Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him. … But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own—particularly if he is his own employer—is immune from these pressures.
— I.F. Stone
If the suspicions about “the media” needed confirmation, the days of public mourning for Tim Russert dispelled any doubts. Seldom has there been a more public demonstration of the oneness of those reported on with those doing the reporting. Government, money, status, power, and media appeared indissolubly united on the nation’s TV screens.
The Washington Post observed that Russert’s leave-taking was “the closest thing to a state funeral this town has seen since the deaths of Presidents Reagan and Ford.” The outpouring by Washington’s mightiest at the various funereal events for the NBC executive has no parallel, or at least none that comes readily to mind. Private persons of the greatest distinction do not get the kind of send-off accorded Tim Russert.
The 1965 funeral of Edward R. Murrow, surely the giant of broadcast journalism, took place in something close to obscurity when laid against the Russert obsequies. No presidents, no mayors, and certainly nothing like the week of high-society, big-time corporate crepe-hanging to which the nation was treated last month. The burial rites given to Tim Russert are a case study for political anthropology.
The newsman did not lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, but President and Mrs. Bush, bearing a bouquet of yellow and orange roses, were among the first to arrive at his wake at St. Albans School, an upper-crust establishment for the instruction of the wealthy young. Next came the “private” funeral Mass at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity church, where a Roman Catholic cardinal gave the homily. Outside, the circulation of the surrounding streets was clotted by tangles of black limousines and monster SUV’s.
In attendance, among others, were the secretary of state and the two men running for president. John McCain explained to reporters that Russert had been “the pre-eminent political journalist of his generation,” a statement that might have startled Bob Woodward, who is still at the Washington Post and is seven years older than Russert. Not to be outdone by McCain, Barack Obama told the journalists outside Holy Trinity, “I am grief-stricken with loss”—a surprise to many who did not know they were close.
The climacteric was a memorial service at the Kennedy Center, arranged by Campbell Peachey and Associates, one of Washington’s toniest event planners. Two thousand media stars, politicians of both parties and all persuasions, and paragraphs full of famous names made the audience appear to be taking part in what the New York Times called “an enormously special edition of the program he moderated, ‘Meet the Press.’”
All this was capped off by the third of “the Russert miracles,” as Newsweek had it. In the interest of good taste we shall skip the first two and go to the third “‘miracle’ [which] took place as the crowd moved to the rooftop for a reception. The sun returned after a light, fast summer rainstorm and the sky opened to a rainbow extending from one end of the Kennedy Center to the other… ‘After the magical experience of this service, to come out and see the rainbow … made the last dry eye weep,’ said NBC News executive Phil Griffin. The last song in the memorial service was, fittingly, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow,’” quoth Newsweek.
Such a star-studded dirge—so out of proportion to Russert’s place in the history of journalism—is cause to ponder: why the outburst? Doubtless Russert was a good man who did many a good turn, and, sure, NBC’s public-relations people saw an opportunity to push the brand, as we say nowadays, while giving a decent guy a royal send-off, but the rest of broadcast and print journalism, unaffiliated with General Electric, also opened the sluice gates of sentimentality.
Who Russert was and what Washington journalism may have become was caught by the New York Times’s Mark Leibovich when he wrote:
One of my enduring images of Mr. Russert was at a 60th birthday party for ‘Meet the Press’ last November. … It was one of those lots-of-famous-people affairs in which those who had been guests of ‘Meet the Press’ were delineated by special blue ribbons on their lapels—a kind of varsity letter to signify high standing in the chattering class. There was a long and snaking receiving line at the front that ended with Mr. Russert himself. It had the strange vibe of people waiting in line to pay respects to the king …
The full week of self-involved bereavement for the king provided a glimpse of the intertwining of Washington’s top-drawer media, politicians, multimillionaire lawyers, lobbyists, and fixers. In mourning Russert, they were able to use the moment to sing a solemn song of self-praise.
A salient aspect of Russert’s obituaries, broadcast and print, was the description of the cloudless life of a journalist who made no enemies, fought no battles, and suffered no reverses. When William F. Buckley, also a man of a thousand kindnesses, died earlier this year, the obituaries were laudatory, even affectionate, but they did not omit the controversies that were part of his life. Buckley, a giant figure in print and broadcast journalism, whose career dwarfed Russert’s, had a big funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but it was nothing compared to the “Meet the Press” anchor’s send-off.
The farewells to Russert mentioned how the son of a Buffalo garbage collector had died a multimillionaire, thanks to his hosting of a popular political TV talk show. It was as though TV news was using Russert to extol the quality and prosperity of the industry, though neither is any longer in good health.
Since 1980, shortly before Russert joined NBC, the network has lost more than half of its news viewers, though its executives can console themselves that in the same period CBS has seen two-thirds of its audience vanish. Broadcast journalism is dying more slowly than print journalism, for which the situation is verging on the catastrophic, but the adulation offered Tim Russert, a man who made his reputation sitting on camera questioning politicians, shows how expensive, on-the-scene reporting has given way to the low-cost presentation of talking heads.
In the not too distant past, moderating roundtables or doing what Charlie Rose does would not have been thought of as journalism—not real journalism. But definitions change. A hundred years ago our press heroes were men like Richard Harding Davis and Lowell Thomas, adventuresome reporters who made up in daring what they may have lacked in accuracy.
The kind of journalism that made Russert famous is perhaps the only kind commercial outlets can afford. Most investigative reporting today is paid for by nonprofit groups supported by foundation grants. The June issue of Wired predicted the coming financial collapse of the Associated Press, the single largest employer of reporters, and suggested that Google ought to buy it.
Amid the flood of encomia marking Russert’s passing, more detached obituary writers might have questioned his role as NBC Washington bureau chief in the scandal involving military analysts being planted on air by the Department of Defense to pipe the Pentagon’s tune about the war in Iraq. The New York Times, which broke the story, reported that “the Pentagon recruited more than 75 retired officers. … The largest contingent was affiliated with Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN…”
Whether NBC and Russert were duped or knowingly lent the network to the government for propaganda is an open question. What is certain is that, although journalists customarily make it a point of honor to answer other journalists’ questions, on this occasion Russert and the network clammed up.
The mourning ceremonies for Russert offered a window on Washington, where the crosshatching of journalism, politics, and commerce is so fine that the boundaries are inscrutable. Those who live in the capital pass from one sphere to the other as Russert did. How that molds and determines what we learn about politics is something that may not be known until the historians get to work, assuming the e-mails have not been destroyed.
If Tim Russert, who got along with everybody and was well thought of by all, is gone, Seymour Hersh, who we can thank for exposing the My Lai massacre and much of the Abu Ghraib story, is still with us. It will be more than a passing comment on the state of journalism when the world notes who turns up at his funeral.
Nicholas von Hoffman is a former columnist for the Washington Post and Point-Counterpoint commentator for CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Hoax.