Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Debt We Owe Tim Russert

WE'VE MOVED! Democratic Convention Watch is now at

People in my generation grew up watching Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley bring us the Vietnam War every night with dinner. We none of us thought to question anything they said to us. As kids in the 60’s, they were “the source”. Back then, AP, Reuters, UPI sent feeds, and the networks and newspapers developed bureaus throughout the world to collect and disseminate “news”. Interviews of newsmakers were, for the most part, bland if not moribund.

“The facts” were often what “the powers that be” wanted “us” (the regular people) to know. That was brought home to us as a country in 1971 when the NY Times published what became The Pentagon Papers.

Tim Russert was a lawyer and a Democratic political operative before being hired as a suit by NBC. They sent him to run the Washington Bureau. In his 24 year tenure there he grew the NBC political machine in the face of networks cutting back bureaus around the world, and shifting the money from hard news to entertainment. He grew it with an absolute dedication to truth. Before Tim Russert, Meet the Press was a snore. He made it the proving ground for candidates, and the place where elected officials, military brass and others would get their feet held to the fire.

Mr. Russert did this NOT as entertainment, but with an unwavering dedication to being prepared, to knowing more about the interviewee than he knew himself. There were no “gotcha” moments, only that interview where one faced one’s own past writings, speeches and actions.

But what we, the viewers, didn’t see was what he did behind the scenes. How Mr. Russert coached his people to get to the heart of the matter, to seek out the important truths and steer clear of innuendo.

2008 is a transformational year in politics not only because of Barack Obama, but also because this is the first election where the internet is a more immediate source of news than TV and the wires: If for no other reason than there are thousands more citizen journalists than paid ones. While the technology of the internet makes possible a site like DCW, it exists because of that same Russert-like dispassionate commitment to getting the facts completely right on the part of DCW’s founders. There certainly is nothing wrong with opinion pieces: when we read other people’s interpretations, it can help us crystallize our own thoughts having drawn from multiple perspectives.

But there need to be places where the numbers are accurate, where “news” is based on what is, and not what the author personally wants others to believe. And that is the debt we owe Tim Russert. And by “we” I do mean “all of us”, whether we are writing on the front page, or in the comments section, or choosing what we want to email on to others.

Tim Russert instilled in all of us who watched him, and followed him, the idea that the individuals and institutions might lie to us, but we need to point that out not by yelling “liar”, but by being able to prove it. The delegate counts this year are fluid: pledged numbers change based on state certification and county/state caucus numbers which come weeks after that initial night, Superdelegate decisions flip back and forth. To this moment, we still do not have a full count as some Superdelegates still have not committed. (Call out to Al Gore -- where ARE you? Sorry, I digress.) And don’t kid yourself, those numbers, and their accuracy matter up to the final night of the count.

I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck Todd at the DNC RBC meeting (was it only 2 weeks ago?). I asked him about the video posted here at DCW showing the NBC Superdelegate numbers on the wall, and asked why DCW had spreadsheets and NBC didn’t. He explained to me that they really DID have spreadsheets, but that sometimes just seeing a list you’d written made it easier to pull the name you wanted. I must have had a disbelieving expression on my face because he said “No, really. Honest, we really have spreadsheets.”

I believe NBC does have spreadsheets. Because Tim Russert would have insisted on it.

G-dspeed Tim.