The media overdo the death of Tim Russert.

Media criticism.
June 16 2008 6:42 PM

The Canonization of Saint Russert

The media overdo the death of a journalist.

Tim Russert. Click image to expand
Tim Russert

I have nothing against Tim Russert. He hosted two decent programs, Meet the Press and the less-watched Tim Russert, and ably helmed NBC News' Washington bureau. According to his colleagues and competitors, he was a conscientious journalist and a fine leader. He was said by all to be a good husband, father, and son.

So Russert's death at 58 is a sad occasion. Yet is it of such importance and momentum that his network, the other networks, and newspapers should continue to salute, remember, and otherwise memorialize him?

Russert's own networks, NBC and MSNBC, have bathed him in appreciation. On Friday, MSNBC broke in with coverage announcing the death and started collecting reactions. NBC Nightly News mourned his passing. Dateline NBC was given over to Russert's memory, as was MSNBC's Hardball. The fallen newsman's Saturday show, Tim Russert, memorialized him, as did the Saturday edition of Today,which fielded the reminiscences of Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, and Tom Brokaw, who appeared at almost every juncture to talk about his friend. Sunday's Today reprised the coverage. The Chris Matthews Showdevoted itself to Russert's memory, and the contestants—I mean, guests—on a special edition of Meet the Presscompeted to see who could loft the highest praise for the show's departed host. (See this Meet the Press reel for a few examples.)

As if all the NBC News airtime isn't enough, MSNBC plans to broadcast a private memorial service for Russert from the Kennedy Center on June 18 at 4 p.m.

What has possessed NBC News to televise a never-ending video wake? Almost nothing aired contained much in the way of news. After reporting his passing and a postmortem by his physician, nearly every minute of NBC and MSNBC coverage tried to convey the loss felt by his peers—David S. Broder, Andrea Mitchell, Al Hunt, Mike Barnicle, Al Roker, Brian Williams, Dennis Murphy, Barbara Walters, Bob Woodward, Gwen Ifill, Sally Quinn ("I feel almost like we did when somebody—when Jack Kennedy or even Katharine Graham died"), Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, Kelly O'Donnell, Maria Shriver, and others. They loved him. They admired him. He was their mentor. He raised the bar for all journalists. He was thoughtful. He was kind. Of the highest integrity. Generous. Loyal. And so on. Just because it's true doesn't make it news.

At least NBC News had an excuse for its news blindness. Russert was one of theirs, and because he was so important to NBC News, everybody probably thought he was just as important to the network's viewers.

The other networks didn't have that defense. CNN put Russert's demise into heavy rotation. On the evening ofRussert's death, Larry King Live rounded up Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, Bob Schieffer, Wolf Blitzer, Paul Begala, Campbell Brown, and John Harwood, among others, for another round of veneration. King returned on Sunday with a "Best of Tim Russert" compilation. One place that the attention seemed warranted was on CNN's press-crit show, Reliable Sources, which did a segment. Said host Howard Kurtz, "Journalists who pass away are sometimes overpraised, given that it's journalists who do the praising, but not in this case."

The print gang's accolades saturated acres in the Washington Post, where Tom Shales and David S. Broder sang his glories. In the New York Times, David Carr gently  lamented Russert's passing, and op-ed columnist William Kristol gave his buddy a loving send-off.

In my research, I encountered only a couple of reporters who proved resistant to the woe-inducing fumes emitted by the funeral bouquets. My friend Mark Leibovich of the New York Times didn't make a playpen of Russert's bones in his Week in Review piece, nor did he flinch from writing it straight. A couple of samples:

In a sense, Mr. Russert seemed to have an intuitive grasp of all the petty concerns, Big Doings and peculiar rhythms of [Washington]. …

[Washington is] a town of revolving doors, for which Mr. Russert was something of an exemplar, for better or worse. …

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC's cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. ...

Writing in his blog today, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney recalled the early 1980s, when Russert worked as a bare-knuckled counselor to New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Nagourney covered the Cuomo administration for the Daily News. Nagourney reveals nothing ugly, nor does he shine Russert's halo as he sketches a portrait of the young highhanded political operative.

And in the Saturday Los Angeles Times, columnist Tim Rutten knocked the press for its saccharine assessment of Russert, writing:

Watching the cable news networks in the hours after his death, one was struck by the outpouring of admiration and affection from across the political spectrum and from journalistic colleagues of every sort. It was impossible not to be struck—once again—by just how incestuous and claustrophobic the Washington-based nexus of politics and journalism has become.

I wonder whether the media grievers gave a moment of thought to how this Russert torrent they produced played with viewers and readers. Did the grievers really think Russert was so important, so vital to the nation's course, and such an elevated human being that he deserved hour upon hour of tribute? I wonder whether any of the responsible journalists paused to think, Hey, this is really weird. We're using our unchecked editorial power to soak the nation with our tears about our friend, and that's unseemly!

On days like this, I, too, hate the press.

******

I, too, have paid tribute to a great journalist who was also a friend on the occasion of her death. In my defense, you should know that my editor assigned the piece (I didn't want to do it), and she wasn't the media commodity Russert was. And the piece was only 1,200 words long. Am I guilty or innocent? Judge me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Russert in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.