Tim Russert Coverage: Too Much? Media critic Jack Shafer of Slate.com discusses why TV coverage of Tim Russert's death just won't end.
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Tim Russert Coverage: Too Much?

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Tim Russert Coverage: Too Much?

Tim Russert Coverage: Too Much?

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If it's Sunday, it's "Meet the Press." Though this last Sunday was a bit different.

(Soundbite of TV show "Meet the Press," June 15, 2008)

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Former Anchor, "NBC Nightly News"): I think it's really a testimony to his working-class background and of this country, he would always say, if I can get through this, what a great country this is.

PESCA: NBC's Tom Brokaw remembering his friend Tim Russert yesterday at a memorial, which was billed as private, yet aired live on MSNBC. Russert's son, Luke, was very moving when he spoke of the possibility that his dad would be holding court in Heaven.

(Soundbite of MSNBC TV broadcast, June 18, 2008)

Mr. LUKE RUSSERT: Live from inside St. Peter's gate. Maybe Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will be on for the full hour, debating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: If you were one of Russert's friends or colleagues at NBC, or one of the thousands of Washingtonians who stopped by his public memorial service, this was the time to mourn, laugh, weep, and when you're done, to weep some more. Under Russert's moderation, "Meet the Press" asked better questions to the most important people in civic life than any other program. But now that we've had time to take a breath, I think the question needs to be asked. What were NBC, MSNBC and CNBC thinking?

As fine a friend, colleague, and journalist as Tim Russert was, the volume and tone of coverage elevated Russert to a level beyond that of a senator. It rivaled the coverage of the funeral of former President Gerald Ford. Yesterday, I talked with Jack Shafer, press critic for slate.com, asked him about his reaction to the media, mainly NBC's reporting, on the death of Tim Russert.

Mr. JACK SHAFER ("Press Box," Slate.com): I was rather put off by it. I mean, there really was no news. NBC and MSNBC were preempting all of their political and documentary work to run these lengthy tributes to Russert. And there was no news there, unless the heartache experienced by the TV correspondents and the various talk-show personalities who appeared on Russert's show, unless their heartache is considered news. And like you, I don't want to - you know, I don't want to ridicule the genuine sorrow that I think his friends feel. But you know, I sort of view it is as this very bizarre telethon that's still going on.

PESCA: This is something that we can't know, but what do you think, if Tim Russert were around, would his instinct as a newsman tell people to pull back on this?

Mr. SHAFER: You know, my reading on him was that he wasn't much of a schoolmarm. So he might give this a bye, because he, you know, he was a sentimental Irishman, and you know, the stereotype is that, you know, Irish funerals are filled with tears, and laughter, and lots of booze.

PESCA: Jack, you can write - in your job as a press critic, you can literally write a column a day on how cable news has a total lack of perspective, and in doing so, you wouldn't be going as wall-to-wall with your columns, as they go - as they do with their news of shark attacks and, you know, missing white women. But did this Russert coverage, did - was this a different kind of excess to you, than the normal, you know, let's make a blockbuster out of every semi-significant news story?

Mr. SHAFER: Actually, I'm not as critical of let's make a blockbuster out of lots of different kinds of stories as you might be.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. SHAFER: In the case of the Russert business, we saw no reporting. It was all catharsis. It was all tears and what a godlike man he was. And you know, I have nothing against Russert. I think he was a pretty good journalist, but you know, they didn't go into his political career. And when he worked first for Governor Cuomo in New York, and later for Senator Moynihan in Washington, D.C., he was a guy who had sharp elbows and could fling them.

They could have written about that, or they could've talked about that, or they could've talked about his role in the Valerie Plame investigation. As you know, he was interviewed by the FBI, and he was a witness in the trial. And they really failed, fundamentally failed, to do any sort of full-bodied obituary of the man. It was mostly hagiography.

PESCA: That brings me to what Rush Limbaugh said about him. He praised Tim Russert, said he was a prince of a guy, said - but I'm not going to do it in the Rush voice, but I have to tell you, folks, this orgy of coverage, from about four o'clock Friday afternoon on, ceased to be about Tim Russert, and instead has been about the media, and who they are, and how important they are.

It's almost taken on a Princess Diana circumstance, where everybody wanted to be part of the show. All these people, second and third, fourth, fifth-tier people coming out, saying, yeah, Tim was a big friend of mine, and telling me stories. The media doing everything they could to make this about them and their role in American culture today. Do you agree with Rush Limbaugh?

Mr. SHAFER: I not only agree, but I wrote a very similar, you know, string of sentences. According to Lisa de Moraes, who writes about the television industry for the Washington Post, these shows went over really well. They got high ratings. So, obviously they were feeding a - an interest out there. But I think to the detriment of journalism.

PESCA: De Moraes reports that MSNBC ratings nearly tripled as they were reporting about the news of Tim Russert, and "Meet the Press's" rating went up by 60 percent, rivaling their best ratings, the post-September 11th terrorist attacks ratings, and even CNN's ratings climbed 16 percent, when they were talking about Tim Russert. You know, is the ratings, maybe, evidence that you and I are wrong? You know, they're in the business of giving the public what they want, and the ratings are up. Can an NBC executive say, OK, smart guys, look, the public is eating this up?

Mr. SHAFER: The number of people who watch cable are very, very, very small, and so to triple - if you were to triple Katie Couric's audience, that would really say something. If you triple MSNBC's viewership, which is the least-watched of the cable channels, you know, it sounds impressive, but it's not all that impressive.

PESCA: Writing in the Detroit News, Tim Long, a critic there, the movie critic, actually, wrote "Tim Russert: When death becomes overkill." And the second commenter, he wrote, was this man a head of state? No. Was he as or more important to the inner workings of American politics than virtually any senator? Absolutely yes. Based on the coverage, I wouldn't be surprised it a lot of people would agree with him, that Tim Russert was, in fact, more important than virtually any senator. Can a case be made that he was that important to Washington?

Mr. SHAFER: I would not agree that he was all that powerful. Everybody in Washington can be replaced. He was good at what he does.

PESCA: What would you like to see NBC do with the "Meet the Press" real estate?

Mr. SHAFER: I'd have to think about that. What would you have them do?

PESCA: I think in the short term...

Mr. SHAFER: Yeah.

PESCA: You probably have to turn to someone who is uncontroversial and trusted. You know, Tom Brokaw would be the obvious choice.

Mr. SHAFER: I think that it would probably be more work than Brokaw would want to do.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. SHAFER: Allegedly, Russert would rehearse all of his questions, and stare into the space, in preparation for every one of the interviews. And he asked the questions to a blank chair or had one of his staffers sort of play the role of whoever the guest - whatever senator or cabinet secretary was going to be on that day, and he worked at it really hard. I'd like David Gregory.

PESCA: All right. Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large, and he writes the Press Box column for them. Thank you, Jack.

Mr. SHAFER: You bet.

PESCA: And we'll be following up with that conversation on the BPP blog. Coming up on the show, they're renaming foods on Chinese menus in preparation for the Olympics. So what was once husband-and-wife's lung slice will now be something a little more appetizing. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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