Tim Russert: How TV news covered a death in the family

Meetthepress_lNewscasters show us grief every day. Hurricane victims, plane crashes, war. But last Friday afternoon, they began broadcasting their own. As word spread that Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert had been stricken with a fatal heart attack, voices started cracking all over the cable-news spectrum. You could see Russert’s on-air colleagues digest the raw news of his death in real time. There was obvious shock in Tom Brokaw’s eyes when he appeared on NBC to break the story with a special bulletin at 3:30 p.m. EDT, leaving the clearly shaken Andrea Mitchell and Keith Olbermann to absorb the news on MSNBC for the rest of the day. At one point in the afternoon, Mitchell actually crumpled into sobs on live TV while recalling how Russert had nicknamed her "Mitch."

It was a sad day, to be sure, but also, frankly, a little jarring, watching all these TV personalities famous for keeping their cool through floods and terrorist attacks and other disasters so totally lose it. It went on for much of the weekend, and not just on MSNBC; CNN and Fox News also devoted huge swaths of airtime to reminiscing about Russert’s career and rerunning loops of condolence videos from presidential candidates and other public figures (both Obama and McCain expressed sorrow and claimed Russert’s friendship). The coverage made Russert seem more like a slain head of state, or a princess killed in a car accident, than the burly 58-year-old newsman who turned up every Sunday morning looking like an unmade bed to interview cabinet members and senators on TV’s longest-running public affairs program. For a guy much of the apolitical television audience has probably never heard of, it was quite a send-off. (Pictured, on Sunday’s tribute episode of Meet the Press, are pundits James Carville, Mary Matalin, Mike Barnicle, and Brokaw.)

Still, maybe it was appropriate. Inside the cathode-tube beltway —among those few million wonksters who regularly watch politicalcoverage on the cable-news networks — Russert was a giant. Since hetook over Meet the Press in 1991, enduring his inimitablegrilling style (which usually involved him digging up old quotes thatdirectly contradicted the guest’s current policy positions) has been arite of passage for every politician with an eye on the White House.His election night pronouncements have become the stuff of legend —like when he predicted that the key to the 2000 race would be "Florida,Florida, Florida" (and jotted it down on a white board just in caseanybody missed it). It’s also now clear that Russert was a charismaticcharacter off camera, as well, a mentoring figure to half the folksreading the news on cable TV these days, judging from all the impromptuon-air tributes over the weekend. Whatever his Q-rating with thenon-political public, the man was obviously genuinely loved by hispeers.

And that, to be cold-hearted and analytical about it, is what madewatching cable TV these past few days so riveting. Usually when we getbad news on TV, the newscasters are there to buffer the shock andprovide enough safe space so that we’ll keep on watching. This time,though, the bad news was about one of their own. And you could see thehurt all over the screen.

Comments (44 total) Add your comment
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  • Anonymous

    He will be missed. I went to him for all my political news. The november election won’t be the same without Russert giving it to us.

  • Broadway Baby

    I need my news with a little dispassionate narrative otherwise I would melt down and be unable to function given some of the things the television news sees necessary to exploit, I mean report. However, I do take my morning tv now with Robin Roberts and Good Morning America since Hurricane Katrina. She showed sincere emotion during her reports and I felt not only that I was getting the news but getting a small sense of the devastation. (And Chris Cuomo is on my short list of boyfriends.) The passing of Tim Russert is sad and seeing what he meant to his contemporaries and those he mentored was touching. I think they deserved to tell their stories and it happens that they had the platform of Sunday morning television to do it. Those who watched were looking for memories of Mr. Russert and those who felt it too much hopefully turned the channel.

  • Angie, IL

    Yes, politics, especially primaries and elections, will not be the same without Tim Russert. I’m sure many will always wonder….WWTD, What Would Tim Do…or say. That will be oh so true through the rest of this election cycle.
    It may seem cliché to say this but, hearing all the personal stories and tributes to Tim over the last few days, make me want to be a better person and strive for better in every aspect of my life.
    God bless Tim’s family and friends and also his work family and friends. The rest of us will certainly miss him in our living room TVs…they had the real guy in front of them.
    Hang tough and…go get ‘em!

  • CJ

    My heart goes out to his family, especially his son. Tim was devoted to his family, regardless the time it took him to do his job. He left behind a son who has no doubt he was loved and adored by his father. What a shock. What a wake up call. RIP.

  • wildecat

    The level of coverage was obviously in direct proportion to the level of love and respect his colleagues felt for him. Those of us from Buffalo already knew what an extraordinary person Russert was. It’s too bad much of the country only discovered what an exceptional person he was due to his shocking early death. Rest in peace, Tim.

  • nik

    While it was without a doubt a real tragedy for him and his family, I felt it was also a bit overblown, and showed yet again broadcast media’s endless narcissism towards itself.

  • Meghan

    About a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Russert speak at my college. I was actually lucky enough to attend because I was one of the ushers for the night. My impression was that he seemed genuine, both in what he was saying and personality wise. My condolences go to his family, and he will be missed in the political arena.

  • Tee

    A truly wonderful man, loving, devoted to his family, a fine catholic, another light of decency has gone out of the world, to all of his family and friends, my deepest, sorrowful sympathy, a true gentle man…..rest in the bosom of the Lord, Sir.



  • Sol Gautier

    Perhaps whoever wrote this is too immersed in pop culture to appreciate the greatness of the American we just lost. When we can absolutely trust the integrity, fearlessness and wisdom of a media person–that’s cause for lament. I honor Tim Russert

  • Ruzzy

    I think that even the “Show Biz” news industry realized that he was a real newsman, without faking anything. I for one, appreciated Mr. Russert’s integrity, and will miss his contributions to the news.

  • Dozermom

    I have never been political savy. I always felt when Tim Russert reported it was not an attack on anyone just the facts. It really gave me an informed insight it seemed from a neighbor next door talking in my patio. I pray for his family and the NBC family.

  • Dozermom

    I have never been political savy. I always felt when Tim Russert reported it was not an attack on anyone just the facts. It really gave me an informed insight it seemed from a neighbor next door talking in my patio. I pray for his family and the NBC family.

  • Anonymous

    It occurred to me that Katie Courick may be just what Meet the Press needs to tone down what is the most interesting election we have had in my adult years. I am 71.

  • Ann

    The writer of the above article about Tim Russert’s passing is not of the same professional level quality of journalism that Tim Russert was. To say that Tim looked sloppy and that his style of interviewing was mainly quotes from other people was written in extremely bad taste was extremely disrespectful considering that Tim Russert had an exemplary reputation as a journalist. The write of this article was very young and inexperienced.
    I expected more from such an organization as EW.

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