Russert Coverage Ups and Downs

There is no question that the passing of Meet The Press’s Tim Russert on Friday leaves a void in Sunday mornings. But it seemed a tad insensitive for’s Michael Calderone to have a story out on Saturday speculating already on who will replace him. The story seemed to point to two obvious choices—David Gregory and Chris Matthews, with the end-note on the story leaning toward Gregory.

But, the story could have maybe waited until today, at least.

MSNBC, the staff of which was rightfully stunned on Friday, ran loop coverage of Russert remembrances Friday night and into Saturday. At times like these, it’s hard to criticize too much for over doing it. But MSNBC pushed the envelope as far as it would go, and didn’t seem to care if the envelope broke. Friday night, I switched over for a brief time to Fox where I saw a mostly gracious salute to Russert by Fox Circus-Clown-in-residence Sean Hannity. He called on on former GE chairman Jack Welch whom, I did not know, was a kind of mentor to Russert. But where Hannity hopped the rails for me was when he called Russert “a model for all of us in this business.” Oh? What business is that Hannity? To call yourself in the same business as Russert is insulting; Hannity, who a few nights before admitted on air to being a “surrogate” for GOP candidate John McCain (as if we didn’t know that, but it was still stunning to hear him admit it on the air considering his past protests over being in the tank for anyone GOP).

Russert once went on Hannity’s show to promote his book, which goes to show you that anyone will go on anyone’s show to flog a book.

Not surprisingly, the actual Meet The Press broadcast on Sunday contained the best remembrance. Tom Brokaw included in the show some tape of Russert’s most embarrassing moment, when he used a metaphor of “sawing off a limb” with then-Senator Bob Kerrey. Gwen Ifil included her exchange with Russert on the air last year when she challenged people like Russert [and me] who went on Don Imus’s radio show for years even after he made many disparaging and arguably racist comments and jokes about African Americans.

Russert, I suspect, would have haunted them if they hadn’t included a few of his difficult moments along with a catalog of his best stuff.

Brokaw looms large in this year’s election with Russert’s absence. His handling of Russert’s passing, and his recent work on the primary coverage, reminds us that he is the dean of American national TV journalism, especially political coverage.

At a time when the political year is dominated by coverage on MSNBC, CNN and Fox, Russert will be missed precisely because he refused to let himself be cubby-holed into rooting for any candidate. Matthews and Keith Olbermann certainly can’t claim that mantle. It is pretty clear that Fox is pulling for McCain, while MSNBC’s commentariat coverage is so anti-Bush that it’s hard not to argue that it is the Obama channel. CNN lies somewhere in between. But at MSNBC, in addition to NBC, Russert was the best. The only clue to Russert’s politics is the fact that he had worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo. Since going to NBC, his politics were indiscernible.

Controversial Conn. Senator Joe Lieberman, identifying himself as an independent these days (caucusing as a Democrat, but carrying water for John McCain) ironically put it best on Friday, calling Russert, “The explainer in chief.” Even MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, no fan of Lieberman’s, couldn’t resist separating that apt description of Russert from the pile he had to draw from Friday night.

This year’s election will still be historic. But we sadly lost our best real-time historian to describe it for us.