Russert's Death Closes a Big Window
I pretty much stopped watching the Sunday talk shows long ago, but on the rare occasions when I did -- when a promising candidate appeared or a Cabinet official showed up to explain a touchy policy -- it was to watch one of the few interviewers skilled enough to actually make national leaders move past their routine talking points. With Tim Russert gone, it's going to be far tougher for Americans to learn much from the people who run the government or those who aspire to.
Russert was a gifted journalist who had the broad knowledge and savvy to ask and pursue tough questions while rarely appearing confrontational. Sure, the subject could dodge a question or answer with a non-answer, but Russert's technique made it clear to those watching that they were watching acts of evasion.
Russert, with a blue collar sensibility rooted in his upbringing in Buffalo, N.Y., understood what all too many cynical interviewers these days do not -- that what happens in Washington can affect the day-to-day lives of Americans. Budget cuts, changes in programs and overly stringent regulation (or failure to enforce reasonable ones) can improve or worsen lives. Business are hurt or helped, pensions and retirement savings eroded or enhanced, health care is made more affordable or put out of reach, national security is strengthened or weakened.
Russert's real talent was delving deeply and coherently into complex issues and not letting people get away with blandishsments. And he did so by having a conversation. In an age when far too many interviewers, in print or broadcast, have what amount to their own set of talking points and move on from one question on their list to the next, Russert was the master of the followup. He actually listened to answers and moved his subject through the logic of their answer. He pointed out contradictions of policy or political stands and tried to ferret out potential consequences of a given action.
There are incredible and multiple benefits to this age of instant information and citizen journalists. Issues and points of view that might be missed can be exposed and aired over the Web in ways no one could have imagined even a decade ago. But I have huge fears that the skills of professional journalists, people who arm themselves with knowledge and experience, is slipping away -- especially on television and radio, the only media where Americans can actually see or hear their leaders forced to explain or defend their actions.
In other words, Russert and "Meet the Press" provided a window on Washington for Americans who wondered if following a particular course would help or hurt them, individually or collectively. They could hear an informed, nuanced and informative conversation and judge the answer for themselves. That's a rare and precious commodity these days, and unfortunately will be rarer still from this past Sunday on.