February 28, 2008
The rise of Tim Russert and the decline of journalism
I watched the Democratic primary debate held in Cleveland on Tuesday. It was the first debate I had watched live so far during the primary season. Who do I think won? I think such questions are meaningless. These kinds of debates are not meant to provide that kind of result.
But the losers of these debates are quite easy to pick: they are usually the moderators. What I hate about these debates is not the candidates' performance (they actually come off quite well) but the moderators, who come across as preening and vain and self-important, and who seem to think that the debates are all about them.
And of that breed, there is no doubt that Tim Russert is the most obnoxious. No one epitomizes all the problems of modern journalism better than him. His shtick is really wearing thin. He often makes it a point to refer to himself as just a 'blue-collar boy from Buffalo', as if that makes him an outsider, just like you and me, a regular, working class guy like his daddy, so that we will overlook the fact that he is a well-connected Washington insider, a consummate Villager, someone who is completely at home with the moneyed-classes that rule the country.
Russert also practices a really tedious form of 'gotcha' questioning by trying to find some contradiction between a politician's past statement on some issue and their current position. He usually frames this by saying, "On June 14, 1987, you said . . . but then last week you said . . ." and then sits there with a smug expression, as if proud of himself for having done all that research into the candidates speeches and writings.
Of course politicians change their positions, as do we all. Sometimes that is the most reasonable thing to do. As economist John Maynard Keynes responded when questioned about his own change of position on some issue, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Russert does not seem to really care if the alleged switch is on a major issue or a minor one, or whether the switch was justified because of a change in circumstances, or what the full context of the quote was. His entire goal seems to be to take the candidate by surprise and make them look awkward.
As Josh Marshall over at the excellent Talking Points Memo (which should be a must read for any serious follower of politics) says: "The standout performance of last night was Tim Russert's repeated tirades at the candidates for not answering his clownish questions. So we thought we'd string all of Tim's gonzo moments into one tight reel. Let's all repeat together, "I'm rough enough, I'm tough enough, and doggone it, people like me!"
Being the target of an interview ambush by Russert is like being attacked by an angry chicken: it is alarming at first before you realize how ridiculous he is.
In general, Russert seemed to be ruder to Clinton than he was to Obama, interrupting her repeatedly, but Russert's lowest point was when he had to resort to really tortuous logic to link Obama to Louis Farrakhan and demanded to know what he ws going to do about it. Sadly, Hillary Clinton used that question to do reinforce Russert's absurd line of questioning and it then devolved into a contest to see who could pander more to Israel and the Jewish vote.
Again, Josh Marshall in a post titled Russert's Lowest Moment (and that's saying a lot) says it all:
I discussed this in the live debate blog. But I think it's worth going back and watching Russert's run of shame here. I would say it was borderline to bring up the issue of Farrakhan at all. But perhaps since it's getting some media play you bring it up just for the record, for Obama to address.
That's not what Russert did. He launches into it, gets into a parsing issue over word choices, then tries to find reasons to read into the record some of Farrakhan's vilest quotes after Obama has just said he denounces all of them. Then he launches into a bizarre series of logical fallacies that had Obama needing to assure Jews that he didn't believe that Farrakhan "epitomizes greatness".
As a Jew and perhaps more importantly simply as a sentient being I found it disgusting.
What was the point of Russert's line of questioning? Why such questions make no sense is that if you look in the weeds hard enough, you will find all kinds of people supporting each and every candidate. What does that prove about a candidate? Nothing really, because people support candidates for a variety of reasons, some substantial and some trivial, some positive and some negative. If you as a reporter find an unusual source of support, that say a serial murderer has said he really likes McCain or that anti-Muslim Christian bigots are supporting Huckabee or that some KKK members are supporting Clinton, those things by themselves do not reflect on McCain or Huckabee or Clinton and they should not feel obliged to renounce each and every instance of such support. If that was a requirement, then people opposed to a candidate could create all kinds of mischief and distraction by getting people to say they support the candidate they actually oppose, and then watch the candidate be forced to waste time and energy renouncing such support.
When you see candidates receiving statements of support from any person or group whom you think is beyond the pale, what you have to do as a reporter is to see whether the candidate has, by word or action, suggested that they share the values of those professing support for them. If you can't find any such instances, then that is the end of the story.
But simply picking out someone you dislike and using their statement of support for a candidate to demand that they formally reject such support seems to be aimed at casting negative aspersions on a candidate. It is lazy and shoddy journalism, but exactly the kind that Russert practices.
Another of Russert's grandstanding tactics is posing the absurd hypothetical in order to catch candidates off-balance. In the debate, Russert asked Clinton and Obama what they would do if they withdrew US troops from Iraq and then found that al Qaeda had come roaring back in that country and taken over. Would they send troops back in? Clinton, to her credit, slapped Russert down and said the question was one that was hypothetical and not worth answering.
But why stop there, little Timmy? Why not ask the candidates what they would do if Russia and China form an alliance with al Qaeda to try take over the entire Middle East, and use that as a base to invade Pakistan? Or what they would do if an alien spaceship suddenly appeared and asked them to take the aliens to their leader? I am sure that you can get your crack research staff to think of something even more fantastical.
These kinds of hypotheticals are just plain silly because they are so far removed from reality. Candidates should not have to spend time thinking about what they would do in all the possible situations, and they should refuse to answer such questions. Presidents, of course, have entire teams of people whose job it is to study hypothetical scenarios and review the various options available to them. But leaders keep those hypotheticals under wraps because to discuss them in public is as self-defeating as thinking out loud about your future moves while playing a chess game.
The only time to publicly discuss a hypothetical is when you want to use it to influence the other party's actions, to exert some kind of pressure. The president can say, for example, that if the Iraqi government were to take action A, then the US would have to seriously consider doing action B. The point of such a hypothetical is clear: it is to signal to the Iraqi government that it should seriously consider not taking action A.
To me, people like Tim Russert represent the decline of journalism. He may not be the worst example (it is hard to beat Fox News for really bad journalism) but the fact that he is considered by many to be one of the best is a sign of how bad things are. Such people have turned me off watching TV news altogether. I seriously considered not watching the debate because I knew in advance that I would get irritated by Russert
I often think we would have much better candidate debates if they were moderated by college students who are policy debaters or Model United Nations participants. They usually are more serious and better informed and less smugly self-important.
POST SCRIPT: Interview on radio
I will be interviewed on a call-in program on radio on Saturday, March 1 from 10:00-10:30am (Eastern time). The program is called Situation Awareness and the host is Hans Meyer. This program is a FreeWorldRadioNetwork.net production, part of Blog Talk Radio.
I was contacted because the host had seen some very early blog posts of mine that dealt with those people I called Third-Tier Pundits (i.e., people like Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin) who are very silly people who have little useful to say but spend a lot of time saying it. The topic will be expanded to a general look at how the media (especially punditry) operates these days.
I will be interviewed for the first 15 minutes and the next 15 minutes will be Q&A with listeners. The call-in number is (646) 478-4821. You can listen-in and download the podcast of this and other shows here.