Rupert Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Veteran newsman Russert asked politicians for answers we needed

If you had to ask somebody who Tim Russert was following his untimely death last Friday, you don’t keep up with national politics very closely.

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Russert set the standard for television journalists. He was respected by competing journalists, whether print, electronic or e-journalists as well as the politicians whom he interviewed day in and day out, week end and week out.

Why should a Washington journalist’s death be news in the local rag circulating in and around Batesville, Mississippi?

He and his program, Meet the Press, which aired on NBC for more years than I can remember, set the stage for the week’s news cycle in the most powerful nation in the world.

If a sitting president had a program that he seriously wanted to get through congress, he or one of his top aides went on Russert’s program.

When Obama wanted the world to know he was serious about running for president, he went before Russert and took the grilling.

When one of the major political parties had a problem, someone high in their leadership went before Russert.

When Trent Lott was trying to save his political career after a faux pas, he went before Russert.

If you didn’t go on his show you probably had something to hide and if you did, you knew that he had done his research and was going to ask the hard questions.

Print journalists often don’t give electronic journalists much credit for serious journalism. We’ve seen locally how Memphis TV journalists seldom come to town to report and when they do its often following a disaster, tragedy or some event that gives us locals a black eye. They get their sound bite and video clips and leave, not returning until another sensational event occurs.

I often thought of TV newscasters as pretty faces reading a script–more of an act than serious journalism.

But in the 1980s this guy named Russert was doing the interviewing on Sunday morning’s Meet The Press. After watching the show I realized that he was the best interviewer in the business.

My admiration for him continued to grow and did others’ respect as the show continued to beat the competition and was mimicked by other networks. His show was the place to be on Sunday morning if there was a message to be spread.

Most know that journalism centers around the who, where, when, what, why and how of a story.

It’s the “why” and “how” that separates good journalist from bad and Russert was prepared for his interviews and although he probably knew the “why” and “how” of his interviews, he made kings, diplomats, congressmen and others say it on national television.

He put national politics on a level that “Average Joe” could understand while asking the questions that the American working class needed to know.

I really don’t know how the vacuum left by Russert’s early death will be filled. I hope that those representing this newspaper and other news mediums will strive to put out the “whys” and “hows” and keep our officials’ feet to the fire concerning the public’s business like Russert did on a national level.