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Russert to Judgment

Tim Russert, the most powerful journalist in Washington, isn't really a journalist. He's part salesman, part insider, and on Sunday morning he's the Grand Inquisitor.

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I have been trying to deconstruct Tim Russert -- who is, people tell me (and I tell others), the most influential journalist in Washington.

I find him a confusing figure. I'm not sure I understand his function, or his point of view -- sometimes he's oily, other times a pit bull -- or whom exactly he speaks for. Where does his authority come from?

My father religiously watched Meet the Press, the show Russert now hosts, when I was growing up. The show had a Friends-size audience then. But now it's not really meant to be watched -- or it's meant to be watched only by other media people and political pros. It's a pseudo-show. But, oddly, the show that no one watches has made Russert ubiquitous anyway. He gets to retail his views across a wide spectrum of airtime: CNBC, MSNBC, Today, various debates, and a long-lasting Election Night.

I don't question his importance or prominence (the marker board he used during the disputed election seems destined for the Smithsonian). In my mind, and I think in the minds of most media- and politically minded people, Russert is on his way to being up there with network-news greats like Sevaried or Chancellor. Of course, because his audience is only a fraction of theirs -- nobody in television news has a glimmer of their audience -- he really isn't like them in any way. Practically speaking, he's a relative nonentity to most of the nation. Still, he's the man, or he fills the position -- Meet the Press host, major network voice -- even though the position really doesn't exist anymore. The limb has been amputated, but you still feel it.

To the degree that television-news people are much smaller than they once were, so are politicians -- they may have diminished to an even greater degree than their television colleagues. And because what power -- what legitimacy, what identity -- they have depends on what media time they have, Russert is a giant among them.

What's more, every year since 1984, when Russert came to NBC, as most others in television have become demonstrably less powerful and influential, Russert himself has become more powerful and influential.

This is, obviously, to his credit. Russert, round-faced, not obviously glamorous or charismatic, has been created as much by himself as by television (of how many people on television could that be said?).

There is no one more plugged-in, better-connected, more knowing in Washington than he.

He is the man behind the curtain as well as in front.

He doesn't just have on-air power. He has internal, network, corporate, bureaucratic power. He isn't just an anchor-correspondent-pundit-interviewer; he's the NBC Washington bureau chief (other Washington correspondents don't get on-air so easily without Russert's approval). But he isn't just the Washington bureau chief, he is the confidant of Bob Wright, the head of NBC, and of Jack Welch, the head of GE, NBC's parent (Welch is famous for eschewing elite, white-shoe Harvard guys; Russert, from Buffalo, went to John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law). When Welch wants to know what's going on in Washington (GE runs a mighty lobbying effort), he calls Russert, who tells him who's saying what to whom. Russert is, in other words, not just a senior guy in the NBC news division but a significant GE asset in Washington. That's big.

But the thing he does on-air is considerable, too -- at least it is to the Washington-media set. It's the fact that he challenges but has managed to go unchallenged. He's assumed the impartiality of network newsmen while at the same time sitting in considerable judgment. His approval is what people are after (he can be incredibly unctuous -- no more so than when he is interviewing or being interviewed by other network newscasters). His disapproval is what people fear (he can be incredibly aggressive; it was the force of his unexpected venom during the New York senatorial debate that made even Hillary seem fragile and sympathetic). Whether or not America is watching him -- and, for the most part, it is not -- he has stepped forward to represent a disapproving, literalistic, anti-politician populace. He, rather than the people who are elected, forcefully represents the consensus -- at least he believes he does.

I try -- fairly, it would seem -- to hold Russert to the standard he holds others to: People in power should be scrutinized by the media. But his P.R. person, when I call during the campaign, says he doesn't want to be interviewed -- too busy. I say I'll wait until his schedule is clearer. I get an e-mail from Russert about how his priority is "covering the presidential race and debates and fulfilling my obligations to meet the press . . . today . . . msnbc and cnbc . . ." Plus, he says he has to help his son with his homework. I have three kids I have to help, I tell him. We go back and forth some more. After the election, I renew my request. When I suggest that it seems like he's ducking, the NBC News communications director, Barbara Levin, contacts the editor of this magazine to express her great umbrage: A "ridiculous hypothesis . . . Nothing can be further from the truth." (It's odd: Would Russert himself be less interested in a story if the subject's flack called his boss?)

But I understand. As a news person, you want to maintain the illusion that it's not about you. Russert is, he would like us to think, merely the instrument of the public's right to know. It is really not that he is ducking the press (after all, he wants publicity; he wants to be a star), so much as he is maintaining the artifice. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain . . .


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