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.