American Culture

Covering Tim Russert's death: As journalist? Or celebrity?

On Jan. 15, Carsten Thomassen, a 38-year-old Norwegian who worked for the Oslo daily Dagbladet, died in a suicide bombing at a hotel in Kabul.

On Feb. 27, Shihab al-Tamimi, head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, died after being shot in Baghdad.

On March 29, Carlos Quispe Quispe, a Bolivian journalist for a government-run radio station, was severely beaten by protesters demanding the ouster of the local mayor and died.

On April 25, Jassim al-Batat, a correspondent at Al-Nakhil TV and Radio, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in a small town north of Basra.

On Friday, NBC News journalist and commentator Tim Russert died while doing voice-overs for his Sunday news program.

I — we— have obviously heard of Mr. Russert. But I had never heard of journalists Thomassen, al-Tamimi, Quispe, and al-Batat until I visited the Web site of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks deaths, injuries, and disappearances of journalists worldwide.

Mr. Russert’s life and legacy deserves the outpouring of grief and tribute after his unexpected death at only 58 years old. He was an admirable, competent and compelling interviewer and seeker of truth. But because he wielded an exceptionally large megaphone — the pulpit of “Meet The Press” — he was also a celebrity.

The amount and tenor of news coverage of his passing, particularly in broadcast media, reflected his celebrity as much as his journalistic accomplishments and integrity. Even print media, particularly large east-of-the-Mississippi metro dailies, said farewell prominently both in print and on Web sites. Today’s Web pages of The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, and his hometown Buffalo News carry extensive obituaries, pieces in memoriam, and appreciations.

At MSNBC, a black banner flies over a photograph of Mr. Russert and invitation for viewers to leave remembrances. This morning, CNN switched back and forth between Midwest floods and fawning remembrances of Mr. Russert by anchors and others. CBS News has a story and video of Mr. Russert on its Web site.

I did not know Mr. Russert. But I wonder: Would he have been embarrassed that so much air time, print space and Web usage was devoted to chronicling his passing? Would he have asked of gatekeepers: “You doing this because I’m newsworthy — or merely a celebrity?”

Without wishing to hasten anyone’s demise, consider the journalists still breathing — particularly those long-time, well-known, well-paid broadcast anchors and other pundits. When they push up daisies, will the coverage reflect that of Mr. Russert’s passing?

Reflect, please, on the August 2005 death of ABC newsman Peter Jennings, anchor of “World News Tonight” since 1983. Was the coverage similar in scope? I think yes. But why?

Reason 1: Broadcast journalists who spend decades on air and literally share our living rooms become a cross between family member (witness many of the remembrances printed about Mr. Russert) and a celebrity. We, the readers and viewers, want to know as much as we can about these people to salve our own feelings of loss, and newsroom gatekeepers know this.

Reason 2: Journalists of note who die have their colleagues back in the newsroom to place the news of their passing on prominent display. The best, most respected bakers, butchers and candlestick makers don’t have that luxury. That has always troubled me, that journalists can elevate the deaths of their brethren higher than most other occupations can. That is a significant power of gate-keeping, even though love and admiration of a colleague should not always equal automatic newsworthiness.

Reason 3: Big-name, big-salary journalists are extraordinarily influential in corridors of power. That makes them valuable assets to the corporations that hire them to be pundits. Mr. Russert’s annual salary no doubt had a significant number of zeroes after the first digit. Perhaps those left behind in the newsroom wish to remind those in the corridors of wealth and influence elsewhere that we’ve got the power, too, and don’t you forget it.

Meanwhile, other journalists with talent and determination — but not the ratings or readership reach of Mr. Russert — continue to die doing what the profession has historically done — seek the facts that illuminate truth. So far, 13 have died this year. Since 1992, 685 journalists have died with murder the most frequent cause. They have received far too little recognition for their sacrifice and dedication.

Journalism has the capacity of elevate its own. My newsroom godfather died far too early, at 56. He reminded us frequently that should he pass on, “Just do an obit. That’s all. Put in on the jump page with everyone else’s.”

We didn’t. The story ran on page one … but at least it was below the fold.

Rest in peace, Mr. Russert. “Go Bills!”

9 replies »

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  2. Good point. I was thinking the same thing. When a journalist is murdered in the course of work, it’s not murder. It’s censorship. It, therefore, necessarily imperils the nation. The event, though not necessarily the individual, is definitely newsworthy. That a journalist can be murdered as a result of work threatens the very civility of our culture. When a journalist dies doing voiceover prep work for his show on Sunday, that’s not exactly hot news in and of itself.

    However, I would add that, in Russert’s case, his passing is also newsworthy because he was seen by many as the most prominent bullshit-detector in U.S. journalism. After feeling sad for his passing, my first thought was “Who else will be able to step up in a high profile forum and keep politicians honest ’til November? Might this even have a tangible effect on the Presidential election?”

    It is my hope that the news networks will sense the void created by his passing and will compete for the eyes that had watched him regularly. Perhaps it will even spawn real competition for “Meet the Press”. Eh, I can dream.

  3. Fikshun: I appreciate your point about Mr. Russert’s masterful “bullshit detector.” His loss is news. But consider this: How much does the magnitude of the coverage also represent the size of the yawning, always-hungry news hole of 24-hour news networks and news Web sites? There’s a perfect storm of circumstances here.

    Thanks for your comment, as always.

  4. Russert might not always have walked the journalistic ethics line perfectly. But two weeks before he died he had the balls to cut through the crap and declare:

    “We now know who the democratic nominee for president of the united states is going to be”

    And his last few broadcasts were devoted to exposing the racist smear campaign against Obama and his family. I think he well and truly earned his browny points with the angels.

    If some folks want to go overboard in their tributes, let them. Its good. Its healthy. Hopefully when they are done they’ll go back to journalism … not commentary.

    And if you don’t like the coverage on cable, don’t watch TV. I don’t. They have to pay folks at places like Media Matters to cover that garbage these days. It would be sad if online communities spent all their time complaining about the crap we’ve left behind. We move on to new territory only to turn it into mindless back and forth idiot online chatter consisting mostly of criticism of the mindless back and forth idiot chatter taking place on cable?

    Tim Russert – RIP

  5. Dr. Denny: I acknowledge your point, and I think the 24-hour news ambulance chasers are guilty of this more often than they aren’t, but from my perspective in this case, Russert’s passing is news.

    You’re absolutely right about the phenomenon. One thing I loathe about MSNBC is their penchant for overusing the “Breaking News!” button. Our lives are not so banal and flatline that we need this artificial dynamic. It cheapens the headlines and dulls our reaction to them. I have friends who blog about every celebrity passing as though the world is a lesser place every day because of the loss (it isn’t).

    However, in this circumstance, I think this is news. There are better journalists out there, perhaps unearthing bigger stories as we speak, but Tim Russert represents a major loss, not just because of his prominent forum on “Meet the Press”, but also because of the timing.

    I can’t help but see parallels between the state of the nation in 1976 and 2008. You have a lame duck two-term president who has been all but impeached, trying to handpick his successor to prevent an untimely trip to the Big House. This would-be successor is pitted against a Democratic candidate who is enough of an outsider as to be perceived as a dark horse. The people are clamoring for a change but wonder how much real change this supposed outsider actually represents.

    Imagine being able to vote for Ford or Carter, knowing that, in this case, Ford can’t pardon Nixon until he’s elected.

    To me, this is precisely why Russert’s passing is newsworthy. The timing is terrible. Any would-be successor to Russert’s perch won’t have enough credibility or public prominence to go for the jugular like he did. Any candidate backed into a corner will come out swinging.

    And all of this is to say nothing of the House representatives up for election this November. Two years ago, Democrats were sent in with a mandate to clean house, and they didn’t. Who will smoke these candidates with Dr. Sammy’s daily brushbacks?

  6. I was blown away by all the coverage last night. Even Fox News and Sean Hannity had nice things to say about him.

    I think some journalist, particularly print, forget how hard it is to report without pissing off people so much that you never get another interview from them. It’s much easier to replay a sound byte, then it is to write about it. It’s a delicate balance that Russert mastered.

    Theres’ a certain amount of douchebaggery that is involved in the networks, but Russert always seemed like the real deal. He’s the reason I started watching MSNBC in the first place.

    I know it’s way too early, but I always pictured Keith Olberman in the chair of Meet the Press. My only problem is that he has made his broadcast “newsertainment”. If he tones it down he’d be great on MTP.

    On a local note: The flags are at half mast, people are drinking, and yes I believe Tims name will be on the Bills Wall of Fame!

    Go Bills and Sabres!

  7. Would he have been embarrassed that so much air time, print space and Web usage was devoted to chronicling his passing?

    Quite possibly. We’re not only blithely ignorant of journalists dying in Iraq, but everybody who dies there, from Iraqi citizens to our own soldiers, up to and including Medal of Honor winners.

  8. Thanks, all.

    Fikshun: Please don’t misunderstand me: I think Mr. Russert’s death is news. But I find it overplayed as obligatory “say nice things.” I’ve seen or read little analytical commentary on “what it means” in line with your comment. That’s what’s been missing in the coverage of his passing.

  9. i think the “coverage” has been badly overblown. if those overblowing had used the opportunity to talk about the deaths of journalists actually out covering events, one might consider the time well spent but, imho, russert’s death was definitely NOT something regular programming should have been interrupted for. frankly, it scared the crap out of me as i waited to hear what horror had occurred in this sad world. i was most definitely not amused when i was informed that my adrenalin had been raised because one of those directly responsible for the military action in iraq had unexpectedly died.

    to say that he was an honest broker is to disregard his public record.