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.

Advertisement

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]. …