STEVE BOUSER: Tim Russert Would Be Embarrassed at All This
"I hate to sound this way," an acquaintance confessed to me a day or two ago, "but I'm tired of hearing about Tim Russert."
It sounded harsh, but I had to admit harboring similar feelings.
Russert, a longtime NBC News executive and host of "Meet the Press" on Sunday mornings, dropped dead of a heart attack at work on Friday. It was a stunner, to be sure -- as evidenced by the fact that my wife, Brenda, called me as soon as she saw the bulletin on the Web, sounding almost as shocked as she would have been if it were some family member.
But to turn over the entire NBC Nightly News broadcast that night to the story? And as late as Monday evening, it still seemed to be all-Tim, all-the-time -- and on all the networks, not just the peacock one. I agree that it all seems like a case of -- you should pardon the expression -- overkill.
As a TV viewer, I admired Tim Russert. My heart goes out to his family, as we are obliged to say. He was a first-rate newsman, always thoroughly informed about whatever subject he was interviewing a guest about. He was never strident or insulting in his questioning, but he was always firm, and he never let anybody off the hook with an easy answer. I also liked the fact that his image was real and rumpled -- a far cry from the blow-dried pretty boys that sit behind so many news desks.
But that's all he was: a newsman. And not even one of your superstar anchors, at that. He was just a good, workmanlike broadcast journalist. Given that down-to-earth, practical, no-nonsense nature of his, I imagine that even he would have been uncomfortable about the breathless, seemingly endless prime-time coverage that has been devoted to his demise -- again, not just on his home networks of NBC and MSNBC, but on the competing news networks of CNN and Fox News as well. After all, newsmen like to cover the news, not be part of it.
I have no idea how many network hours were devoted to this story. All I know is that seemingly every time I turned on one of the news channels to try to find out what was happening in the world -- there it was again: a screen edged in black, with Russert's birth and death years displayed as on a tombstone, with more talking heads tearfully recounting their friendships with Tim, interspersed with file footage of Tim interviewing somebody.
CNN's Larry King devoted a whole hour to the subject one night -- and then replayed it on another night. A lot of the same kind of thing was still happening on Monday night. Don't ask me to substantiate this, but I feel certain that Tim Russert's death got more air time than has been devoted to the passing of some former presidents of the United States. The death of Gerald Ford a couple of years ago comes to mind. Did he get nearly this much attention?
Part of the problem is that there's simply not enough newsworthy stuff going on every day to keep the 24/7 news channels busy. You can show footage of floods in Iowa and car-bombings in Iraq only for so many hours before the public's attention begins to wander. And news involving the lives, deaths and scandals of celebrities is always good for ratings. Witness the success of gossipy shows like "Entertainment Tonight." Human nature being what it is, people like to read and hear about other people.
It is also human nature to be especially interested in what happens to others who are in the same line of work or move in the same social circles as we. Country music singers, I have long complained, indulge themselves in recording way too many songs about the lives of country music singers. So it's only natural, I suppose, that TV news people would go overboard in reporting on and talking about the death of another TV news person. (The fact that the networks also had an ample supply of footage by and about Russert on hand to fill air time also has to be a factor.)
When you pay this much maudlin media attention to a death, ironically, I think you trivialize it in a way -- almost as if it were another Britney Spears crisis. Now there are plans to broadcast today's funeral live, as if this were Ronald Reagan or Princess Di we were talking about here. Come on.
We as a society do seem to have gotten good at making death seem trivial and trite and tasteless. It took only hours for the inevitable array of notes, flowers, dolls, candles and other tacky memorabilia to begin materializing on the sidewalk outside his NBC office in Washington. This has become an obligatory part of the ritual. I'm sure we'll be hearing a bagpiper wailing away at "Amazing Grace" before the thing has run its course.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com.
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