If ever there were any truth to the superstition that Friday the 13th brings bad news, then Tim Russert’s untimely death today proves it. All of us who work in media mourn the passing of this giant in broadcasting. Russert wore many, many hats professionally and personally. He was the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, anchor of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and a regular on various MSNBC news programs, to name but a few of his reporting duties.
Russert took over “Meet the Press” from Laurence Spivak in 1991 and has been an agenda setter ever since. Spivak handed him a winning show and shared his four-part “secret sauce for making it great: learn everything about your guests position; take the opposite position in your own questioning; be persistent; and, always be civil.
With Russert at the helm, “Meet the Press” turned into a resounding powerhouse hour for anyone interested in politics in America. For those who live in Los Angeles, it airs at eight o’clock on Sunday morning. What a bracing way to wake up! No matter how late my Saturday night ended, I was always glued to my TV the next morning because I craved my weekly fix. I knew the guests would be excellent; the discussions, stimulating; Russert’s research and background information would be impeccable and come from a variety of sources; and he wouldn’t shy away from confronting anyone who
shirked his hard-hitting questions.
Russert’s colleagues around the world respected him because he was fair. He kept his personal views to himself and never injected personal bias into his work. While he was clearly considered an “A-list” guest himself, Russert took great care not to succumb to the glamour of Washington by hobnobbing with his interviewees. Through the act of maintaining a professional distance from his subjects, he upheld the time-honored, although steadily diminishing, gold standard in news reporting: impartiality.
As moderator, Russert prepared for each interview as though going into battle ... he never threw any low blows or blindsided a guest, but expected to joust with them, challenging headlining men and women on both sides of the aisle to support their public positions. In an era of triviality, he focused on the big stuff and held his guests accountable for their own actions and words.
All the while, he held true to the Spivak recipe: he was persistent and tough, but a gentleman all the way. If a guest insisted on not answering a question and politicians are legendary for using double talk to avoid saying anything Russert would push the question forward and spar until his guest simply dug in his heels. Perhaps disappointed, but never undaunted,
“Meet the Press’s” diplomat would it call it a draw and then graciously move on to parry and thrust again on yet another subject.
This larger-than-life lover of life clearly relished his work and valued his guests, but he didn’t worship them. He chose to spend his off-duty time in the company of his beloved wife and adored son. Or with his father, “Big Russ,” whom he revered. In doing so, he taught us some powerful lessons about boundaries between work and life, and ultimately, what really matters.
And by suddenly passing away at the age of 58, gracious, genial, inquisitive and exuberant Tim Russert forces us to face the ultimate questions: how do we account for our days on this earth? What do we do to contribute to the well-being of our loved ones and the world around us? Do we leave this place better than we found it? Because life is short, earnest and unpredictable.
Michael Levine is the founder of the prominent PR firm LCO-Levine Communications Office based in Los Angeles (http://www.lcoonline.com ) and is the author of 18 books.
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