The Russert Death-A-Thon Continues

Just taking a break from MSNBC's non-stop coverage of Tim Russert's death. I'm typing fast, with growing fear that I might miss another reference to the Bills, the Pope, or Patrick Moynihan. Did you know that Russert graduated from law school? Now you do, 200 times over, during what has been nearly continuous coverage of the death during the past 42 hours or so.

Was a time when journalists were loathe to make themselves part of the story. Not anymore. This cable news station is clearly obsessed with its own cult of personality. And to do this kind of thing while soldiers are being killed in Iraq is nothing less than shameful. Tom Brokaw is anchoring the coverage -- and his charm is about the only thing that is keeping it from completely falling into chaos. Just think about how much TV time Brokaw will get when he croaks!

One of the maudlin refrains is that "Sundays will never be the same." Don't make a mistake, though, Russert's brand of institutional political coverage will live on. There will be another NBC political chief and Meet the Press host (David Gregory, anyone?) and he or she will continue with the talking-head-he-said-she-said games on Sunday morning.

Don't get me wrong: Russert was a big talent and his death is a big story. I was stunned by it, and saddened. You did feel like you knew the guy and, as Obama said, you could sense his fundamental decency. But the truth si that he'll be most remembered in American history for his interviews with Dick Cheney, in which he basically allowed the venal vice prez to lie about Iraq with impunity. And I don't believe MSNBC has showed those one time.

The Bush administration, in fact, was so confident of its ability to manipulate the public on Russert's show that it considered MTP the first option in combatting critics. Remember his coziness with felon Scooter Libby during the Valerie Plame scandal? During his testimony in that trial he admitted that he was always off-the-record with government officials unless otherwise specified. Now I have had a couple of running off-the-record deals with pols, but that is just bad form -- and solidifies Russert's reputation not as an original journalistic maverick but as a beltway standard bearer (which in turn makes it easy to explain why he was less than hard-hitting during the Administration's run-up to the disastrous war in Iraq).

Russert had a bulldog quality -- even looked a little like one -- but he could also be a bit of a bully. While giving Cheney easy passage he'd go after, say, a relatively lowly Ron Paul with a vengeance. The double-standard was sometimes a bit unseemly -- and sometimes you got the feeling he was pouncing on easy prey while letting the bigger, more dangerous game get away.

But Russert was just playing the Big Game of politics -- and the way he played it kept him on top of the heap. It was really a bit of bad luck that the latter half of his reign at NBC coincided with the Bush presidency. He was no match for the thugs and looters in that Administration -- and he certainly wasn't alone in letting it get away with murder. The tragedy of September 11 made it even harder to call truth to power. Russert would have had to have been a hero, in the vein of Murrow, to call truth to power against the Administration in the early going after September 11.

And Russert was no hero. The truth is that he was just a sharp talent and likable personality who covered the political spectrum like it was the NFL. The world won't change without him. But that doesn't mean he won't be missed -- even after all this self-glorifying MSNBC coverage has been forgotten.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman