The Russert Factor

How important was Tim Russert to presidential politics? Certainly he was a central figure in the news coverage in the 2008 cycle, and let’s not forget his famous Florida triplet in Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Tim Russert’s style outraged some with his “gotcha” tactics, representing a more superficial look at the game of K Street politics, rather than the complexities of Main Street policy. But regardless of his style, Meet the Press throughout his tenure was no doubt an important platform for Washington politics, where candidates, policy makers, legislators, pundits, and strategists alike appeared to make their case. If Russert was anything, he was giddy about the game of politics.

Russert’s analysis has been pivotal in every presidential election in which I’ve cast a vote, and now, with Friday’s round-the-clock coverage of his sudden death, I’m doing a little self-reflection, first as a journalist (I’ve certainly had Russert in mind in crafting interview questions, but I must admit, I’ve also had Larry King’s softball stylings in mind too — I’m too nice), and then as a voter, and finally as a sentinel in Shelterforce’s commitment to affordable housing and community building.

Check out David Remnick’s piece in The New Yorker that refers to Calvin Trillin’s “Sabbath Gasbags.” Totally true, and I, for one, loved it. It wasn’t “Crossfire,” it wasn’t “The Factor,” it wasn’t “Countdown,” it was important Washington insiders, Capital Hill reporters, and seasoned pundits discussing the politics of things.

But there were flaws. Remnick cites an interview Russert conducted with Al Gore in 2000 where the Meet the Press moderator tries to corner the vice president on the abortion issue:

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?
GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did —
RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?
GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women — women think about this differently than men.
RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don’t believe life begins at conception. I’m just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?
GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question —
RUSSERT: Which is?

It’s true. Not a fair line of questioning. In fact, Gore could have said that he did not believe life began at conception, but that that distinction was irrelevant when it came to a woman’s right to chose. What’s the point of hammering down on that parcular question? What does that question try to answer? What he’s trying to get at is what Gore’s opinion on abortion is, and why. And when “life begins” isn’t necessarily relevant to that.

As a journalist, I’m careful, almost too careful, to engage in useful dialogue. I’ll ask the tough questions, do my homework, and, I feel, if someone is willing to talk to the press, they should expect nothing less than hard questions. But I also think of the greater good.

Russert’s style irked people, but it seems has was equal opportunity in his ability to catch people off guard. That said, in an hour-long tribute to Russert on this morning’s MTP led by Tom Brokaw, Republican strategist Mary Matalin said that Russert had hoped that a guest would be prepared to answer for past opinions, statements, and more and that he didn’t really relish on catching people off guard. While I’m not so sure about the latter, I do believe that Meet the Press, on the whole, provides an incredibly useful platform, even if the game of politics does not always trickle down to the complexities of Main Street (of course, we know that they often do).

And, speaking journalistically, how many weekly programs were able to time and time again set the week’s news cycle? In this 24-hour news world, the glory of a scoop only lasts about 12 seconds before another outlet picks up the story, but Russert, his gang, and guests provided a platform for important dialogue week after week, just like we do on Rooflines. “Gotcha” or otherwise, that is useful.

Now a note to readers: like a diet, moderation is key. I am not advocating getting your news for the week between 9 a.m. and noon, nor would I ever say that we got the straight story on Sunday mornings. But please comment — I know there are plenty of people here who think differently than I do.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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