Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tim, I hardly knew ye

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times on Tuesday, Dene Lusby of Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote: “There was Tim Russert, and there was everyone else. Now there’s only everyone else.”

Since the outpouring of tributes to Russert, the NBC News fixture who died Friday at age 58, I have felt like a stranger in a strange land. I remember Murrow, vaguely, but know his courage. I studied under his alter-ego, Fred Friendly, a man of driving intensity. Cronkite had his moments of bravery, when he at last spoke out against the Vietnamese War.

And Bill Moyer’s, still very much alive, remains a voice of integrity and conscience.

But Russert?

Another Times letter writer, Kim Zeitlin of Potomac, Maryland, praised Russert for his “penetrating objectivity.” I’m not even sure what that means. I think it is related to the journalist’s stock-in-trade, the ability to ask “penetrating” questions of each and every comer without fear or favor.

That should be a given. Unfortunately in these days of schmooze and glitz, it isn’t.

I can’t think of when I watched Russert. Certainly not on “Meet the Press.” I’m wrapped in silence at our Quaker meetinghouse worship in during the televised political chatting. If something worth knowing is on the Sunday morning news interview programs, it usually shows up in Monday’s paper.

I must have caught Russert moderating a presidential debate, but again, that’s not exactly spadework. His election night commentary was informative, but that is what it is supposed to be.

No, I think that Russert became for many a guy they liked. A favorite uncle. A helpful neighbor. Affable, modest, articulate, fair-minded. If his death has left television journalism bereft of those qualities, that would be a loss. But it hasn’t. The screen abounds with such newscasters. At times I think of them as cultivators of popularity, who, of course, reap large audiences, which, in turn, net massive advertising revenue.

To be watchable, broadcast journalists, video guests in your living room, need these qualities to meet all the standards of ratings success.

But the times require more. We need truth seekers and truth-tellers. Think Moyers, Murrow, Friendly and Cronkite.

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