the crucial realm of news analysis, so important to our overall goals of changing the world. That will be Tim Russert's legacy, a monumental example of deceit and fealty to the status quo. Let us live not like him.


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About the Author

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Published June 16, 2008