15 August 2008

Tim Russert: Post-Mortem

The new Harper's came in yesterday, sporting a scathing article by former publisher Lewis H. Lapham on the orgy of mourning for Tim Russert. Lapham must have been channeling the spirit of H.L. Mencken -- Mencken's doubts about such a possibility notwithstanding -- and even namechecks the "Sage of Baltimore" as one of the old-school journalists who would speak truth to power ... unlike Russert.

You have to subscribe to look at the Harper's website, so I'll give you some choice excerpts.

"I mean no disrespect to his widow or to his son, but if I have no reason to doubt his virtues as a man, neither do I have any reason to credit the miracle of Russert as a journalist eager to speak truth to power. In his professional as opposed to his personal character, his on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity, his modus operandi the same one that prompted Rameau's obliging nephew to the roast pheasant and the coupe aux marrons in eighteenth-century Paris: 'Butter people up, good God, butter them up.'"

Here Lapham analyzes Russert's famous gotcha technique, which made him seem such a hard taskmaster to many viewers:

"To an important personage Russert asked one or two faintly impertinent questions, usually about a subject of little or no concern to anybody outside the rope lines around official Washington; sometimes he discovered a contradiction betwen a recently issued press release and one that was distributed by the same politician some months or years previously. No matter with which spoon Russert stirred the butter, the reply was of no interest to him, not worth his notice or further comment. He had sprinkled his trademark salt, his work was done. The important personage was free to choose from a menu offering three forms of response -- silence, spin, rancid lie. If silence, Russert moved on to another topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if rancid lie, he swallowed it."

Examples follow from interviews with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and other worthies. Of the Bush interview, Lapham writes: "I remember Russert's attitude as that of a trend-setting restaurateur anxious to please his best customer."

Quoting Sam Donaldson to damning effect that "the reason political reporters are there is not to speak truth to power," Lapham cites Mencken, Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson and others as role models for doing exactly that. They "assumed that what was once known as 'the press' received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government."

In fairness, it should be noted that none of the writers he mentions positively made their living primarily by interviewing powerful people. They never had to worry about maintaining "access" as Russert certainly did. On the other hand, they didn't consider access as important as Russert and his peers do. They'd all probably agree that the real story was not what the leaders said about things that happened, but the things that were actually happening, the consequences of which could be determined readily enough by an intelligent mind without needing the leaders to explain them for you. Russert may have believed that the opinions of leaders could substitute for news, or he may have understood that he was in the entertainment business. He can't argue in his own defense, but I might be more sympathetic toward his memory if any of his friends who bawled over his coffin could tell me that he'd be embarrassed to imagine himself the subject of such homage.

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