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Tim Russert during a taping of Meet the Press at the NBC studios in November 2007.
Media critic Jack Shafer has been looking at how the media has marked the passing of one of its own, and he doesn't like what he sees.
In a Slate column titled "The Canonization of Saint Russert," Shafer writes that the media has devoted excessive coverage to the death of NBC's Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press and the network's Washington bureau chief, who died of a heart attack at his office last Friday.
Beginning that afternoon, notes Shafer, NBC and MSNBC began hours of special coverage that extended through the weekend and well into this week, including Wednesday's broadcast on MSNBC of a "private" funeral service. Some have suggested the coverage has been heavier than that given to senators and that it rivals the airtime given to the death of President Gerald Ford in 2006.
Is it because Russert was so powerful? In a city of political power brokers, was Russert more influential than a senator? "I would not agree that he was all that powerful," says Shafer. "Everybody in Washington can be replaced. He was very good at what he does."
Shafer says he thought Russert was a good journalist and doesn't want to ridicule the genuine sorrow felt by the newsman's friends, but views the coverage as a "very bizarre telethon that is still going on."
Shafer says Russert's death got the airtime and promotion of a massive news event. "MSNBC, NBC and CNBC were pre-empting all their political and documentary work to run these lengthy tributes," he says. "There was no news there, unless the heartache experienced by the correspondents and the various talk show personalities who appeared on Russert's show is considered news."
At the same time, says Shafer, even though the cable news outlets devoted tremendous amounts of time to the story, they didn't actually cover it the way they would have covered a major story. He says there was no thoughtful analysis of Russert's role in the Valerie Plame investigation or of his work as a political aide to Mario Cuomo or Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Russert "was a guy who had sharp elbows," says Shafer. "They could have written about or talked about that."
"We saw no reporting," Shafer says. "It was all catharsis; it was all tears."
And ratings. MSNBC's ratings tripled, Meet the Press was up 60 percent, and even CNN's ratings spiked whenever they put the Russert story on the air. "These shows went over really well," says Shafer. "Obviously they were feeding an interest out there, but I think to the detriment of journalism."