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Tim Russert: His legacy

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Potpourri: Tim Russert: His legacyA guidepost in life through death

Written at the time of Tim’s death in 2008…

A hope: the life of NBC’s Tim Russert gives current and aspiring reporters a model for how to work in an infotainment world prizing gotcha questions, story-hyping, position-taking, yelling, and winning at any cost.  His death triggered an upwelling of eulogies confirming that Russert was what we sensed and much more.  He was a lovable, astute political observer, peerless interviewer, inspiring leader and workaholic who somehow always cared for friends and family while still competing ferociously but fairly.  Perhaps his example will encourage a more humanistic path for journalists than earlier heroes.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s dogged unspooling of President Nixon’s Watergate corruption spurred 70’s journalists to dig deep and catch bad guys.  As a cub reporter at the time, their achievement made me believe that I could make a difference.    “How many evil-doers could I catch in City Hall or boardrooms?”  Combined with the example of eviscerating TV interviewer Mike Wallace of 60 minutes, we reporters felt we were on a mission from “God.”   Surely we were the righteous ones as we asked nasty questions while being inclined to presume guilt before innocence.  Many of us young ones did not appreciate that most businesspeople were trustworthy and most politicians well-meant servants often doing scut work with little thanks and much criticism.   We too often saw shadows where there were none and blistered public figures just like Mike.

Now, however, journalists seeing the Russert revelations can follow a new beacon for how best to use the notebook, microphone or camera.  They can simply ask, “What would Tim have done?”  Answer: he would outthink, outhustle, outwork, and outlast the competition without the bitterness of savaging others for one’s own aggrandizement.  He would give a news target the opportunity to defend.  He would press for the truth from a position of superior information rather than wolf at the throat.  He’d focus on performance rather than personality.  He’d be fair!

I believe Russert’s absence also gives new currency to my comments a few weeks ago when I complained of reporters being opinionated one minute and supposedly objective the next.  How could we ever have believed Russert was being fair on Meet the Press if we knew his positions on issues or candidates?   When the NYTimes wrote about how hard it will be to replace Russert it suggested some MSNBC anchors might not be considered because they are already lightning rods due to expressed opinions.  That would be an unfortunate deal-killer for someone like Chris Matthews, who has the political knowledge, smarts, and zest of Russert but may be “too hot” to fill the big man’s impartial position.

I wish I had had Tim Russert and his ethic as guideposts when I was a new reporter.  His example underscores the saying “do the work and you don’t have to do the dance.”  His fairness reminds me of former Wachovia CEO John Medlin’s advice that I add another item to my 10 crisis response steps.  He recommended asking whether actions taken are fair to all involved.  “Is it fair” is a revealing question, isn’t it?  That’s classic Russert.

Sadly, for all we can learn from him, Tim Russert was indeed sui generis: a blend of journalism, leadership and personality that graces us only every generation or so, and now gone. The man and everything he represented will be missed.

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