Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 16, 2008

Tim Russert in Retrospect

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Tim Russert, the dean of inside-the-beltway television news shows, died on June 13, 2008, at the age of 58 from a massive heart attack. Notwithstanding the reverential coverage on television and in newspapers, his career was symptomatic of everything that is wrong with American journalism.

Like George Stephanopoulos, who moderates a competing Sunday morning news show on the ABC network, Russert began as a political operative. Shortly after graduating from law school in 1976, Russert worked on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s senatorial campaign in New York State. After Moynihan’s election, Russert was promoted to chief of staff. Moynihan had been Richard Nixon’s top domestic adviser, calling for confrontation with the USSR and Third-World countries. He was also notorious for sending a memo to Nixon stating that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect’. The subject has been too much talked about….We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” Given Moynihan’s dubious credentials, it appeared a natural fit for somebody like Russert who would carve out a television career based on deference to the rich and the powerful.

Russert’s next political job was serving as counselor to New York State Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-84, a smooth-talking liberal not so nearly as toxic as Moynihan. In late 1984, Russert left politics behind and became a vice president of NBC news. Seven years later he became moderator of “Meet the Press,” a show that began on the radio in 1945 and switched to television two years later, where it is the longest-running in history.

For the entire time up until 1991, when Russert became host, the show was very similar to the PBS NewsHour — a snooze-inducing series of interviews with top government officials. Russert, trained as an attorney, livened things up by employing a prosecutorial style with government officials, at least when public opinion favored such an approach. His goal was to reveal inconsistencies in their current stand on issues versus what they might have said some years earlier so as to yield the impression that they were “flip-floppers.” Russert’s interview with Senator John Kerry during the 2004 campaign was typical.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to talk about Vietnam. You are a decorated war hero of Vietnam, prominently used in your advertising. You first appeared on MEET THE PRESS back in 1971, your first appearance. I want to roll what you told the country then and come back and talk about it:

(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):

MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.

SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it’s an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

MR. RUSSERT: You used the word “war criminals.”

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don’t like it when I hear it today. I don’t like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier — I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I’m not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony…

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

Russert pursued this dogged line of questioning for several minutes longer with the clear intention of putting Kerry on the spot for having the temerity to call attention to war crimes in Vietnam in 1971. His prosecutorial style earned him the reputation of being a bulldog, but somehow he lacked both bark and bite when the interviewees were members of the Bush administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy46.html

also see: http://wsws.org/articles/2008/jun2008/russ-j16.shtml

Joaquín Bustelo: “Tim Russert is still dead

Alexander Cockburn on Russert


Check Dennis Perrin’s blog for his own take on Russert’s death. Dennis used to work for FAIR, the media watch-dog, and is well trained to detect bullshit. Of particular interest is the Youtube clip that shows Russert getting nailed for feeding at the trough.



  1. Russert’s homage to his dad (“Big Russ”) was ghostwritten, so this doyen of journalism didn’t even write his own book. The book is full of cliches and other stupidities. Russert’s death has allowed other “journalists,” by eulogizing him, to justify their own pathetic work.

    Michael Yates

    Comment by Michael Yates — June 16, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  2. In Italy when somebody dies, people say “povero” so-and-so. I’ve never figured out who’s been impoverished,the corpse who now has to do without our company, or the rest of us. Either way it stinks of hypocrisy. Your piece is gutsy and highly instructive.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — June 16, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  3. (This was prompted by Michael Yates’s comment above.)

    NY Times, March 20, 2005
    Ghosts in the Machine


    A perfect example of the shadow looming over the ghostwriting-industrial complex is Tim Russert’s memoir, “Big Russ and Me.” This is the heartwarming 2004 best seller in which the distinguished newsman pays tribute to his wonderful father, a man of great character, grace and common decency who taught Russert all the important things in life — like how to hire Lee Iacocca’s ghost to write a book about how graceful and decent your dad is, but not to put the ghostwriter’s name right there on the cover, because that might make it seem less heartwarming.

    When I read Russert’s book, I found his easygoing, straight-talking style entirely irresistible — and not just because the dust jacket said that his style was easygoing, straight-talking and irresistible. But then, when I got to the very end of the book and found out that Bill Novak was Russert’s “full partner in writing this book,” I recalled that Novak was also the author of Iacocca’s easygoing, straight-talking, heartwarmingly irresistible book. Not to mention the easygoing memoirs of Nancy Reagan. And the Mayflower Madam. This got me to wondering whether the irresistibly heartwarming sentiments expressed in the book were Russert’s, Novak’s or perhaps some heartwarmingly straight-talking sentiments left over from Iacocca’s even more irresistible book. Or, God forbid, the Mayflower Madam’s.

    In saying this, I am not criticizing Russert’s decision to hire a ghostwriter, as I understand the time constraints on busy newsmen. Moreover, having written eight books myself, I realize that any idiot can do this kind of work, that there is no disgrace in having a book cranked out for you, that any time needlessly wasted writing a book could be better spent playing checkers. What bothers me is that when I am having the cockles of my heart warmed by the irresistible prose in “Big Russ and Me,” I would desperately like to know whether Russert or Novak is doing the cockle-warming. Since Russert is a phenomenally busy man who probably did not have time to write a heartwarming paean to his lovable father all by himself, my suspicion is that Novak wrote most of the difficult sentences during the week and Russert wrote the easy ones on the weekend. Here’s an example:

    “Baseball. If there’s a more beautiful word in the English language, I have yet to hear it.”

    I hope for Russert’s sake that he wrote that sentence. Otherwise, he overpaid.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 16, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

  4. Kerry: “But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.”

    Typical isn’t it? You tell the truth in the heat of a historical moment that demands that the truth be said in that manner. Now Kerry thinks it was too “abrasive”. Ironically, it was the type of thing that needs to be said, and is being said by today’s truth heroes, today’s Winter Soldiers.

    And there is Russert, trying to do a gotcha because he doesn’t bother to dig into the truth of Vietnam or Iraq himself.

    There is a video clip of Russert moderating a debate between Hillary and Obama, pressing them on whether if they withdraw from Iraq, do they reserve the right to re-invade Iraq if Al Qaeda is resurgent.

    Of course, Russert accepts the assumptions spoon fed him by the political elites that exaggerates the role of Al Qaeda. Not bothering to look into readily available facts and perspectives and challenging those elites on that.

    Russert has for a long time made me sick. And you Louis nail it on the head about his methodology.

    One wonders why he hasn’t played footage of Cheney stating that there was no doubt that Iraq had WMDs, and then challenged him on that?

    Comment by Sheldon — June 16, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  5. Thank you, Louis, for a refreshing reality check. My last attempt to watch Russert in action on Meet the Press ended in disgusted channel changing after only a few minutes. He perfected the interviewer art of nit picking, always propped up by his carefully researched video clips or out of context quotes. Maybe this badger-the-witness-over-nonsense style of journalism is enjoyed by some, but not me. But, why would Russert want to engage in a serious and detailed questioning of the many guests who amounted to the leadership of his beloved Empire? He seemed to enjoy demanding endless “repudiations” from his guests about whatever silliness dujour was making the media rounds. Does anyone know if a single guest ever walked off under the Russert idiocy barrage? I hope so, and commendations to whoever it might have been… Lastly, even the Washington Nationals baseball team issued its own gushing condolences. Russert enjoyed games and snacks in super expensive seats while yukking it up with the politicians, operators, and administration functionaries that he supposedly “covered” with his journalism. The other on-air NBC staffers are posturing feverishly to somehow parlay this tragedy into a big career boost for themselves as the slot gets filled. Thanks, again, Louis.

    Comment by Chris Townsend — June 17, 2008 @ 2:15 am

  6. Russert’s con was to ask stupid questions, in a loud voice to make it sound important as, “Condi are you going to run for president.?’

    Comment by Renegade Eye — June 17, 2008 @ 7:16 am

  7. Being across the pond, I didn’t know anything about Russert until all this obits suddenly started appearing on American left blogs I occasionally read. Just why is it he got so popular with these kinds of folks?

    Comment by a very public sociologist — June 17, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  8. To #7, Russert did manage to endear himself somewhat to the soft left over the past few years since he did an about-face on the war. He did begin to ask tough questions to Bush administration officials in the proverbial manner of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  9. Hi Louis, the link to the World Socialist website article is broken – you left the “l” (ell) out at the end.




    Comment by e — June 17, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

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