The death yesterday of Tim Russert becomes all the more tragic when I ponder what remains of political journalism in this country without him. With most of the televised media dominated by self-promoters or shills for one major political party or another, Russert was like an honest umpire. If he cared which side won or lost, he didn’t show it; he just tried his best to call it down the middle.
It would be too cynical of me to say that Russert was the only one of his kind worth trusting, but I’m tempted to say it anyway. In the wake of his death, there have been as many tributes paid to his objectivity as to him personally. He was known to prepare assiduously for the interviews he conducted with senators, congressmen, governors, and former and sitting presidents on Meet the Press — looking for contradictions or vagaries with which to confront his subjects. He did this not to humiliate those he interviewed, not to attack them — I never saw him regard any of his guests with anything other than politeness and respect — but to ask for explanations, to force them to account for their statements and their actions.
Russert was beholden to no one, and never claimed to speak for anyone other than himself. He was a consummate journalist, and the most skilled interviewer on television. He never behaved as though he had any special authority, never used his weekly hour of Meet the Press, his more laid-back Tim Russert show on CNBC, or his countless appearances as an analyst on TV and radio for self-promotion or to try and put himself over the field he was covering.
Compare him to an egotist like Bill O’Reilly, and the contrast is blinding. Russert could be a tenacious interviewer when necessary, but he never grandstanded, never shouted down his guests, never moralized or feigned outrage or engaged in any of the other infantile histrionics that are O’Reilly’s stock-in-trade. Russert never bragged about the size of his audience, even though Meet the Press routinely drew a larger audience on Sunday morning than The O’Reilly Factor does in its plum primetime slot.
There are other voices in political media that I find worth hearing. I think Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough to be entertaining and sometimes insightful commentators, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to be funny and cutting satirists. But I’m trying very hard to think of another journalist in the political field even in Russert’s league, and I’m coming up empty. By all accounts he was a wonderful man, and his friends and family will miss him greatly. But the way he handled himself at work, selflessly and with unquestioned integrity, gave the rest of us a reason to miss him, too.