NBC's Meet the Press anchor and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert died of a heart attack on June 13. The outpouring from media and political elites only underscored Russert's status as one of most important figures in mainstream journalism. But amidst all of the accolades, critical assessments about Russert's record were scarce.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone more admired by fellow journalists. "He was the preeminent political journalist in America," declared pundit Al Hunt (6/15/08). "He was an American character right from Mark Twain," offered NBC colleague Chris Matthews (6/15/08). "He had an authority and insight in covering politics that the rest of us could only aspire to," remarked Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace (6/15/08).
Many of the tributes celebrated Russert's preparation for his Sunday morning interviews, the kind of performances that earned Russert his reputation as a particularly tough interviewer. "Tim Russert always did his homework," explained NBC's David Gregory. "He was always prepared for interviews." NBC producer Betsy Fischer agreed (6/15/08): "He would spend all week preparing for this show, reading everything."
Aside from the fact that this is somewhat unusual praise--shouldn't all journalists prepare for interviews?--Russert's supposedly aggressively posture was at times put to rather dubious ends. When Barack Obama appeared on Meet the Press (1/22/06), Russert grilled him about comments made by left-wing actor and entertainer Harry Belafonte: "I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?"
Russert followed up on the issue, despite the fact that the only apparent connection between the two men was the fact they were both black. When Russert moderated a debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton (2/26/08), he asked Obama about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, despite the fact that the two had no discernable ties. Years earlier, Russert quizzed civil rights activist Al Sharpton about Farrakhan's views, telling him (8/25/00), "A leader in black America has said that Saddam Hussein is no more terrible than the president of the United States."
And Russert's tenacious interviewing style would alternate with a much more deferential one--depending on who was being interviewed. Surprisingly, some of Russert's journalistic colleagues praised him for being tough on the Bush administration over the Iraq War. CBS Evening News correspondent Anthony Mason said (6/13/08), "In 2003, as the United States prepared to go to war in Iraq, Russert pressed Vice President Dick Cheney about White House assumptions."
In reality, Meet the Press was the venue for some of the White House's most audacious lies about the Iraq War--most of which went unchallenged by Russert. On the morning that the New York Times published a front-page article falsely touting the now-famous "aluminum tubes" as components of an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press (9/8/02), where Russert pursued open-ended questions that seemed to invite spin from the vice president on Iraqi nuclear weapons.
Recalling such softball questioning, it's easy to believe the advice that Cheney press aide Cathie Martin says she gave when the Bush administration had to respond to charges that it manipulated pre-Iraq War intelligence: "I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used," she said (Salon, 1/26/07). "It's our best format."
In Bill Moyers' documentary "Buying the War" (PBS, 4/25/07), Russert expressed the wish that dissenting sources would have contacted him: "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." Of course, any journalist could have found such sources--and certainly few critics of the war would have passed up an opportunity to air their views on such a prominent media platform.
As David Folkenflik pointed out in the Baltimore Sun (5/19/04), Russert seemed to think the media were merely following public opinion in the run up to the war:
Indeed, the reticence to actually render judgment on those in power--particularly the Bush White House--was what many critics found so frustrating, especially coming from someone who enjoyed a reputation as a dogged interviewer. When author and comedian Al Franken appeared on Russert's CNBC show on April 1, 2006, the two got into a disagreement about the White House's oft-repeated claim that Congress had access to the same intelligence about Iraq's WMDs as the White House. Franken's point was that the president receives a daily briefing that Congress does not receive, so the claim is false. As Franken put it, "So what the president's saying isn't true, isn't that right, Tim?" Russert would only say, "I'll leave that for you to make a judgment."
Russert was not always so restrained about making judgments. He made a strange observation about Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry on October 31, 2004:
It's not clear what Russert meant, since Iraq did not have such weapons.
In some of the presidential debates he moderated, Russert often gravitated towards questions that were either irrelevant or framed from a right-wing political view. In one debate (9/26/07), he challenged the Democratic contenders to match Rudolph Giuliani's pledge that he would not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. When Barack Obama suggested that talking about attacking Iran was "irresponsible," Russert responded: "So you would not offer a promise to the American people, like Giuliani, that Iran will not be able to develop and become a nuclear power?"
In the same debate, he asked Hillary Clinton if she would support an Israeli attack on Iran. When Clinton suggested this was a hypothetical, Russert interrupted with a curious non-sequitor: "It's not a hypothetical, Senator. It's real life." At a later debate (2/26/08), Russert asked Clinton about her proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq: "If this scenario plays out and the Americans get out in total and Al-Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do you hold the right, in your mind, as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it?" When Clinton responded by saying, "You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals," Russert interrupted: "But this is reality."
One of Russert's signature issues was the so-called Social Security "crisis," a line he pushed relentlessly over the last decade or so. NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell credited Russert (6/15/08) for bringing the issue to prominence by "defining what is the political issue. Nobody talked about entitlements. Nobody talked about Social Security and Medicare and balancing budgets on television on Sunday morning until Tim, with the facts and the experience that he had learned at the feet of Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the Finance Committee of the Senate."
As moderator of two of the Democratic debates (9/26/07, 10/30/07), Russert was particularly aggressive in questioning the candidates about Social Security's finances. In a November 5, 2007 MSNBC appearance discussing the debates, Russert said, "Everyone knows Social Security, as it's constructed, is not going to be in the same place it's going to be for the next generation--Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives."
Actually, as many economists have pointed out, the Social Security Administration projects that it will be able to pay full benefits to retirees for almost the next three decades. And just a few weeks before Russert made his statement, he interviewed former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan (9/23/07). When Russert asked him "how big a crisis" the country faced in paying for Social Security and Medicare, Greenspan told him: "Social Security is not a big crisis. We're approximately 2 percentage points of payroll short over the very long run. It's a significant closing of the gap, but it's doable, and doable in any number of ways."
Despite the perception that Russert excelled at holding the powerful to account, in reality Russert was among the most powerful members of the political-journalistic establishment in Washington. His insider status was reinforced during the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, when Russert was forced to testify about his contacts with high-level Bush administration figures and discussions about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson.
As Tim Rutten wrote in one of the few critical commentaries about Russert (L.A. Times, 6/14/08), "Like former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Russert was one of the high-level Washington journalists who came out of the Libby trial looking worse than shabby." Rutten recounted that while Russert and NBC had publicly argued that these conversations were journalistic privilege, "it emerged under examination, however, Russert already had sung like a choirboy to the FBI concerning his conversation with Libby--and had so voluntarily from the first moment the Feds contacted him. All the litigation was for the sake of image and because the journalistic conventions required it."
Russert was, by almost every account, a warm and compassionate friend and mentor to many reporters, at NBC and elsewhere. The real question for citizens, though, is whether Russert performed as an aggressive and independent watchdog. Even some of his admirers explained that this was not the point. The Washington Post's David Broder explained (6/14/08), "His questioning was completely efficient but never officious. Both the viewers and the guests could tell he really liked the newsmakers he was interviewing."
"He respected politicians," right-wing pundit Mary Matalin explained (Meet the Press, 6/15/08). "He knew that they got blamed for everything, got credit for nothing. He knew how much they meant. He never treated them with the cynicism that attends some of these interviews. So they had a place to be loved. "
ABC's Sam Donaldson weighed in with one of the most revealing comments (This Week, 6/15/08): "He understood as well as anyone, maybe better than almost anyone, that the reason political reporters are there is not to speak truth to power. Today's truth is tomorrow's falsity. But to make those who say we have the truth-- the politicians--explain it. Defend it, explain to the American public where they're going and not pull your punches."
Asked about the failure to more aggressively challenge the White House on Iraq, Russert once explained (3/21/06):
He added that the White House claims:
In fact, there are journalists who examine the claims made by politicians at the time that they make them, and some of them were doing just that with the assertions Bush administration officials used to justify the invasion of Iraq (Extra!, 3-4/06). Had a journalist with the prominence of Tim Russert done so, it's possible that the debate could have had an entirely different outcome.