Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert

First impressions of individuals are often right; first impressions of countries are always wrong. Over the years I have steadily corrected my own first impressions of America - primarily by spending less time in New York and Los Angeles, both cities that reflect themselves rather than the nation. One particularly stubborn first impression was that American journalism was terrible. I thought their newspapers were flabby and their TV journalism with its pompous, square-jawed, neurotically barbered anchors was ridiculous. I also regarded Americans' sentimental idealisation of their journalists as laughable. I remember years ago watching, bewildered, a long TV obit of some hack who seemed to have done less than I had in my first week at the Wimbledon News, yet whose passing was being mourned as if he had been a combination of Jefferson, Lincoln and Oprah. Perhaps I was jealous. There was truth in all these observations, but I now see that they were trivial. The reality is that, as a whole, American journalism is much better than British. I say 'as a whole' because their newspapers were, indeed, flabby, complacent through lack of direct competition, now they are underfunded and in serious decline. But, when it comes to TV news, we are simply not in their class. Having spent seven weeks utterly absorbed by their coverage of the primaries, I have been quite unable to watch the political coverage on British television. It is, with a few exceptions. idle, inept and uninvolved. Worst of all, it is cheap. Any fool can sneer at politicians, any fool can ask difficult questions. That doesn't serve the story, it serves the hack's self-image. The true art is to do it so politely and with such charm, authority and deference that the politician has no choice but to answer. One man did this better than any other - NBC's Tim Russert.  He was a joy to watch and now he's dead.


  1. He was indeed a joy to watch. It is interesting that Yglesias thought he was a bruiser. That to me says volumes for how comparatively coarse our political discourse is.

  2. There are trashy US journos - and some excellent ones. The same point applies universally. I still find the NY Times drab. There is appalling gung ho TV news in the US (I still remember the news channels baying for blood before the invasion of Iraq). On the very significant other hand, America has an enviable number of heavier weight 'outlets' Vanity Fair, the Nation etc etc that we do not. The New Statesman and the Spectator cannot compete. Why don't we change that?

  3. A big difference as I see it is that Americans believe in their systema and want it to work well. Chris Matthews is as tough as Paxman, but more engaged. He worked for Jimmy Carter, but admired Reagan. One couldn't easily imagine a 70's Labourite speaking so warmly of Thatcher. Andrew Marr is pro-politics, as are the likes of Peter Riddell and Michael White. Most of the rest are sneerers. Why John Humphries is so lauded is a constant mystery to me. Any jackass can knock a barn down.

  4. any fool can ask difficult questions. That doesn't serve the story, it serves the hack's self-image.

    At last!

    As I have previously said on this site: I refuse to attend any interviews conducted by John Humphries. The man’s an ass, without doubt, the most disgraceful journalistic offering of all time.

    He seems to labour under the manic impression that an interview is some sort of third degree, in which the interviewee is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Time was when journalists were a medium. Conductors for the interviewee to air his views, and for the public to evaluate them. Never did they give any detail of the analytic method - beyond the facts essential for the evaluation of one’s opinion. Today’s proceedings come via some pigheaded motormouth who obstructs the minutes with the cheaply condescending insinuation of a public outrage, whereas the persons being interviewed can consider themselves lucky if they get a word in edgewise.

    Frankly, I do not care for Humphries’ (or Paxman’s) opinion, I want to know what the person interviewed has to say...


  5. Probably the best tribute from a Briton that Russert will receive. I'm so glad you saw and could appreciate him.

    Anonymous, the Nation may be a "heavyweight outlet" for news (with a very conservative bent), but Vanity Fair is a glossy fashion magazine that does do some good interviews of celebrities, but it's hardly a news outlet.

    Bryan, you are right about NYC and L.A. -- they reflect themselves rather than the nation. Try some of the smaller-sized cities. Each has its own flavor, but is definitely part of the American (rather than the international) palate.