June 20, 2008
Nope, I haven’t had much of anything to say about the death of Tim Russert. I considered him a purveyor of shoddy journalistic goods and vapid inspirational books, but beyond that I didn’t have much to say.
How nice to have Jon Swift come out and speak for me:
Doing research and asking follow-up questions were not Russert’s only journalistic innovations. Russert invented a new rule of journalism, which should be called the Russert Rule as a tribute to him. As Russert explained when he testified in the Scooter Libby trial, “My personal policy is always off the record when talking to government officials unless specified.” For years journalists considered all conversations with public figures to be on the record unless it was made clear before the conversation took place that it was off the record. This made many politicians understandably distrustful and wary of journalists. But Russert, in a flash of brilliance, realized that it would be much easier to cozy up to politicians if he simply reversed this rule making all conversations off the record unless everyone agreed they were on the record beforehand. This reversal of journalistic precedent changed the way journalism is done. Politicians could feel safe confiding in Russert and didn’t have to worry that their secrets would get out too soon, or at least that they could be traced back to their source.
The fact that politicians could trust that Russert would safeguard their secrets instead of releasing them to the public prematurely where they might get distorted made him the go-to guy for administration officials who wanted to get their side of the story out without having to worry about being contradicted or embarrassed while still looking like they were being vetted by Russert’s very tough-looking questions. When Dick Cheney wanted to sell the War in Iraq to the American people, his staff immediately called up Russert to book Cheney on NBC’s Meet the Press (which Cheney’s communications director called “our best format“) to say that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear bomb, citing as evidence a story that appeared in the New York Times that morning, which his assistant Scooter Libby had conveniently leaked to reporter Judith Miller. He knew that citing a Times story he himself planted would be all the evidence he would need and he wouldn’t have to worry about Russert asking the kinds of skeptical questions that might throw him off message.
And this offhanded swipe at the nonstop coverage of Russert’s demise on all the corporate news spigots:
Russert’s friends and colleagues were understandably shocked by Russert’s premature passing. If an overweight workaholic with diabetes and a history of coronary artery disease can suddenly die without warning, is any one of us safe? Many of the pundits and politicians who spoke at Russert’s funeral and during the hours and hours and hours of cable news coverage must have been wondering, for the first time in their lives, Am I, too, mortal?