Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tim Russert, celebrity journalist

I began to worry about myself today while reading Debra Saunders column, The Russert weekend, RIP San Francisco Chronicle 06/17/08. I actually found myself agreeing with her. Fortunately, after spending the whole column criticizing the national press for obsessing over fellow journalist Tim Russert this past weekend, she concludes:

An outstanding journalist of Russert's stripe rated more than a nice send-off story. But there is another tenet of the profession that Washington TV news bureaus seem to have forgotten in the shock of Russert's passing: We are not the story.
That made me wonder if her real concern may have been that the hagiography of Russert over the weekend may prompt more people to ask questions about the real faults of our press corps, as opposed to the endless conservative mantra of "Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press!"

Actually, even in the body of the column she manages to get off some characteristic whoppers. This, for instance, could be satire, though she clearly means it seriously: "Most important, Russert cared deeply about policy, not just the horse race and latest polls."

But, credit where credit is due. It may well be one of those stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day things. But Saunders actually got this part right:

It's a bit like watching "Larry King Live" after an octogenarian Hollywood star dies, and fellow hoofers rush to reminisce about their tales with the deceased. Even in death, everyone wants in on the act.

The Republican National Committee sent out a statement. Ditto California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. California first lady Maria Shriver's statement said that Russert "was one of a kind to me and I was lucky enough to have had him as a best friend."

In this game, crass opportunism is rewarded. Shriver appeared via satellite from Sun Valley, Idaho, on Sunday's special edition of "Meet the Press" - on which she started or repeated the thread about Russert being the product of nuns, Jesuits and parochial education.
And that's one of many problems of our national press, especially television. The stars like Russert and Chris Matthews are celebrities, and they are expected by their corporations to act much like entertainers to justify their multi-million-dollar salaries.

But Saunders gets another thing wrong when she says, referring to Russert's constant invocation of his working-class roots, "Do you get the feeling that some talking heads think that if you're on TV, then you're too big to have come from a working-class family or love your hometown? I do."

In fact, this pretension to be a down-home guy or gal who speaks for the "regular people" is one of the favorite conceits of the wealthy punditocracy.

Appropriately enough, the Chronicle gave the main obituary task for Russert's passing to its TV critic, Tim Goodman (Passion for politics propelled newsman Russert 06/14/08). He laid it on thick about Russert's charming love of sports, etc. Not a peep, of course, about how he was one of the leaders of the media pack enabling Dick Cheney and George Bush to take the country into war in Iraq by largely disregarding his role as a responsible journalist. Goodman types up the standard hype about Russert being such a regular guy:

One of the frequent comments heard on news channels after Mr. Russert's death was that he was genuine, didn't have East Coast elitism, and wasn't constrained by a Beltway tunnel vision.

From his upbringing onward, he was able to relate to real people and to project a folksiness to viewers across the country that was believable, colleagues said. He understood "the wisdom of the everyday people who make up the United States," Williams said as he helped Brokaw and Mitchell assess the man's character and his appeal to TV viewers.

It's hard to argue against that interpretation. Just by the look of him - the jowly face and hulking sack suits that spoke of business instead of fashion - it would be hard to imagine Mr. Russert as, say, the Paris bureau chief. Not that he wouldn't have done the relentless preparation to pull it off, but he always seemed more rooted in American soil, more representative of what the intricacies of insider politics meant to everyday Americans. As much as any well-paid television personality can be considered "working class," Mr. Russert seemed to fill the bill. (my emphasis)
Chris Matthews loves to indulge the same pretensions. He was doing his schtick on Morning Joe on June 4, talking with Joe Scarborough about how Barack Obama supposedly can't connect to the "regular" Americans:

It is Ronald Reagan -- probably didn't hang out with regular people for 40, 50 years once he got to Hollywood, but he knew how to connect with the regular person. Nixon, in his own way, could connect with the resentments of the regular person. ...

Sometimes, elite liberal Democrats have a problem connecting with the regular soddy buster guy who's got to work his butt off just to pay the bills. ...

They leap from poor to rich and skip 80 percent of the country. (my emphasis)
I believe down-home-guy Matthews was referring to "sodbuster", an obscolescent word for farmer. "Soddy buster" seems to be Matthews' own regular-guy construction.

Our great soddy-buster pundit went on talk about his wise old pal "Leroy Taylor, a real country guy", who was a sterling example of "the little guy". And he explained to us what "the average guy in Northeast Philly" understands, what "a woman" understands", what people in Scranton think. No need to cite polls or some trivia. A soddy buster guy like Matthews just knows about these things.

Writing in The Nation, Laura Flanders takes a less gushing view of Russert's journalistic accomplishments in Russert (and a Million Others) RIP 06/16/08. Reflecting on the weekend media praise heaped on Russert, she writes:

For me one moment stood out. It was Friday, soon after the news of Russert's death broke. NBC anchor Brian Williams was interviewed on camera from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Calling Russert's death "an unfathomable loss", he appeared to choke up. You could hear the pain in his voice.

Watching him there - in Afghanistan, but it could as well have been Iraq - I couldn't help but think. After how many hundreds of thousands dead in the US's two assaults on those two countries - what if Williams, or Russert or any of the big power news men ever expressed emotion about other deaths. What if we saw them pause and choke up – even once – at the slaughter of an Afghan family in a misguided US missile attack, or swallow hard while reporting the blowing-to-bits of an Iraqi father as he lined up to buy food or find work?
The most likely reason we don't see our celebrity pundits weeping over the "little people" who die in wars they facilitated, often with completely irresponsible journalistic practices, is that most of them don't give a s***. Their job as they see it is comfort the comfortable at home and entertain the regular folks in Scranton, but most of all to keep their corporate bosses happy. If they started weeping over civilians killed and tortured in our glorious wars, the CEO might get some nasty calls from the White House or threats from advertisers.

Bob Somerby took up the Russert coverage in his Daily Howler post of 06/16/08, promising to return to the topic next week. Noting that Tim Russert may very well have been the nicest guy in the world on a personal level, he continues:

Sometimes, though, "nicest guys in the world" are the last to challenge conventional wisdom - even when it desperately needs to be challenged, examined, hollered about. In Tim’s case, we think he showed poor judgment in various instances over the years, as we’re all inclined to do. Chris Matthews touched on one possible error in judgment in his comments from Paris on Friday’s Countdown (text below). For once, we think Chris’ lack of impulse control served the public understanding—although he’s getting beaten up for his comment at various spots on the web.

Over the weekend, other members of the mainstream press corps did the thing that comes natural inside their group; they went on the air and told Group Tales, tales which reflected quite wondrously on Tim’s journalistic work—and, of course, by extension, most importantly, on them. Telling the truth is pretty much the last thing that enters these people’s heads. And so, they handed out novelized tales about Tim’s always brilliant work—failing to make the slightest attempt to be balanced, objective or truthful.
Again, credit where credit is due. Atrocious as the Soddy Buster is, he has been critical of the Iraq War all along. That didn't stop him from drooling in admiration at our Dear Leader's public appearance in flight suit and a manly codpiece. But still. Somerby provides a link to a video of Matthews, as we went momentarily off script and talked about a glaring fault in Russert's brand of journalism, i.e., that he failed to adequately challenge the administration's claims leading up the Iraq War. (Update: I've posted the video and a transcript here.)

On that same topic of the Soddy Buster and the war, see Chris Matthews Admits: MSNBC Bosses Were "Basically Pro-War" Huffington Post 05/07/08. That article also includes this excerpt from Arianna Huffington's new book, Right is Wrong:

Take Tim Russert, whose July 1, 2007, Meet the Press interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was about as priapic a display as you're ever likely to see outside of a porno film or the monkey cage at the zoo, with Russert desperately trying to get Chertoff to pump up the panic meter...You could almost hear the blood rushing to his loins - and the palpable sense of deflation when Chertoff refused to stroke his fantasy[.]
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