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The Reality Of Tim Russert

Tim Russert has been dead for more than two years now so I think the time has come to speak ill of him. First, a press release that arrived in my inbox last week. Then, the truth.

*

The press release:

"Tim Russert, the late moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, will be honored posthumously with the Lincoln Leadership Prize by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation at a benefit dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, at The Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware Place in Chicago. Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw will present the award to Russert's widow, Maureen Orth, and son, Luke Russert.

"Tim Russert is featured in one of the most popular exhibitions at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, the Illinois state capitol. In it, he employs 21st century reporting techniques, complete with a television broadcast and commercials, to report on the Presidential Campaign of 1860.

"Benefit dinner co-chairs are Gregory C. Case, president and CEO, Aon Corporation; Frank M. Clark, chairman and CEO, ComEd; Steve Capus, president, NBC News; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winning author; Paul V. La Schiazza, president, AT&T; Chaz Hammel-Smith Ebert, executive producer, Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies; Raymond F. McCaskey, CEO (retired), Blue Cross Blue Shield of
Illinois; and Gregory D. Wasson, president and CEO, Walgreen Company.

"Four levels of sponsorship, which include a table for 10, are available: platinum at $50,000, gold at $25,000, silver at $10,000 and bronze at $5,000. Individual tickets for the dinner are $500.

"As of Dec. 21, 2010, gold sponsors include Aon, AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, ComEd,McGuire Woods LLP, NiSource, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and Walgreens. Winston & Strawn is a silver sponsor.

"Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Retired U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Astronaut James Lovell are the previous recipients of the Lincoln Leadership Prize.

"Established in 2006 by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the Lincoln Leadership Prize recognizes outstanding leaders in fields as diverse government, business, science, journalism and the creative arts. Accepting the responsibilities imposed by history and demanded by conscience, these individuals' lifetime of service in the Lincoln tradition is marked by great strength of character, individual conscience and an unwavering commitment to the defining principles of democracy."

*

The truth:

First, let me say that any journalist feted by the corporate heads of Aon, AT&T, ComEd, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Winston & Strawn is no journalist of mine. I guess that's what the critics mean when they call Russert a "corporate journalist."

Then again, Russert was never really a journalist. He was a political hack for Daniel Moynihan and Mario Cuomo who went straight from political operating to senior vice president of NBC News' Washington operations in 1984.

But was he skilled? No. He was, to use the phrase, a consummate insider; a one-man nexus of the political-media complex whose values and methods of operation are directly opposed to those of real journalism.

But don't take it from me.

1. "If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do?" Dan Froomkin wrote in the Washington Post in 2007. "Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?

"Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

"When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

"And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

"That's not reporting, that's enabling.

"That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable."

Of course, Russert's "sources" were his friends.

"In his cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore Wells sounded incredulous that Russert wouldn't have asked Libby some questions. After all, former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public just four days earlier with his provocative charge that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq. Wilson had done that in a New York Times op-ed - and on Meet the Press itself.

"'You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?' Wells asked. 'As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?'

"Russert replied: 'What happened is exactly what I told you.'"

2. Cheney press aide Cathie Martin: "I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used. It's our best format, as it allows us to control the message."

3. From Russert's heavily footnoted Wikipedia entry:

"In the Plame affair, Scooter Libby, convicted chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that Russert told him of the identity of Central Intelligence Agency officer Valerie Plame (Mrs. Joseph C. Wilson). Russert testified previously, and again in United States v. I. Lewis Libby, that he would neither testify whether he spoke with Libby nor would he describe the conversation. Russert did say, however, that Plame's identity as a CIA operative was not leaked to him.

"Russert testified again in the trial on February 7, 2007. At the trial, the prosecution asserted that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent had called Russert regarding Russert's phone call with Libby, and that Russert had told the agent that the subject of Plame had not come up during his conversation with Libby. Posthumously Russert was revealed as a thirty-year source of columnist Robert Novak, whose original article revealed Plame's affiliation with the CIA.

"In a Slate article, Jack Shafer argued that 'the Novak-Russert relationship poses a couple of questions . . . Russert's long service as an anonymous source to Novak . . .requires further explanation.' In a posthumous commentary, the L.A. Times wrote that, 'Like former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Russert was one of the high-level Washington journalists who came out of the Libby trial looking worse than shabby' The article's author, Tim Rutten, argued that although Russert and NBC had claimed that these conversations were protected by journalistic privilege, 'it emerged under examination [that] Russert already had sung like a choirboy to the FBI concerning his conversation with Libby - and had so voluntarily from the first moment the Feds contacted him. All the litigation was for the sake of image and because the journalistic conventions required it.'

"In the lead up to the Iraq War, Meet the Press featured interviews with top government officials including Vice President Dick Cheney. CBS Evening News correspondent Anthony Mason praised Russert's interview techniques: 'In 2003, as the United States prepared to go to war in Iraq, Russert pressed Vice President Dick Cheney about White House assumptions.' However, Salon reported a statement from Cheney press aide Cathie Martin regarding advice she says she offered when the Bush administration had to respond to charges that it manipulated pre-Iraq War intelligence: 'I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used. It's our best format.' David Folkenflik quoted Russert in his May 19, 2004, Baltimore Sun article:

"'I don't think the public was, at that time, particularly receptive to hearing it,' Russert says. 'Back in October of 2002, when there was a debate in Congress about the war in Iraq - three-fourths of both houses of Congress voted with the president to go. Those in favor were so dominant. We don't make up the facts. We cover the facts as they were.'

"Folkenflik went on to write:

"'Russert's remarks would suggest a form of journalism that does not raise the insolent question from outside polite political discourse - so, if an administration's political foes aren't making an opposing case, it's unlikely to get made. In the words of one of my former editors, journalists can read the polls just like anybody else.'

"In the 2007 PBS documentary, Buying the War, Russert commented:

"'My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.'"

*

Russert wished his phone would've rang. Huh. That's not how my journalism professors taught me to find out information - like if we were going to war on a lie.

4. From Robert Novak's "My Friend and My Source:"

"A 26-year-old political operative from Buffalo on Daniel Patrick Moynihan's staff in 1977 was overshadowed by the all-star cast accompanying the newly elected senator to Washington. Not for the last time, Timothy J. Russert surpassed famous contemporaries. His first noteworthy feat was saving Moynihan from sure defeat for reelection, enabling an illustrious 24-year Senate career.

"Moynihan was in the Senate on a fluke, because multiple competitors divided New York's prevailing liberal vote in the 1976 Democratic primary. His Senate staff was dominated by glittering neoconservatives, but young Russert deftly convinced Moynihan he needed to move left to survive. The neocons all departed Moynihan and the Democratic Party, but Russert stayed and became his principal adviser.

"From the start, Russert also was an extraordinary source for me. The careful preparation that became his journalistic trademark was obvious in our conversations, when he always had something for my column - most of it about Moynihan's adversaries. He was superb in 'oppo' - research about the opposition. That skill propelled him to the top ranks of television interviewers."

Except when his phone didn't ring.

*

"Early in 1982, over drinks in a Manhattan restaurant, Tim pulled from his briefcase accurate derogatory information about Republican Rep. Bruce Caputo, who was planning to run against Moynihan. That finished Caputo.

"Russert left Moynihan for Gov. Mario Cuomo in hopes of making him president, a goal much clearer to him than it was to the governor. The peculiar pro-Cuomo slant of this column could be attributed to Russert. He arranged a secret dinner at an obscure waterfront steakhouse for me with Andrew Cuomo, now attorney general of New York but then his father's reclusive, enormously influential young adviser."

*

"I talked with Russert on the telephone two or three times a month. Tim and I disagreed on tax policy and other issues, but we never debated over the phone. Instead, we exchanged political information, and I usually was the recipient. He supplied for use in my column news tidbits he could not use. During my half-century of journalism, he was the only colleague who was a source.

"Russert and I were both uncomfortable about being witnesses, for different reasons, in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, but we never discussed it. He always supported me, despite demands that he throw me overboard. When my memoir was published last year, Russert was generous in granting me abundant time on Meet the Press and his own MSNBC program."

5. From Bill Moyers' Journal:

BILL MOYERS: When Tim Russert died, the long time and very popular moderator of Meet the Press, and a friend of mine, by the way. The political and media elites in Washington turned out for him in mass. Do you realize that's not going to happen to you when your time comes?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, but, you know, I'm actually, I consider that to be a good thing. I mean, I found it almost oxymoronic. That Tim Russert was constantly held up as the symbol of what an adversarial journalist would be. That he was supposedly this great thorn in the side of power. And yet, his celebrity was so great that when he died it was almost treated as though it was a death of Princess Diana, and everyone rushed forward in order to from the highest political elites to media stars to treat him as what he, in fact, was. Which was a celebrity.

And if you look at what Tim Russert actually did there were a couple of actually interesting episodes where not his image, but the reality of what he did was unmasked, during the Lewis Libby trial, in particular. The trial of Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff for obstruction of justice. That involved a lot of journalists, because they were participants in the effort to unmask Valerie Plame Wilson and to smear Joe Wilson. And what he said during that trial, under oath, was they asked him, well, when you have a conversation with one of your sources, with the government official, when is it that you decide that it's confidential. And when is it that you can report it? And what he said was, well, actually, when I have a conversation with the government official, I consider that conversation presumptively confidential. And I will disclose it only if they authorize me to do so.

And it was it was an extraordinary revelation, because if you talk to government officials, and you only disclose to the public things that you know, when they allow you or give you permission to do so, what you're really describing is the role of a propagandist, not of a journalist. And yet, that was what you know, Tim Russert in many ways was. That's what his celebrity was based in.

6. Back to Wikipedia:

* "Russert also received an Emmy Award in 2005 for his coverage of the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan." (For such stellar work as this, I guess.)

* "Russert, a devout Catholic, said many times he had made a promise to God to never miss Sunday Mass if his son were born healthy."

* "Some journalists criticized the amount of media coverage that Russert's death received. Jack Shafer of Slate called NBC's coverage a 'never-ending video wake.' Washington Post writer Paul Farhi also expressed disapproval, noting that a print journalist would likely not have received similar attention. Chicago Tribune columnist Julia Keller questioned the volume of coverage as well as the labeling of Russert's death as 'a national tragedy.'"

7. No, this is a national tragedy:

"During an interview with Al Franken, Tim Russert objected to Franken's assertion that 'Bush and Cheney did explicitly link Iraq to 9-11 on several occasions, especially when speaking to the naive Russert.' In fact, Cheney twice directly linked Iraq to the 9-11 attacks while appearing on Russert's NBC program Meet the Press."

8. Media Matters also notes:

"During the hour-long sit-down, [Howard] Dean faced off against a clearly combative host, Tim Russert, who prepared for the interview in part by asking the Bush Treasury Department to produce what the Washington Post later called a 'highly selective' analysis of the Democratic candidate's proposed tax program. The GOP-friendly analysis prompted Russert to ask incredulously to Dean, 'Can you honestly go across the country and say, I'm going to raise your taxes 4,000 percent or 107 percent and be elected?'

"That was Russert's second substantive question of the interview. His first was about the then-recent arrest of Dean's son for helping steal beer from a country club. Russert though, famed for his pre-show prep, botched the facts and erroneously informed viewers that Dean's teenage son had been 'indicted.'

"Deep into the interview Russert asked how many men and women were currently serving in the U.S. military, a gotcha-style question designed solely to put Dean on the spot. When Dean said he didn't know the exact number, Russert lectured the candidate, 'As commander in chief, you should know that.' Dean answered the question by saying there were between 1 and 2 million men and women in active duty; according to the Pentagon, there were in fact 1.4 million."

9. And:

"After falsely asserting that he was showing viewers 'exactly what President Clinton said,' referring to January 7 comments Bill Clinton made about Sen. Barack Obama, Tim Russert played a truncated quote from Clinton. In addition, Russert read a quote from The New York Times that truncated Hillary Clinton's statement about civil rights, omitting her reference to President Kennedy."

And it just goes on and on.

10. As also tracked by Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler. Just a taste:

* "Russert bungled Social Security, as he has done through the years."

* Fox News pushed Condi around. Russert rolled over.

* "There once was a shill from Nantucket."

11. And Somerby's five-part series:

* "Tim Russert's father deserves your respect. His son is a whole different story."

* "Being Tim Russert has its advantages, as we see when Big Russ helps him bungle."

* "It seems that Russert is never wrong - if you ask Russert, that is."

* "Russert said Dems were 'blaming America.' We felt we were catching his drift."

* "Given the valuable lessons he's learned, it's time Tim explained what he did."

12. And yet, New Yorker editor David Remnick found Russert to be a "gifted and cunning Sunday-morning interrogator" who "did not back off easily" with Dick Cheney.

Let's put the magazine's famed fact-checkers on that one.

-

Comments welcome.

-

1. From Tim Willette:

From Lemann's NYer profile as quoted here:

"Just after the September 11th attacks, Russert bags an interview at Camp David with Cheney. Beforehand, naturally, he calls Big Russ for advice, and it is 'Just let him talk. Let him help get us through this.' Bingo: 'Dad was so right. Without his advice, I would have focused mostly on the future, on our response to terrorism.'"

2. Scraped from America's Debate:

* "Russert recited Irrelevant Facts on SS. None of his panelists challenged him"

* "Russert said Dems were 'blaming America'"

* "Russert pushes RNC talking points"

* "Russert tells Pelosi that criticism of the president hurts the troops"



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Posted on January 3, 2011


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