In terms of being an old-fashioned, old-style media icon, nobody in broadcasting today could top Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press and the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, who died this past week without a hint of warning at the age of 58. Stephen Colbert is surreal, Jon Stewart is satirical, Keith Olbermann is outraged, and Russert was, well, tough and amiable and grounded, rooted in American politics as it has been played since the days of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
The airwaves and news pages have been full of well-deserved tributes to Russert. Among his memorable qualities was the sense, as so many observed, that he “never forgot where he came from.” (Russert hailed from the blue-collar precincts of Buffalo, New York, a city of undeniable grittiness.) If there is a problem with this line of remembrance, it is that the eulogists did not push it far enough. If Russert did not forget his roots, is that to say that others in journalism have trouble remembering where they came from? Or whom, or what, they are supposed to be serving? Hint: think the public interest.
The reporters and commentators today are not the civic heroes they once were. A 2004 public opinion poll suggested that, among the wretched, journalists score only slightly better than used-car salesmen, and on par with politicians, in terms of credibility. There is, of course, a gross dollop of unfairness in much of this, scorning the messenger for the bad news he brings. And there is much bad news to digest these days: war in Iraq and the prospect of conflict with Iran, rising gas and food prices. There is even talk of charging Internet users not flat fees but fares determined by how much they download. As the line between what was once considered news blurs with what was once clearly entertainment, those who seriously cover the facts are tarred with the sins of those who transmit gossip. It does not help that a handful of international conglomerates own most of the media. It just makes it easier to tar so many with the same brush.
Many, it is sad to say, deserve such treatment. Exhibit A in the most recent case against mainstream corporate media is that, in the run-up to the Iraq War, the press allowed President Bush to lie and hoodwink the nation into following his criminally mistaken lead. It is hard to imagine an issue closer to home than an international conflict in which American men and women are dying in the name of a bogus cause. But the sorry record of the press gets even sorrier when one considers what else Bush and the Republicans got away with for so many years: the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class got screwed.
The average American family makes about $31,333 a year. And while the average working-stiff reporter makes between $20,000 and $50,000 a year (a precise figure is hard to come by), top talents at the nation’s largest papers regularly make $100,000 a year or more. At big national magazines, the salaries of editors in chief often break $1 million. Surprisingly, TV salaries are not as high as some might think. Anchors in the 25 largest markets make an average of $130,000. These figures may not be the stuff of daily Champagne and caviar, but neither are they the stuff of abject want and longing. It is not a stretch to suggest that the press may not be sufficiently afflicting the comfortable because, as a group, it has gotten rather comfortable itself, too sure of its own assumptions.
These, of course, are sweeping generalizations. They should not be taken as a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. All institutions are less than perfect. That’s a sentiment, a bit of understatement, that Russert himself would endorse. If the observations above were made on Meet the Press, Russert might counter by asking about groundbreaking stories in the New York Times that exposed the extent to which the government ignores the Constitution by tapping phone and computer lines, or citing the Washington Post’s reporting on the deplorable conditions that wounded soldiers endured at military hospitals. It would be in keeping with Russert’s generous character to cite other fine broadcast competitors or colleagues in an effort to deflate too vigorous a critique of a profession he clearly loved.
That was the Russert technique: he sought not so much to deflate as to correct. His job was more difficult than it looked, and he did it well. Russert held guests who came on Meet the Press to the same high standards to which he held himself. He was legendary for asking any and all tough questions. If he appeared at times to be more exacting with progressives, it was probably to compensate for his own sympathies, which, while centrist, tended to be liberal. He made newsmakers squirm because he believed the public had a right to know what politicians were up to. Russert held official Washington accountable. If others in the media did as good a job as he did, maybe the nation would not be in the mess it is in today — or, to qualify that statement in a way that might meet with Russert’s realistic approval, the mess might not be as bad.
Tim Russert did not walk on water, but he did his job.