The passing of a celebrity journalist

I was struck by the reality of the celebrity journalist last night while scanning the news channels during prime time. Every one of them was in a form of wall-to-wall tribute to Tim Russert. The accolades for his brilliant career as NBC’s chief political correspondent and host of Meet The Press were non-stop and came from every quarter. The world of journalism will miss him, for sure.

Russert wasn’t just a TV personality; his fame was within journalism’s most sacred walls, and that’s what makes this coverage different than, say, the passing of a network anchor. Even big time print names are coming forward to offer their take on his role in journalism’s firmament.

Clearly, Russert was bigger than life and, in many ways, as “big” or bigger than the highest levels of culture achieved by the political office holders he interviewed. This is what the fresh faces in broadcast journalism schools wish to achieve, and we all know it. Perhaps Howard Kurtz said it best:

…Within minutes, all the cable networks were airing nonstop remembrances of Russert, as if a head of state had died, and the tributes came pouring in.

…His influence was such that an appearance on the top-rated “Meet the Press” could boost or sink a candidate, and when he declared after midnight on May 6 that Barack Obama had wrapped up the Democratic nomination, that was treated as a news event in itself.

Who wouldn’t aspire to that kind of power, influence and, yes, fame?

Russert’s work will live on in the textbooks and videos of an era that he helped shape, and one day someone else will take his place in the elbow-rubbing suites of contemporary political journalism. But while we’re all mourning our loss, let’s also take a moment to honestly ask ourselves if such celebrity should be the focus of journalism. Does it take an equal (or greater) level of fame to confront the powerful in the name of the public? And for the public itself, does every encounter that our surrogates have with the news making political world demand a confrontation? Does it require power to face the powerful, and if so, what is the basis for that power?

These are critical questions for all of journalism during a time when its very foundation is struggling for survival. Tim Russert was “best of class,” but the matter before us today is perhaps the class itself.

In addition to all his success in the world of broadcasting, Tim Russert was also a devoted husband and father, and it is for those he left behind that we offer our prayers.

Comments

  1. With my own layman’s view, I don’t see that Russert ever sought the fame, power, and influence he attained (not that you’re saying so either).

    When I think of Russert in that way, I see him in the “others have greatness thrust upon them” category.

    There was one thing I could always count on from Russert – Tough questions. He might hammer your guy, but when your guy’s opponent was up, you knew he would get hammered too.

    If a serious portion of local journalists were to do their jobs the same way with local officials, this country would be in better shape. One of the Fourth Estate’s main tasks is in maintaining the accountability of those in power.

    In Russert, we had someone that knew that.

  2. Mel, this is an excellent comment, and I agree completely about Russert.

    Here’s the thing on local tough questions: the “journalists” we hire in local markets have neither the life experience, job experience or knowledge (much less common sense) to ask meaningful tough questions of local politicos without coming off as transparent morons. Moreover, the smaller the market, the more you’re questioning your neighbors, and it gets dicey. A call to the GM is more disquieting in a smaller market than certainly at Russert’s level. Contrariwise, it’s a lot harder to muzzle an independent blogger at the local level than it is a pro, and that’s the Fourth Estate’s hope.

  3. Very good point Terry.

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