How to beat Tim Russert.

Media criticism.
July 2 2003 6:40 PM

How To Beat Tim Russert

Get inside his head and shake vigorously.

(Continued from Page 1)

Russert came to journalism from politics, where digging up dirt—or at least inconsistencies—on opponents is the main event. Russert and the Meet the Press staff comb the newspaper clips and video vaults looking for outrages and contradictions. This is Russert's main advantage: He knows what the topics are going to be, and you don't. Make this your terrain by anticipating Russert's moves. Hire somebody on your staff to prepare a mock oppo-research folder and compose answers for the most challenging questions you can imagine. If you've slept with a pony, be prepared to either defend the ride or lie. Russert asked Clinton during the 1992 campaign if there was embarrassing personal conduct in his past that might hinder his candidacy, and he'll ask you, too.

If you've switched your position on anything, or if your views on, say, the balanced budget clash with your advocacy of new tax cuts, expect Russert to grill you. He brags that his show isn't a press conference where the subject is allowed to dodge the question. If you dodge, he'll come back twice, thrice, or as many times as it takes to make you crumble. If you can, dispute Russert's numbers as politicized or as pure conjecture. If you've changed your position, emphasize your courage to change your views in the face of new information. If a subject like gay marriage is in the news, anticipate Russert to attempt to snare you with an escape-proof question about it.

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Recently, Russert has been reading aloud from scoops in the latest U.S. News & World Report to the likes of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Carl Levin, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. U.S. News returns from the printers on Saturday afternoon, but few people outside of the media/government inner circle see the magazine before Monday. If you're appearing on Meet the Press, request a copy before going on.

3) Put Russert on the Defensive

Russert loves nothing more than to project large block quotes from an unflattering story in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times and read them aloud to his subject. His second-favorite device is to roll tape from a disquieting interview and then ask a question no more sophisticated than, "I want to give you a chance to respond."

The block-quote-and-chance-to-respond gambit allows Russert to pretend he isn't asking the question—the higher authority of the New York Times is—and that he, Russert, can't be held responsible for any problem the subject might have with the "question." He's just honesty's broker, impartially gathering the subject's views. I'm not saying this, the press is saying this. And I want to give you a chance to respond.

Don't let Russert get away with this. Challenge the premise of the news account. Point out how the New York Times has erred on the subject. Or that events have overtaken the Washington Post's account. Don't let him confuse you into debating the New York Times. It's in Russert's interests to present himself as someone with no opinions and therefore no position to defend, and in your interests to smoke him out and make him defend his premises.

If all fails, filibuster. Some of the block-quote recitations exceed 200 words, and because they rarely contain a barbed question, you can palaver in response for several hundred words and even change the subject without drawing undue attention.

4) If That Doesn't Work, Concede the Point. Then Make Yours.

When Russert tried to corral David Duke into the position of a Holocaust denier by reading aloud from Duke's writings, Duke admitted that some Jews were killed—"I don't know what the numbers are." He then switched the subject, complaining about the 60 million Christians the Soviets killed and the lack of media showcases on those atrocities. Apparently because this dodge wasn't in Russert's script, he abandoned the line of questioning.

Most politicians want the public to view their record as one seamless continuum, a vanity that Russert seizes upon. But when he chastised Duke for once wearing a swastika in public, Duke first pleaded youthful exuberance ("I was 19") and then conceded the point to make it his by saying he wore it while picketing William Kunstler to protest Kunstler's support of "Communist principles." Derailed by Duke, Russert staggered to the next point in his script.

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