Sunday, June 15, 2008

Covered to Death

No one who follows politics or watches television news can help but be saddened by the sudden, premature and unexpected death of Tim Russert.  He had an extraordinary life story, keeping work and family in what appeared to be perfect balance.  His style was so different than many of his colleagues, especially those on the politics beat at NBC’s cable outlet where he himself appeared so frequently.  Chris Mathews, the man whose idea of an interview is to have the first and last words and most of those in between, obviously never paid much attention to Russert’s thoughtful questioning and, most important, listening.  Keith Olbermann, the liberal’s answer to O’Reilly, who has appropriated Morrow’s signature sign off, bears no resemblance to that giant who likely would have preferred Russert’s dignified demeanor to his synthetic bravado.  What Tim Russert did was to combine exuberance with seriousness.  That is very hard to pull off, and he did it so authentically well.

Of course Russert was a man of today’s television world and nothing could be more emblematic of where it has gone than MSNBC’s coverage of his death.  True to form, it has been 24/7 ever since, a single story sucking up every second of airtime as if nothing else was happening in the country or the world.  It’s hard to know if Russert would have approved, but now the late broadcaster has lost control becoming the fodder of what Frank Rich calls the Mediathon.  There is no doubt that his colleagues are truly devastated by his passing and many of the anecdotes they share are moving, but one has to wonder at this stage whether ratings aren’t playing into this coverage just as they do in any other Mediathon.  Russert has died, and is being covered to death.  One would think journalism could do better than that, be more measured than that.

It is said by some that newspapers are destined for the dustbin of history.  That would be tragic, not because the printed page is necessarily more valuable than the broadcast hour, but because of the difference of how each uses time and space.  Read the New York Times or any other major newspaper in America and you’ll see each issue filled with a multitude of stories covering every conceivable subject.   Sure local rags often are short on national news and the Times may not always do the best job of covering the street around the corner, but between the pages is a large world and lot’s of infomation.  The great disappointment of 24 hour broadcast news is that with so much time on its hands, so little is actually covered.  Perhaps it’s more in the absolute than the thirty-minute nightly network fair, but surprisingly not that much more.  If television is known for summer reruns, every news day on cable is made up of repeated information, often every few minutes.  Turn it on in the morning or in the evening and you won’t have missed much even though CNN, MSNBC and Fox seem to have missed most of what’s going on.

We’ll all miss Tim Russert, especially because his like on the tube is far and very few between.  His voice will be especially missed between now and November.  But when the powers that be at NBC look back on these past days – when one of their own became the solitary news – perhaps they too will wonder if Mediathon’s serve the public’s need to know all the news.  I hope so, but don’t count on it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Not in our Wildest Dreams

Watching Barack Obama last night in St Paul, I couldn’t help but think of sitting in Washington on that August day in 1963 and hearing about dreams.  Yes, there was a huge crowd and yes spirits ran high, but the dreams?  Dreams were still oratory, just oratory.  Sound familiar?  Well great oratory matters and always has.  Think of the momentous and you can be sure oratory played a critical role.  Think of the Civil War and what you’ll remember is, “Four score and...”.  Think of the Depression and “the only thing you have to fear…” will present itself in an instant.  Think of the generational turn of 1960 and, “Ask not what your country…” will resonate in your mind’s ear.  And think of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain, so named in a Churchill speech, and its end arguably begun with Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall”.

Oratory counts, but even more so dreams, especially once fulfilled in all or in part.  Perhaps Barack Obama’s victory isn’t “in all”, but it’s damn close.  We should not, dare not, miss the moment.  When my father spoke together with King there in Washington, he began with the words, “I come to you as an American Jew”.  I came to last night as a White American Jew and with a feeling of enormous victory, sure for my favored candidate, but even more so for this country.  It is a victory for my children and for yours.  This is not just some electoral result, it’s a big deal and that it happened in our lifetime is almost beyond belief.  Perhaps South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn best expressed its magnitude.  He told the News Hour this evening that he was so emotional about it that he had to leave the gathering he was attending to go home and listen to the speech alone.  This African American Congressman from the Deep South knows something about prejudice and about breakthroughs.

We knew that last night, whenever that last night would come, would bring with it a moment of history, the fulfillment of a dream too long delayed.  I’ve written a number of times during this long campaign about those dreams an the wonder of potentially fulfilling one or the other in the same year.  I knew the unfulfilled dream would be wrenching, and it is for millions of women whose time is once more delayed.  I wish Hillary Clinton’s inexplicable performance reflected that global disappointment, which sadly I fear is not the case.  But let no one spoil the moment, and let us not permit it to pass uncelebrated.   Last night in this country, at this time, we all did overcome.

When Barack Obama ascends the podium in Denver to accept the nomination of his party, it will be forty-five years to the day since Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his memorable speech.  This year, with this candidate, we’ll be assured of oratory that not only will fulfill that August dream, but also will do the dreamer’s memory proud.  Ah, dreams – make them really wild Barack!  That will be change.  Do it for people of color, do it for women and do it for all of us.  Yes you can, yes you must.