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Russert to Judgment

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Esquire, some years ago, did a mostly laudatory profile of him. But it gave you Russert as a tough, behind-the-scenes player too. The mayhem that followed the publication of the piece is still famous in the annals of Esquire. Russert, his wife, the magazine journalist Maureen Orth, a power both socially and professionally in her own right, and other network colleagues besieged the magazine with calls. Such was the onslaught -- journalist to journalist, media organization to media organization, chattering class to chattering class -- that the magazine issued a quasi-apology. ("Years later, I'm still dumbfounded how he got that to happen," says one of the editors of the story.)

Of course, it may be relevant that Russert, while the most influential journalist in the country, is not, precisely speaking, a journalist. He leads a trend: Along with Chris Matthews, Jeff Greenfield, George Stephanopoulos, and Dee Dee Myers, he was a political operative before becoming a journalist.

He worked for Moynihan for six years. After that he worked for Cuomo. The story -- possibly apocryphal -- is that Russert at the 1984 Democratic convention got the union guys to kill the house lights during Cuomo's famous speech, thereby limiting reaction shots and keeping the cameras focused on Mario.

He left politics to go to work for Larry Grossman, the head of news at NBC. Shortly after, GE bought NBC; Grossman was fired, and Michael Gartner, a Uriah Heep type, became NBC News chief.

It is notable that Russert's rise in television news coincides with the years of miserable cost-cutting. Indeed, in this land of newsmen, most of them depressives in deep mourning for their lost stature and perquisites, Russert is another-planetary kind of being. He isn't a journalist so much as a player, a mover and shaker among the Washington set, the media business, and GE, the ultimate seat of power. He's entrepreneurial. He's always selling (whether it's famously getting the pope on the Today show -- getting the pope to promo the Today show -- or his tone during the election mess, a sort of What we're going to see today is so amazing you're not going to be able to get to work).

This sounds bad, and will no doubt prompt Russert and his people to volubly complain ("What do you mean he isn't a journalist?"), but perhaps it isn't so bad. Network news was failing. Network-news guys, with their raging entitlements, passive-aggressiveness, pretty faces, were anachronisms. So Russert, with his forceful selling techniques and sandlot-bully approach, prevailed. He understood that GE had to get something out of the news division (that news had a premium audience of two: Jack Welch and Bob Wright), which helped him get a stranglehold. Then, too, he worked all the time -- he ran the bureau as well as read the news; he did cable as well as network; he did morning as well as Sunday. He took over. He became, inside of NBC News, Boss Daley of Chicago. Nothing happened without his say-so. When there's less power, you have to grab more.

Of the many roles he created for himself at NBC, possibly the most novel was "the insider" -- the man who knows his way around. That's a role that would have been too small-time for television in its heyday. Being a star paid off, being loved and respected by America was what television was about; but being an operator wasn't worth much, being an insider wasn't the business of television.

Russert's role almost recalls print more than television. What he offers -- the price of his imprimatur, the cost of his anger, the value of his confidence -- is more akin to the great columnists of old. He's Joseph Alsop or Arthur Krock.

Russert, who moves from behind the camera as bureau chief to, unusually, in front of the camera as host of Meet the Press, gets the credit for reviving the show. But he didn't so much revive it (Meet the Press as my father knew it is gone for good) as reinvent the use of the show. It's now a kind of figment of television. Media for media. Russert asks a series of questions, and then the videotaped answers are retailed out through the rest of NBC's News and other media outlets. Who said what on Sunday-morning shows is a staple of Monday-morning papers, the press creating news for itself to jump-start the week. It's a promotional tool. Meet the Press is arguably more relevant for GE -- which, in fact, sponsors Meet the Press -- than it is for NBC. If the goal is to make compelling and profitable television, then Meet the Press really doesn't succeed at all. But if the goal is to have power and influence in Washington, and to make Tim Russert influential and powerful, then it works very well.

Russert has become something like an old-style Hill baron -- his power is woven into the fabric of the community; his level of seniority and access is so great that he's become impregnable, unassailable.

The rap on Russert is that it's all about him. Not just the narcissistic thing of most talking heads but a larger control and power thing. He doesn't want people just to look at him -- but to need him and fear him too. He's a Democrat, but in a backflip, he's toughest on the Democrats -- toughest of all on Clinton. He gets a certain sort of credit for selling out his old pals. The conceit he retails is that, knowing what he knows, he understands the depravity, worthlessness, and corruption of politics. At the same time, he can slaver and stroke too. There's no consistency -- or the consistency is that he's working the angles; if he needs to slaver and stroke, he'll slaver and stroke. He is, in fact, a politician -- in the most hallowed tradition, looking out for No. 1.

He's satisfied, smug. He has the smile of someone who has eaten his fill, with no guilt about it. He's so laughingly sure of himself. Sure that he's in the right place, at the right time, with the right guests.

He's like a balloon you want to pop.

On the other hand, he's the only person, it sometimes seems, who's willing to take on these people. He's the devil, and his guests are the damned.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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