A Chip Off the Old Buffalo

November 1, 2007

As Matt Yglesias reminds us, NBC newshack Tim Russert is only the biggest and most irritating symptom of the corporate sickness that has effectively destroyed network television as a source of owrthwhile news, and helped reduce our political discourse to an endless, malignant clown show of soundbites and gotcha questions. 

But if anyone is going to be the poster child for this sickness, Tim Russert is the perfect choice, and this terrific profile by Paul Waldman offers a thorough rundown of his most irritating and  offensive tactics: the questions designed to create gaffes instead of gather information; the smug adherence to conventional wisdom; and, perhaps most ridiculous of all, the endless friend-of-the-working-class posturing from a guy who is one of the biggest weenies on the Beltway cocktail party circuit:

The core — if not the entirety — of this persona can be summed up in the word Russert invokes at every opportunity, wielded like a talisman of authenticity: Buffalo. Buffalo, where the salt of the Earth trudge home from their exhausting blue-collar jobs, where the cheap beer is guzzled in corner bars, where the grime sits heavy on the walls of crumbling buildings, and the mills have all left town. Buffalo, where the young Russert got to know the real Americans on whose behalf he now speaks. Buffalo, which can bestow working-class credibility, even on a man who makes a reported $5 million a year and spends his summers among the decidedly elite at his second home on Nantucket. Although Buffalo is not technically in the “heartland,” for Russert it functions the same way as the country’s middle does for Republicans, as a shorthand of virtue, a geographical location out of which springs the values of modesty, piety, industriousness, and, most of all, the lack of privilege.

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If an interviewer forgets to bring up Buffalo, Russert surely will. Asked by Kurtz how he avoids getting an inflated ego when he spends time interviewing presidents (a softball question designed just for Russert; try to imagine Kurtz asking the same thing of Tom Brokaw), Russert responded, “If you come from Buffalo, everything else is easy. Walking backwards to school, for a mile in the snow, grounds you for life.” When Bill Moyers asked Russert whether he relied too much on the word of Bush administration officials during the run-up to the Iraq War, Russert replied, “Look, I’m a blue-collar guy from Buffalo. I know who my sources are. I work ’em very hard. It’s the mid-level people that tell you the truth.” Any questions about his being too close to the establishment are met with “Blue-collar! Buffalo!”, brandished like a cross before the vampire of accountability. Russert may be the only journalist in America who considers all his conversations with government officials off the record unless they request otherwise — an extraordinary gift to the powerful and an inversion of ordinary journalistic practice — but that doesn’t make him an insider. Because he’s from Buffalo.

In an era when presidential candidates can expect to be pilloried for putting the wrong kind of cheese on a Philly cheesesteak, or failing to name a favorite Bible verse; when voters and pundits are asked if prefer to have a beer with John Kerry or recovering alcoholic George W. Bush, Russert is the perfect puff-cheeked, ego-inflated gargoyle on the media cathedral:

The two parties’ nominees will be decided three months from now, and we can be sure that in that time, at least one or two candidates will have their campaigns upended by the answer they gave to an absurd question, delivered by Tim Russert or someone like him, about what their favorite Bible verse is, or whom they want to win the Super Bowl, or what kind of beer they like. “Aha!” the reporters will shout, as though they actually unearthed something revealing on which the race for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth should be decided. The one whose tiny little mind devised the question will be praised to the stars for his journalistic acumen.



2 Responses to “A Chip Off the Old Buffalo”

  1. Chucky Says:

    That missive on Russert is gonna get a lot of hits tonight. It got posted this afternoon to the politics page of Fark.

    Russert is a waterboy for the corporados at GE, who are all too happy to have NBC be the #3/#4 (depending on night) TV network.

  2. Asbury Park Says:

    Russert attended Canisius High School, a Catholic school where rowing is a varsity sport.

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