Tim Russert and Broadcast News History

Tim Russert died a respected man. Just hours after the NBC News Washington bureau chief's fatal heart attack on Friday, his reverent colleagues (and many of his competitors) relayed anecdote after anecdote about Russert's reputation as an adored family man, friend and colleague. But more than his widespread amiability, which can be rare in Washington, Russert was considered a force in political news with few, if any, enemies. Even the politicians-repeatedly put on the spot by Russert's thorough research and civil interview style during his 17-year tenure as moderator of Meet the Press--expressed admiration and respect for him over the weekend.

Amid the encomiums, media historians are now at work assessing Russert's place in the history of broadcast news. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone discussed his legacy with Jack Hurley, a veteran TV journalist and vice president of broadcasting for the Newseum--Washington's museum dedicated to news history where Russert served on the board of trustees. Excerpts:

Newsweek: How will Tim Russert be compared to other respected and prolific political journalists [over the years]?
Hurley: I liken that question to trying to figure out the greats in sports in different eras. Things change over the years, the style of things that are asked, the time slots and how political people handle this. In the modern era, Tim ranks at the top. He was mostly known for [hosting Meet the Press], but he also ran the NBC Washington bureau, which is a big operation there. The combination of them both really puts him in the top echelon. [ABC's George] Stephanopoulos is very good. [CBS's Bob] Schieffer is excellent. They're the Big Three. But Tim really seemed to have a down-to-earth approach that seemed to allow him to elicit things that folks might not wind up telling other people. He just had a sense and his colleagues said that he got that sense by just studying and studying. He had a good discipline for study and digging.

Who would also be placed in that upper echelon?
The network anchors. I think Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. A lot of it has to do with longevity and exposure. The people who last a long time in these positions last a long time because the public likes them and believes them. The coverage of the death of Tim Russert on the front pages is similar to the coverage of Peter Jennings; they were both respected and admired and liked.

Looking at this history of Meet the Press, how did Russert's style differ from predecessors like Marvin Kalb and Lawrence Spivak?
Each of them was very good, but they were all very formal. [Tim] would smile a lot and laugh with them. It would put them at ease and put the viewers at ease. It wasn't a stone face asking a pre-prepared list of questions. He was much more conversational even when he was challenging people. He was much more conversational that any of his predecessors.

He came in an era when reporters were much more inquisitive. You wouldn't have seen journalists approaching an issue like a presidential candidate's health decades ago.
Absolutely not. Or him talking to Hillary Clinton about the situation with her husband.

Was that just how times have changed, or his knack for engaging whomever he was interviewing?
I think it was both. He asked the questions that the viewers would have asked. He asked what they wanted to know. In previous generations, a lot of the questions were what the news people wanted to know, what they thought someone else should know. Tim really had a knack for making people sitting at home say, 'Boy, I'm glad he asked that question.' Or if you asked people, 'What would you like to ask John McCain?' then that's what Tim would ask. He really had a knack for sensing what would interest the veiwers.

Brian Williams said the seven-story panel of the First Amendment at the Newseum was Tim's initial idea, and he was a strong backer of the museum. How rich was his sense of news and broadcast history?
He said it himself that he was in awe that he inherited the position he was in. He had a tremendous amount of respect for all of his predecessors. I think he truly at times was humbled that he was following in their footsteps.

What was unique that Tim Russert brought to the table?
He didn't come from a news background; he was an attorney. That may have helped him in the long run. He wasn't star struck or at all full of himself. He set a standard for fairness. He spoke about how his dad had instilled in him [the need] to be civil. If you watched on Sunday mornings as millions of people did, he never raised his voice. Occasionally there was frustration if somebody didn't answer a question, but he kept a civil discourse, even with people he really grilled, which he grilled evenly. Peggy Noonan said that to this day, she had no idea how he voted when he got into a voting booth. So I think, civility, homework and intelligence really were the watchwords.

Are those qualities that have now been lost?
He was a person of great intelligence and great influence. You lose someone that people believed was a very fair broker. It's a challenge for the next person. Fortunately, there's a lot of talent at all of the networks. Somebody will step in, but they'll be overshadowed for some time because they'll be compared to Tim Russert for a long time. I think it's lost someone they consider a truly honest person. I would say that most Americans found him believable. As tough as he was, he seemed to be able to weather any questions or criticisms levied against him. I don't recall any political figures ever questioning his integrity or his research.

What is the outlook, both at NBC and in political broadcasting, without him?
Well, the industry as a whole is lessened. There's only one Tim Russert. The program will go on. They will find someone who is qualified, but [that person] will still be measured against him. The challenge will be to maintain that number one slot. Those programs are very often personality-driven and he had a commanding personality. It really depends upon who they pick, but it will go on. What we won't know for some time is whether people will migrate because Tim is not there. But people are pretty loyal to their networks when it comes to Sunday shows.

Does Meet the Press play a unique role in the country's political dialogue, more so than other shows?
All of the Big Three on the broadcast networks play a very special role for everyone who wants to hear in-depth news and analysis. The nightly news can't go in depth; it hasn't for a long time. Meet the Press really was the model for all the rest. All three of the Sunday talk shows really do an excellent job.

Tim Russert was particularly prolific during this election season. How will things be different without him over the next few months?
Well, it'll go on. It won't be as rich, it'll take a while for it to seem as rich as it might have been. Moving on from him will be a Herculean task.