Tim Russert, icon or poster boy

Tim RussertThe explosion of news about deceased U.S. broadcaster Tim Russert (at one point in the week a Google news search returned some 10,000 hits) reminds me of how O.J. Simpson burst into the global public consciousness in 1994 via a live televised police chase of Simpson in his white Bronco. Simpson, I maintain, was previously known mostly to sports fans and those who think actors in commercials are celebrities; in the world outside Washington power politics Russert, I suggest, was mostly familiar to American news junkies.

As a non-American I find two things interesting about his death.

The first (which is what prompted me to post an earlier item about his death) is that he was just 58 when he collapsed and died on the job. Is Russert another example of how top journalists are devoured by journalism careers?

The second interesting thing is the polarization revealed in the non-dialogue between those who laud him and those who slam him.

On the day of his death Russert was praised as an icon of American journalism. Sadly, wrote William Kristol in a New York Times op-ed: “Tim enjoyed being a big shot. But he was just about the nicest big shot in Washington decent and unpretentious, remarkably kind and thoughtful.” But within days, Russert’s alleged failings became the focus and (shame that he can no longer speak up to defend himself) he has become a poster boy for the failure of American journalism when it mattered. 

That critics allege Russert’s seeming complacency about the catastrophic Iraq invasion and other decisions by the Bush presidency reveals how that period that will haunt the legacies of not just the administration, but everyone who is seen to have sided with it — and many a journalist. 

For example: “Tim Russert Blew It on Iraq. So Why Are We Canonizing Him?” asked the Nation’s Alexander Cockburn. “How the Russet Test Failed America,” analysed Linda Hirshman, also in the Nation, where she noted, “The eulogists are right: Tim Russert was powerful. From calling Florida for Bush in 2000 to telling Al Gore to quit the contest after Election Day, to kneecapping Hillary Clinton in the debate in Philadelphia last October, Russert was a kingmaker.”

I agree with Cockburn that canonizing Russert is bizarre — but not least, imo, because of the painful volume of it all. Is the massive coverage and intense debate about this broadcaster a legitimate first draft of historical analysis? Is it an example of over-the-top celebrity “journalism?” Is it a symptom of the polarization and the nastiness in which North American media culture revels?  All of the above?

The Globe and Mail’s Rick Salutin (who accused Russert of gotcha journalism) has his own trademark perspective, calling it all “a big jag for a rumpled guy who was never an anchor, just host of one of Sunday morning’s news shows, a program ghetto loved by journalists and news junkies. Insiders preening happily together. The rest of us watch to see how self-absorbed, pompous and superficial they can be.”

“They”? Who “they?”