Saturday, June 14, 2008

RIP Tim Russert

A friend of mine and I were on our way to meeting some other friends in Toronto late yesterday afternoon when I heard on the radio that Tim Russert had died at the age of 58, just hours after flying back to Washington from Rome to attend a celebration for his son's graduation and then going right back to work to tape an interview. To say that my friend and I were shocked would be an understatement. On the way back, we heard on my satellite radio -- tuned into Fox News, a rarity for me -- that Russert had an enlarged heart and coronary heart disease. Coming as it did barely a week after the passing of Jim McKay, it was very hard to comprehend and still is early this morning as I write these words.

Like many other bloggers, I had in recent months become very critical of Russert and the kinds of questions he wasn't asking and the fact he tended to have many more conservative guests than those who were liberal or neutral. However, there are two things that made him stand out as a great broadcaster. One, he did ask some very tough questions of his guests and was able to turn around a once very boring show, Meet the Press, which is the world's longest running program on television (on the air since 1947). A show that had lost its spark during the 1980s.

Two, he had incredible integrity. In last year's perjury trial of Scooter Libby, Russert wound up testifying despite a long-standing journalistic code not to reveal one's sources. When he was finally asked on NBC's nightly newscast why he responded to the sub poena both at the grand jury and later the trial -- once he had finished his testimony at the latter -- he bluntly told anchor Brian Williams something his mother and his father ("Big Russ") both had taught him; that if you tell the truth the first time you don't have to tell the same story twice. In other words, Libby was caught in a lie and Russert felt his duty to call him out even if he was an otherwise reliable insider.

That's the kind of ethics journalism badly needs right now, especially in a world where if and when Angelina Jolie Voight had her twins is considered more important than how many died in Iraq on the same day of the alleged "blessed event." And in this historic year, it will be all too painful to know that Russert won't be there to tell the story of how Obama v. McCain winds up.

That even the team at Fox was devastated shows you just how big this loss is. Coming as it did just before Father's Day and the realization that Big Russ will now have to bury his son is the biggest insult.

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