Only with Tim Russert’s sudden death at the age of 58 has his true stature as a landmark journalist become as widely recognized as it has long deserved to be.
To ask who will replace him as host of "Meet the Press" is to confront the reality that there is no one comparable on the horizon. Those of us who have followed "Meet the Press" since the long ago days of Lawrence Spivak know that Russert was the best of some very good hosts.
What made Tim Russert special was not some trademark catchword or contrived persona. What you saw was what you got– a down to earth guy who came on the air having thoroughly researched the subject and having a keen insight into politics and politicians.
He didn’t flaunt his knowledge. He was one of the few very smart people who seemed to feel no need to impress others that he was smart. But, if you knew the subject that he was talking about, you realized that he had really done his homework.
There was something else that set Tim Russert apart from many other journalists, whether print journalists or broadcast journalists: His agenda was bringing out the facts.
He didn’t let the politicians he interviewed get away with slippery statements and inconsistent positions. But it was not "gotcha" journalism. It was not trying to filter or slant information to promote some political or ideological agenda.
No doubt Tim Russert had his own opinions. He had, after all, been on the staff of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and on the staff of former New York governor Mario Cuomo.
But, whatever Tim Russert’s political opinions were then or later, that was not what his program was about. He was there to serve the audience by bringing out the facts about the political world, a world where spin is the usually name of the game.
Often critics who complain about media bias argue as if what is needed is to be "fair" to "both sides." But what is far more important is to be honest with the audience– who are seeking information and understanding about the real world, not about the ideology or the agenda of the journalist.
This is not to denigrate opinion journalists, who have a valuable role to play, just as reporters like Tim Russert do. But, with both opinion journalists and reporters, the question is whether you play it straight with the audience, instead of filtering out inconvenient facts in order to manipulate the audience in favor of some agenda.
In short, the issue is honesty rather than "fairness." The question is whether journalists put their cards on the table. Russert put his cards on the table– and they were high cards.
A small personal note: A few months ago, an old friend said that he would like to get a videotape of my interview on "Meet the Press" back in 1981. I dug up an old videotape in my garage but, after several summers in a hot garage, it was not in very good shape.
As a long shot, I decided to write to "Meet the Press," to see if they would sell me another copy of the interview, if it was still available.
This interview took place back in the days when Bill Monroe was the program’s moderator. But, since the only name I knew of at "Meet the Press" was Tim Russert, I addressed a note to him, figuring that one of his secretaries might get back to me with the information.
Instead, I received a DVD of that interview and a brief, handwritten note from Tim Russert, with a transcript of the interview thrown in.
How people treat those who cannot do them any good or any harm reveals a lot about their character. For me, Tim Russert scored high in that department as well.