Skewering Hypocrites and Liars With Civility: In Praise of Tim Russert



The last few days have been filled with tributes to NBC Chief Washington Correspondent  and host of Meet the Press Tim Russert.  


I have one to add.


In the fall of 2005, I left a senior administrative position in which one of my responsibilities was government and political relations. There were some years when politics was really in my blood, especially when there was an issue to be fought or a worthy project to be funded. There also were years when the trek back and forth to our state capital was excruciating. At least, because my “client” was public higher education, I always believed deeply in the inherent value of what I was selling. 


But then I lost it.  


Mostly, I became completely unable to tolerate a parallel universe in which a politician’s words and actions often simultaneously contained 1) an ostensibly noble, yet utterly phony, public rationale and 2) a more authentic, yet venal or self-serving, private rationale. I know. That’s politics. And it is a game. But enough was enough.


It was almost indescribably cathartic in those days to watch Tim Russert who – with infinite civility – would fillet those spinmeisters and phonies right down the middle. He always knew exactly what questions a guest wanted to avoid, issues on which they were vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or excessive spinning. And he would ask them.


“Senator, why with all your public support and enthusiasm for the health care bill, were you absent on the day the vote took place? Why in two days did you make two speeches that offer completely contradictory views on the Iraq war? Why did you vote so enthusiastically and visibly for the Smith/Jones bill, yet then vote against every appropriation that would have made it a reality?”


And on and on.


No one cut to the chase with more decency.


We live in an age of salivating provocateurs, people like Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage and Lou Dobbs,  who confuse rants and smarts. Completely unaware of how ridiculous they look, they get so lost in their infantile tantrums that — for all their histrionics – they miss the chance to really cut through to the truth.  They ask incendiary questions and get incendiary answers. They create a lot of heat, generate almost no light, and — while everyone is getting hot and bothered — no one notices that the hard questions, the nuanced questions, have not even been asked. 


Russert, on the other hand, never lost his civility. Yet he still could nail a sleazeball better than any of the loonies in the media shoutocracy. He knew that skewering was best accomplished by preparation, substance and civility, by asking precisely the right questions. The slippery and the ill-informed were unmasked before a national audience without any assault on their essential dignity as human beings. 



After Tim Russert, no journalist will ever be able to persuasively argue that getting to the truth requires that another human being be demeaned or berated. When Tim Russert’s questions led to your humiliation or the end of your political career, you had no one to blame but yourself.

Why Not Feed the 24 Hour News Beast Something Truly Repulsive? The Case of Liz Trotta


With all the disgust I feel for much of the detritus that the 24 hour cable news channels use to fill their bottomless news hole, I won’t deny that I am simultaneously a fan. 


Hypocrisy? Maybe.  


CNN and MSNBC are simply indispensable for live coverage of breaking news. Further, they each are staffed with journalists capable of on the spot analysis and perceptive commentary that can be superb. I think of CNN’s William Schneider, former CNN Baghdad correspondent and bureau chief Jane Arraf and medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.  And what about people at MSNBC like Robert Bazell, perhaps the best science and medical reporter of the last several decades, Keith Olbermann, political director Chuck Todd, and Tim Russert?


I should say that I don’t omit Fox News out of any knee-jerk revulsion.  I am glad the audience who feels their views represented by Fox has that highly partisan option. I only wish that they would at least be honest about their ideological slant, rather than continuing to make the embarrassing (and amusing) claim of fairness and balance.


Fox simply has very little, if anything,  to say to me.


But all three of the cable news networks are faced with an insatiable news beast demanding to be fed.  And it seems that, in the age of screaming and incivility, nothing fills a slow news day better than two or three minimally informed pseudo-experts trying ever-so-hard to out-shout each other. 


No surprise there.


There is an unintended, entertaining  benefit to all this: When your definition of news makes room for yelling by provocateurs rather than reporting by reporters, you occasionally are treated to an idiocy that transcends any definition of idiocy you ever imagined.


So here we go. Check out these comments on Fox News by Liz Trotta, her attempt to bring some “analysis” to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the RFK assassination.


And ask yourself: How does any news organization keep someone like Liz Trotta on the air? Where is her apology? Who will take the responsibility for deciding that suggesting the assassination of a presidential candidate should be a career-ender, something that should preclude her from ever doing news or commentary again?


This isn’t about her right to express herself.  She can be as astoundingly stupid as she wants. And she can do it on the air. The question is whether Fox will decide that the “decency-line” has been crossed.


Watch closely. Her comments come quickly at the end of this short excerpt. And they are repulsive.