Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert, journalistic icon, passes

I want to weigh in on the passing of an iconic news figure, Tim Russert. I’m not going to eulogize the man, as that is happening in earnest, across much of the mainstream media, certainly on NBC/MSNBC, but even at rival networks, like Fox.

For political junkies (of which I count myself one), there was no better way to pass an hour Sunday morning, than sitting in front of the television, with coffee in hand, and watch Russert go toe-to-toe with his guests. All of the big names sat across from this product of the working class, who never forgot his South Buffalo roots, detailed in his memoir, Big Russ & Me, about his life, growing up in 1950s Buffalo, and his WWII veteran dad.

My wife came to love Russert, and even started using that somewhat unkind moniker, “pumpkinhead,” picked up from me, as a term of endearment. I’m not sure where I first heard it; it might have been back in the days when I’d listen to Don Imus, and he frequently would refer to Russert that way, in his affectionate, Don Imus style. When I called her to give her the news on Friday, it was one of those rare calls when the party on the other end is shocked.

I’ve been thinking a lot about passion, and how some people have it for what they do, and many more do not. Tim Russert had a passion for his work, which was the world of politics, as few journalists do. Rather than adopt the trademark, “I’m bigger than this interview” star syndrome that many news personalities possess, I think Russert never lost sight of the wonder of transcending his roots, ending up where he landed—smack dab in the center of American political power, and influence. While imperfect, as any mortal always is, he wielded that power as well as anyone could have.

Russert could be infuriating—none more so than when he was interviewing your guy/gal—and made them look foolish, or worse, unprepared. In an era of fluff pieces, and softball questions lobbed across, masquerading as investigative journalism, Russert did his research, was prepared, and made sure he asked tough questions, most of the time. Oh, he had his moments, and there were times I found him maddening. However, he understood the value of the follow-up, and more times than not, his interviews transcended ideology.

Watching this morning’s special Meet The Press trubute, was telling. In an age of cynicism, and with a panel of journalists, political operatives, and others, it is a rare sight to see people like Tom Brokaw, Mary Matalin, Gwen Ifill, Maria Shriver (via satellite), share from the heart, unscripted, and see a veteran like Brokaw, genuinely struggle to get through some of the segments without breaking down.

If you didn’t shed a tear during the heart-wrenching outro film montage, set to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” then I question whether you have a beating heart in your chest.

Journalism is floundering, and when it loses one of its true shining lights, that can’t be seen as a positive sign.

Tim Russert, you'll be missed by many.

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