Tuesday, June 17, 2008

R.I.P. Tim Russert





Tim Russert died on Friday at the age of 58. The 24 hour news networks, in particular MSNBC have run non-stop programs in memory of and in honor of his long career in politics and journalism. For MSNBC this is of course expected since Russert has been a part of their journalistic stable for a very long time and is the mentor of their new electoral math guru Chuck Todd.

I've been watching Tim Russert for a very long time. In my pre-conscious days, prior to the rise of the internet and my development of a broader alternative network of sources for my news, Meet the Press was one of the sort of passive venues through which I would absorb some current event news. If my memory is correct, I remember watching Meet the Press on Sunday mornings, while waiting for basketball games on NBC to take place. I would usually get just info info about American politics from the interviews, to convince people my age and older that I was far more knowledgeable than I really was. (Siempre guaha ma sasangan pa'go na sigi ha' taiguini yu'.)

In the tributes to Russert there has been an incredible amount of mentions about his white board and his "Florida, Florida, Florida," comment which proved true on the eve of the Presidential election in 2000. I remember watching the election coverage with rapt attention, but I don't remember Tim Russert at all. With the recent release of the HBO movie Recount, I've learned however that my memory of that time period can't really be trusted. It was a traumatic time, watching the Republicans and their political machines and networks trample all over the Democrats and democracy. I'm one of those people who still, after eight years still qualify any sentence which involves the words "Bush" "2000" "President" and some form of the word "elected." One of my preferred forms is to say that Bush was "selected" in 2000.

Perhaps I did watch Russert in his most sublime form that year, but just blocked it out. Even watching the previews of Recount can just make my blood boil.

One of the last memories I have of Russert, was his declaration last month, that America now knows who the Democratic nominee will be. I have to admit, I did cheer for the man then, since he was very casually pounding another nail into the coffin of Hillary Clinton's Presidential hopes.

I have no doubt that Tim Russert has played a huge role in making American journalism what it is today, but my own uneven memory of him is far from flattering. I recall a This Modern World Comic, where Tom Tomorrow used Russert as the straw man in illustrating the pre and post 9/11 passes that Bush would get from the media in terms of his all around lack of intelligence. Where the media through Russert asks John Kerry whether "light is a wave or a particle" and to Bush asks "Mr. President - can you spell the word 'cat?'" This both was and wasn't supposed to be directly commenting on Russert, but more so used the figure of Russert to make light of the media's supposed toughness (in speaking truth to power) which often melted away for fear of being painted as unpatriotic if they questioned the President, or worse yet, mean for picking on that poor President, who obviously has no idea where he is, or what's going on in the world around him.

I know that when public figures pass on there is supposed to be a period of embelished reflection, where the recently deceased is painted up brightly in only positive tones. I remember even Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury gave Ronald Reagan such an honor when he promised safe passage to the former president as he "left town."

On the one hand, I feel that I should follow suit and simply honor someone who has been a pillar in the American fourth estate for decades. On the other however, my most significant memory of Russert compels me to nonetheless speak critically, no necessarily about him or his choices, but rather what he represented in journalism, his position within a system which has been failing in its responsibilities in particular since 2001.

In one of his tributes to Russert, Keith Olbermann noted that the deceased was one who set the standards in American journalism, as he represented a key piece of its foundation. This made me fully understand, an interview that Russert gave with Bill Moyers which frankly always left me confused.

Russert did have a reputation for being a sort of "bulldogish" personality in his interviews. Especially as a teenager, I remember him being very direct and forward with his guests and often witnessing his style of learning everything about his guests and then taking the counter position. I remember watching snippets of his infamous interview with David Duke, where he revealed him to be a figure of almost pure empty ideology with little substance since he obviously knew very little about the state he was planning to govern. He was also known as a "straight shooter," an authentic American, who never strayed far from the populist, no nonsense wisdom of his father. He would speak plainly and was only interested in finding and speaking the truth.

But in his interview with Bill Moyers, for the 2007 PBS documentary Buying the War, where he was asked about the manipulation of intelligence by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq War to the American people, Russert was anything but direct. In fact he looked more evasive and very uncomfortable. Part of this might be due to the climate of uncertainty amongst journalists about the Valerie Plame leak scandal, and so people such as Russert were being very tight lipped about their sources and what exactly they knew and where they learned it from.

After hearing Olbermann talk about Russert as "the standard" for American journalists, I began to think about his discomfort and unwillingness to engage with Moyers as derivative of something else. Here is the transcript from the documentary below:

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean-

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't have the-- This is, you know-- on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tubes story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.
My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

[break]

TIM RUSSERT: Look, I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo. I know who my sources are. I work 'em very hard. It's the mid-level people that tell you the truth.

BILL MOYERS: They're the ones who know the story?

TIM RUSSERT: Well, they're working on the problem. And they understand the detail much better than a lotta the so-called policy makers and political officials.

BILL MOYERS: But they don't get on the Sunday talk shows.

TIM RUSSERT: No. I mean, they don't want to be, trust me. I mean, they can lose their jobs, and they know it. But they can provide information which can help in me challenging or trying to draw out sometimes their bosses and other public officials.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of the fact that of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department?

TIM RUSSERT: It's important that you have an opposition party. That's our system of government.

BILL MOYERS: So, it's not news unless there's somebody…

TIM RUSSERT: No, no, no. I didn't say that. But it's important to have an opposition party, your opposing views.

What has stuck with me about this interview, after watching it several times, is the resistance of Russert to engaging with the ideas of Moyers. Throughout most of the interviews in the documentary, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, each finds a place for themselves in the narrative of the war or the critique that Moyers is proposing about how the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence or that there is a dangerous intimacy between the media and the Government. Conservatives such as Richard Pearle or Bill Kristol simply trotted out their usual lines, or just clung to whatever castle of fancifully neo-conservative illusions that they thrive in. Those who were more liberal or critical each made statements that made them fit in with Moyer's critique, either providing evidence of Bush crimes, or providing ammo for his arguments.

Russert stuck out, in that he resisted the entire narrative. He refused to be swept away by ideology the way Pearle and Kristol were. He refused to join in with others in their condemnations of the Bush Administration. But he also refused to speak to or even join in considering the analytical rethinking that Moyers was offering.

When Moyers mentions the propaganda tactics that Cheney used with the New York Times story on aluminum tubes, and also the fact that almost all mainstream news media sources for information on the Iraq came from the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House, he is pushing for Russert to respond outside of the typical media box. He is trying to move beyond the simple truth or falsity of statements and the game of "gotcha," and get Russert to respond to the system that surrounds the media and creates the natural and ovbious assumptions that structure it. He is trying to get Russert to assess that system which infuses certain statements and certain voices with incredible discursive power and weight, in order to get at how the Bush Administration so masterfully used that system to their advantage.

Russert dodges these issues. At one point retreating into the persona of that hard-nosed, no nonsense, undifferentiated journalist who knows what is what and who his sources are. At another point he displaces the questions of Moyers onto the Democrats, speaking nothing of the need of journalists to oppose the falsehoods of Government.

I know that Russert's behavior in this interview can partially be attributed to his neutrality, and his well known efforts to stay impartial to these sorts of debates. So for some, Russert here is providing an example of objectivity in journalism, by not joining in with the Bush bashing of some of Moyer's other guests, or the Bush praising of the others.

But for me, what Russert represents in this interview is one of the biggest problems I find in the American media today, and that is an unwillingness to go outside of the given assumptions for what constitutes news, what makes something newsworthy, or what sorts of voices should be elevated to create truth, and what voices can be dismissed as being mindless rants. For Russert the possibility that the media and the government might be too intimately connected and that the government might be manipulating the media and therefore the people, is something, even when the space is specifically about that, and evidence has been brought forth to discuss it, it is something which he can't admit to or even consider.

Reporters who are truly speaking truth to power cannot simply settle for a tough exterior or a facade of antagonism when dealing with the government or those they cover and research. They also have to be prepared to engage with the system they operate in. In the case of someone like Tim Russert, during the run up to the Iraq War, he worked in the mainstream, corporate media, and was the host of one of the longest running and most popular Sunday morning news shows. He therefore occupied a key launch site in terms of the government making its case for war and disseminating its desired ideas and information for its propaganda campaign. I am singling Russert out now, but he was and is just one of so many who failed to take into account their place not just in a system of media outlets, journalists and sources, but in a wider system that includes the American people, the media and the government.

This sort of double work is something we all go through. I struggle with it all the time as an activist and as an academic. One must perform well, excell and therefore help maintain the system you are a part of, by heeding its rules and integrating yourself and your actions into its metrics for appropriate and acceptable behavior and achievement. Yet at the same time, one must also be vigilante and see a wider view of that same system and also help shape it and in some cases save it, or fight for a particular vision or future of that system.

This post has not been an attack on Tim Russert's life or body of work. As I noted I've learned alot from him over the years and there are trace tears of nostalgia and appreciation when I think back on all my memories of him. But at the same time I feel the need to stay true to my most haunting and most visceral memory of Russert, even if its not a glowingly positive one. That impulse to whitewash a person's life when they pass on is great, but it is also a comforting amnesia which can be incredibly counterproductive, and enable you to lose so much. In the state of morning, we tend to only grab and only acknowledge publicly that which speaks highly and glowingly of the deceased. The mixed life of every person who passes on is filled with good and bad and a multitude of lessons we should take with us, times when they were their strongest and most vital and other times when they were their weakest and most useless. I think we do more justice and honor to those that have passed on by taking real stock of their lives.

So in that spirit, adios Sinot Russert, Si Yu'us i ga'chong-mu gi i hinanao-mu. Gi este na tinige'-hu bai hu onra hao gi i minagahet i lina'la'-mu. Ti bai hu kefa'perfetko hao, ti bai hu kefunas pat kepuni i linachi-mu. Bai hu kuentos put i chi-mu gi lina'la'-mu kosaki sina ta komprende mas yan eyak mas.

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