The more important lesson concerns the establishment press heaping undeserved accolades on Russert, who earned a law degree and moved to Washington, D.C., with no background in journalism, yet ended up on an NBC news show.
Years ago, journalism was barely considered a profession. Most of the old-timers lacked college degrees, were hard-core drinkers and heavy smokers. Yet they could gather news and write and edit circles around the crop of college journalism majors who were moving into newsrooms about the time hot type was on its way to becoming an artifact.
It was a privilege to learn from these guys what mattered: the story and the skill with which it was written. Bylines were secondary. Celebrity journalists, with the exception of a handful like Walter Cronkite, were the exception. And people like Cronkite honed their skills in print media before moving to television.
This all changed when two young guys from The Washington Post, almost single-handedly, brought down the Nixon administration. Journalism morphed into one more vehicle for gaining celebrity status.
Russert landed his first job in politics working for Buffalo's city comptroller. Maybe someone told him he wouldn't get very far without a law degree, or maybe his ambition was to "rise" above his working-class roots, or maybe he sought a path to fame and fortune, but for whatever reason, he earned a law degree in his mid-20s.
Young people do not normally first seek law degrees if their intent is to become old-school, objective-as-humanly-possible, stay-in-the-background reporters. But Russert was never interested in journalism: He was interested in power and influence. His background, career choices and, most significantly, interviewing style bear this out.
When Daniel Moynihan made his first run for the U.S. Senate, Russert volunteered for the campaign. Whatever he did was impressive enough to secure a job in Washington on Moynihan's staff. In 1982, he returned to New York to work on Mario Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign and served as his consigliere until 1984, when--as one version of the story goes--he was "persuaded" by a friend to move to television.
At this point, it behooves us to ask: What qualifications and experience could Russert possibly bring to a news program? Though he knew first-hand the machinations of politics, he had no opportunity to acquire the expertise embodied by, say, Helen Thomas, then of United Press International. Thomas, a veteran journalist who manifests the best of the profession, honed her reporting skills acting as a watchdog rather than an insider.
The unearned accolades streaming from an embarrassingly large number of media people following Russert's death are especially infuriating because the unabashed gushing will serve to diminish well-deserved kudos that will one day accompany the death of Cronkite or Thomas. The pool of authentic journalists is fast dwindling (the Tucson Weekly's late Chris Limberis was one), and we are all the poorer for it.
Because of the phenomenon of repetition turning something into "truth," too many people likely accept the notion of Russert as a capable journalist. Not so. Russert seemed "tough and thorough," but while he gave the appearance of being a pitbull, his interviewing style was calculated to appeal to a naïve public and turn Meet the Press into what one report called a "ratings winner." In fact, he served as a lapdog to the current administration, beating the drum for the neocons that led us into Iraq, and was expert at serving as a mouthpiece for the status quo while appearing, to the uninitiated, to be relentless in his pursuit of "truth."
Confrontational and provocative may make for a good television "news" program or courtroom drama, but they make for lousy journalism, as do attempts to influence policy rather than keep policy makers accountable to the public via a vigilant press.
The outpouring of praise for Tim Russert's performance as a journalist is a reminder of how far the craft has fallen from the days of smoke-filled newsrooms, full of foul-mouthed men and cigar-smoking women--gritty places with reporters and editors who knew their role in the game and, even though they knew they would not always succeed, still tried like hell to keep the game honest.