THOSE of us who get a kick out of watching Tim Russert every Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” are feeling a little hangdog these days. We always thought Big Russ Jr. was tough on the powerful. Now we learn that to some Washington media types on both the right and the left, he’s just a tool for the powerful.
What’s occasioned this perceptual turnabout is, of course, the perjury and obstruction trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, where Russert wrapped up two days of testimony last week. Libby says the NBC newsman fed him the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, who is at the center of the trial. Russert says he didn’t.
To ordinary viewers, though, whatever transpired during Libby’s phone call to Russert back in 2003 couldn’t be as jarring as what the trial has unearthed about Washington’s deeply cynical attitude toward “Meet the Press,” a venerable, 60-year-old staple of network TV and the No. 1-rated Sunday news talk show.
A former Cheney press aide testified last month that she pushed to get the vice president on Russert’s show to bat down negative news because it was “our best format,” a program where political handlers can “control the message.”
Wow. Really? With his Buick-like physique, piercing stare and rumbling baritone -- plus his interrogatory style of brandishing incriminating documents and video in front of his guests -- Russert sure doesn’t look like any flack’s patsy.
But to Russert’s longtime critics, this was an a-ha! moment. Arianna Huffington, who once penned the critical “RussertWatch” feature for her liberal Huffington Post website, said she attended the Libby trial last week. There she found fresh confirmation for her view of Russert as one of the media handmaidens who carried water for the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war.
“When we started RussertWatch, we didn’t know he was on Dick Cheney and [ex-aide] Mary Matalin’s list of ways to get their message out,” Huffington told me Friday. She also heaped scorn on Russert’s testimony that he always assumed his off-camera conversations with government officials were automatically off-the-record, so as “not to blindside anyone.”
“That’s the exact opposite of how journalists operate,” Huffington said. “Russert’s responsibility is to the public, unless there’s some specific granting of anonymity.”
So which is it? Is Russert the lantern-jawed tough guy many of us thought he was, the hard-boiled lawyer-turned-journo who hoists wayward pols on their own rhetorical petards? Or is he really just a Beltway Cowardly Lion who blows hard but allows his prey to wink and nudge their way out of tight spots with the nation’s future at stake? (An NBC spokeswoman, citing the sensitive nature of the court testimony, said neither Russert nor network officials would comment.)
Evidence for Russert as a big softie has long existed. In 2004, when it came time to leverage his celebrity into a book-length treatise, he gave us not the standard “how I became an intrepid reporter” odyssey, the broadcast journalists’ default choice, but rather “Big Russ and Me,” a sentimental memoir of his categorically decent but emotionally withholding Irish-Catholic father.
“Big Russ” may not stack up as great literature, but it became a surprise bestseller and humanized Russert to millions who’d known him simply as a guy who liked to play “gotcha” with elected officials.
But writing a heartwarming book that merchants might file alongside “Tuesdays With Morrie” doesn’t help demonstrate journalistic toughness. And watching “Meet the Press” over the last few weeks, I think I can understand why both Cheney’s office and critics such as Huffington believe Russert can be readily controlled.
As an interviewer, Russert relies on documentary evidence to ask the pointed questions you want asked and answered. He hardly permits our leaders to slip away freely. Russert aggressively pursued, for example, the U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during President Bush’s February 2004 appearance on “Meet the Press.”
But Russert can seem overly dispassionate, particularly during a time when opinion has increasingly bled into the news. And it’s the lack of emotion that can make his approach look, after a while, less like real toughness than a facsimile of it.
Outrage is the reporter’s ultimate stock in trade, from Oriana Fallaci jabbing Ayatollah Khomeini over Islamic veils to the on-camera meltdowns of Anderson Cooper and Shepard Smith during Hurricane Katrina. But Russert doesn’t do outrage. He doesn’t pound his desk and tell guests to shut up, like Bill O’Reilly. He doesn’t try to pry open subjects by telling them, as Mike Wallace is known to have done, that their story is “pabulum.” He’s not on the receiving end of angry lectures, like the kind that Bill Clinton gave Chris Wallace, or the kind Dan Rather seemed to get from everyone.
Is there something vaudevillian about all these histrionics? Sure, but that’s part of journalism. Maybe not the most handsome part, but a part nonetheless. It’s revealing that when Libby rang Russert in 2003, it was to lodge a complaint, not about Russert, but about his high-volume MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews. The “Hardball” host is exactly the kind of outburst-prone broadcaster who can drive handlers up the wall.
On the Feb. 4 show, Russert drilled former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards over his stance on the Iraq war, tracing how the Democratic presidential candidate shifted from support to opposition. Russert asked all the right questions, presented all the right evidence, but there was an emotional element missing. Isn’t it at least a little disappointing that a leading voice from the supposed opposition party went along for so long with a war plan that he now tells us, with the benefit of several years’ hindsight and when the information is of little use, was grievously flawed?
But because that sense of outrage was missing from the “Meet the Press” host -- he asked the questions in the same lawyerly tone of polite urgency and slight incredulousness he always uses -- Edwards was basically allowed to shrug: Oh, well. Can’t win ‘em all.
Russert fans say the host is getting a raw deal. Marvin Kalb, “Meet the Press” host during the 1980s, praises his successor for building the program to its No. 1 status, and said whatever trade-offs Russert lives by were inevitable. “The politician wants exposure, the journalist wants a story,” Kalb said. “On ‘Meet the Press,’ the two attempt to come together with dignity. Most of the time, it works.”
It’s also probably not a good idea to put too much faith in the proclamations of the pro-Libby folk. “It may be tactically in the interests of the administration to say Russert is easy,” noted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Any time a politician plays press critic and tells you who’s good, you need to carry a large container of salt.”
Even Huffington admits that Russert attracts a lot of attention simply because his Sunday program is No. 1 in the ratings.
Still, it’s clear that the ground has shifted beneath Russert’s feet. Sixteen years hosting “Meet the Press,” and he’s suddenly becoming the story. Surely that’s not a welcome switch, but Russert’s plenty smart enough to know something is going on.
When a Libby attorney, during his cross examination, went over the specifics of a newspaper column critical of Russert and then asked whether it was “one of the more personal attacks you’ve experienced,” Russert replied, “Probably not anymore.”
Contact Scott Collins at email@example.com.