Feature

Russert: The ‘canonization’ of a journalist

Was there more than a little self-indulgence in the way the media grieved over the death of Tim Russert?

Let me say first of all that “I have nothing against Tim Russert,” said Jack Shafer in Slate.com. The longtime host of NBC’s Meet the Press, who died suddenly on June 13, was by all accounts a conscientious journalist and a good guy. Still, was his death “of such importance” that it merited a virtual state funeral and more than a week of nonstop coverage bordering on “canonization”? NBC, especially, turned Russert’s passing into “a never-ending video wake,” as a long parade of misty-eyed colleagues and friends spoke of his generosity, his skills as an interrogator, and his love of politics. After a day or two, frankly, there was nothing to add—yet with supreme self-indulgence, journalists continued to dwell on the death of one of their own. “Did the grievers really think Russert was so important, so vital to the nation’s course, and such an elevated human being that he deserved hour upon hour of tribute?”

You’re missing the point, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. Russert’s eulogies were so numerous and so glowing not because he was a journalist, or because he was famous and successful—but because he was a wonderful human being. We all grow up thinking that the world worships money and celebrity above all, but at the end of the day, and at the end of a life, it’s not so. The people who earn our “greatest tributes” are those who are generous, honest, and conscientious—who love their families, who never forget where they came from, who devote their lives to making the world a better place. “Tim had these virtues,” and by celebrating them, the media provided an important life lesson to everyone under 25.

Still, said James Poniewozik in Time, the media’s grief over Russert’s passing was not wholly motivated by admiration for a life well-lived. “Russert was one of the last giants of old-school journalism,” which is now watching its staffs being slashed, its advertisers fleeing, and its audiences leaking away to bloggers and YouTubers—“a diffuse army of the uncredentialed, uninhibited, and—most terrifyingly—unpaid.” The age in which a handful of supposedly objective voices of authority can dominate the national discourse is clearly nearing its end, as the boundary between blogs and mainstream media blurs, and the Russerts and Tom Brokaws are giving way to openly partisan pundits such as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. In mourning Russert, Old Media was mourning itself.

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