The Russert Backlash Begins

Even before the funeral, the backlash has started against NBC’s massive coverage of Tim Russert’s death.

The backlash is not about the highly-respected Russert. It is about the hour upon hour that NBC and MSNBC devoted to coverage of his death. The blog site Balloon Juice, for example, said:

But let’s get something straight — what I am watching right now on the cable news shows is indicative of the problem — no clearer demonstration of the fact that they consider themselves to be players and the insiders and, well, part of the village, is needed. This is precisely the problem. They have walked the corridors of power so long that they honestly think they are the story. It is creepy and sick and the reason politicians get away with all the crap they get away with these days.

While the second largest city in Iowa flooded, while students sandbagged the University of Iowa, while Des Moines hurried to save its city from rising water, NBC Nightly News devoted its entire Friday evening program, plus an evening special and a special edition of “Meet the Press” to Russert’s death.

NewsBlues.com, the insider newsletter for TV news, called NBC’s coverage an “Orgy of Mourning” and said:

The sudden death Friday of Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert rattled through NBC with such ferocity that the stunned network briefly lost its journalistic equilibrium, transforming the entire “NBC Nightly News” into a self-serving eulogy for its fallen comrade.
 
Russert, a talented politician-turned-reporter who held tremendous sway inside the Washington Beltway, was shamelesslessly lauded at the expense of the day’s other important news. Brian Williams, reporting from Afghanistan, did not report on Afghanistan. Instead, he plugged a 10 p.m. “Special” on Russert. Had Iowa washed away? Did Obama and McCain take the day off? Certainly there must have been an important medical breakthrough (isn’t there one every day?). If so, NBC wasn’t saying.
A photojournalist friend of mine sent me a note Friday night pointing out that nowhere in all of the coverage was there a shot of EMT workers loading a gurney into an ambulance. My friend wondered if we would afford the same dignity to someone who “is not one of us.’

In 1977, when Elvis Presley died, CBS News didn’t lead it with. The announcement of the “King of Rock and Roll’s” death played more than 6 minutes into the newscast in a 70-second mention. CBS News, the ratings leader at the time, badly lost in the ratings that night. (Read about that here.)

The lead that night on CBS was a story about the Panama Canal. The producer for that broadcast, Ron Bonn, said later that he was “out of sync” with the national consciousness. Two days later, two days after ABC and NBC had produced specials on Elvis’ life, CBS followed suit.

I bring that piece of journalism history up because it represents the friction that journalists feel daily. What is interesting versus what is truly important? How should we balance our content to reflect both?

Would Russert have approved of Nightly News dedicating an entire newscast to his memory? I didn’t know him, but based on his nose for news and his dedication to craft, I doubt it. I can imagine he would be pressing for coverage of the folks in Iowa who were struggling to save their cities and homes instead.

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