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CONCERNING THE WORK! Put the novels aside! Matthews and Klein raised actual points about Russert’s actual work: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JUNE 19, 2008

VOUCHING FOR VOUCHERS: It’s sometimes odd to watch the way education issues get reported. Latest question: How well is the DC schools’ voucher program working?

In Tuesday’s Post, Glod and Turque reported a federal study of that question. Opening paragraph: “Students in the D.C. school voucher program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than public school peers, a U.S. Education Department report said yesterday.” The headline on their report said this: “Federal Report Finds Little Gain From School Vouchers.”

It sounded bad. Until we read the Post’s editorial on the same subject that day, which seemed to suggest the program might just be having success. The headline: “Though not conclusive, promising new data are reason enough to keep D.C.'s vouchers program going.” The editorial was built around a piece of data Glod and Turque hadn’t mentioned:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/17/08): The report released yesterday by the U.S. Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences covered only 19 months of students' participation in the program. Accordingly, it found no statistically significant difference in test scores overall between students who were offered a scholarship and students who were not. But researchers reported an encouraging trend. Specifically, 88 percent of participating students are reading two to four months ahead of children who did not receive a scholarship. It is hard, as institute director Grover J. Whitehurst noted, to positively drive reading results, so the findings are significant.

As noted, gloomy gusses Glod and Turque didn’t even mention that stat. (Warning: It strikes us as an odd type of stat.} They did state a basic methodological point more clearly than the editors did: “The congressionally mandated study...compared the performance and attitudes of students who had scholarships with those of peers who sought scholarships but weren't chosen in the lottery.” What that means: The ambitious kids who got the vouchers aren’t being compared with DC kids as a whole. They are only being compared with a group of similar strivers.

Is the glass “half-full” or “half-empty,” the editorial semi-wondered. In Tuesday’s Post, it was both.

Special report: Novels, all the way down!


PART 3—CONCERNING THE WORK: As we’ve long noted, your modern “press corps” doesn’t breathe without constructing (saccharine) novels. After yesterday’s memorial service for Tim Russert, the novels were flying around thick and fast—and they were quickly memorized. Obama and McCain even sat together! (Tim was bringing us together, even in death.) A beautiful rainbow had appeared in the sky! “The mystics will make something of this,” Matthews said. But the “journalists” beat them to it.

The novels were flying around thick and fast. Indeed, pundits felt more free than usual to recite the silly, self-flattering novels they tell themselves, in private gatherings, about the magnificent ways of We Irish. Long ago, we told you that Don Imus had achieved “honorary Irish” status at NBC News. Howard Fineman has long enjoyed that status too. Yesterday, he recited a silly, insider novel explaining Russert’s vast brilliance:

MATTHEWS (6/18/08): We`re joined right now by my pal, MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman of Newsweek. Howard buddy, I’m feeling warm. This is something else. You and I were talking the ethnic piece today. Tell me your reactions to what you’re seeing here.

FINEMAN: As an insider, but an outsider, it struck me for a long time covering politics that politics in America is basically an Irish-Catholic enterprise. I can say that. Maybe you can. I thought everything about Tim represented that; the speech, the gift for gab, the love of argument, the Jesuit thinking, the political organizing. Tim was the very embodiment of that in modern times.

MATTHEWS: The blarney.

FINEMAN: Well, the blarney and the focus. He took it from politics, which he mastered at a young age as they were talking about in here today. How he wired the CYO and went with Moynihan and Cuomo.

MATTHEWS: And how he got out of all those jams he was in.

FINEMAN: Get out of all the jams that he got into and out of. And then he moved out over to journalism, he took the Jesuit training and the love of politics that only Irish-Catholics fully understand for some reason.

Only Irish-Catholics “fully understand”—maintain that brilliant “focus!” And yes, these people are so fatuous that they semi-believe this. Although, in the normal course of affairs, they keep their silly, self-flattering novels about their own ethnic groups to themselves.

Much more of these novels tomorrow—going back to that remarkable discussion by Chris, Mike and Pat Monday night.

The novels were flying around thick and fast—but with his comments, Fineman touched upon the greatest novel of all. That’s the novel pundits have offered about the brilliance of Russert’s work. Everyone knew to recite this tale, even when it didn’t really make sense.

Gene Robinson had already done the deed in Tuesday’s column. In his piece, he puzzled over “the magnitude of the reaction to [Russert’s] death, especially among people who never met him.” For the most part, we were asked to accept on faith the claim that the public reaction was “huge.” In this passage, Robinson tried to explain it:

ROBINSON (6/17/08): But why such a huge reaction? I think it's not just because of who Russert was, but also because of the role he carved out for himself as a kind of ombudsman—the mediator not only of a television show but of a weekly dialogue between the public and the political establishment

In an age of postmodern irony, there was nothing remotely postmodern or ironic about Russert—or for that matter about his television show. His "Meet the Press" presented the nation's political discourse as we would like it to be: sober yet good-natured, always civil, scrupulously informed. The show flattered guests and their subject matter by taking them seriously and, by extension, flattered the millions of viewers who reliably tuned in every Sunday morning by taking them seriously as well.

Everyone has said these things: Russert was preternaturally civil and brilliantly well-informed (more often rendered as “well-prepared”). Yet we wondered what Robinson actually meant. Who exactly isn’t “civil” to guests on Sunday morning programs? Has Schieffer been trash-talking big pols again? Haven’t we frequently seen Stephanopoulos reciting McCain’s slogans for him? And which Sunday host is so poorly-prepared that Russert truly does stand out, in the way all pundits have claimed? Which Sunday show doesn’t take its “guests and subject matter” seriously? Has Wolf Blitzer been showing cartoons again?

In fact, the biggest novel this week has been the one about Russert’s work. No, Russert didn’t behave like a fool on a daily basis, as people like Chris Matthews have done. Indeed, some of his work was perfectly fine, with little to cause an objection. But much of Russert’s work was quite average, and some of his work was really quite bad. But so what? Every pundit knew the fable, and pundits stood in line to recite it: Russert was brilliantly well-prepared; Russert was wondrously fair to all comers. Sometimes the novels went way round the bend: Russert cared about the truth so much because he was trained by the Jesuits.

Once we break the spell of these tales, we find it hard to know what these pundits are talking about. When has Russert displayed these vast skills? What has he done for us lately? Yes, he had a few memorable sessions early on—with Ross Perot in early 1992, for example. (Though few have ever gone back to examine it.) But can anyone cite a recent case in which Russert truly got to the heart of some serious problem? In which we really learned something from him? Can anyone cite a recent case in which Russert performed with great brilliance? We don’t mean this as a criticism: But Russert was no more “civil” on Meet the Press than Schieffer was on Face the Nation. Was he really better-prepared than his peers? It makes a very pleasing tale. We just don’t know why to believe it.

Whatever! While everyone yodeled the flattering claims, a few people poked at the truth.

One such person was poor hapless Matthews, uncontrollably stating his view to Keith Olbermann last Friday night. It was perhaps the wrong time for such ruminations. But mere hours after Russert’s death, Matthews told Olbermann what he’d been thinking about his colleague and friend. We think his comments take us close to the actual truth about Russert’s real work. What Matthews says here is very important—and it’s profoundly unflattering to Russert. You still can’t find it on Nexis:

MATTHEWS (6/13/08): One other thing, and it may be tricky to say this and I’ll say it. When we went to war with Iraq, he and I had a little discussion about that and this is where he is Everyman. This is where Tim is Mr. or Miss America or Mrs. America. He is us as a country. I said, Why—how can you believe this war is justified? And he said, “The nuclear thing. If they have a bomb that they can use, we’ve got to deal with. We can’t walk away from that.”

And that to me was the essence of what was wrong with the whole case of the war. They knew the argument that would sell with Mr. America, with the regular guy, with the true American patriot. They used the argument that would sell, that would get us into that war. Tim was right on the nail. He was us, the American people. And that to me is something that has been coming in my head the last couple of hours when Tim and I had that conversation, that that was the thing that sold America. And the guys who wanted the war used that one thing that would sell the patriot in Tim Russert.

And as a journalist, he was also an American. I think we’ve got to always remember because when people watch Meet the Press and they watch Nightly News and they watch us—you and me, Keith—they expect us to look up to the country and to look out for it, in terms of finding the truth. Find the truth for us. There’s a purpose to finding the truth.

It’s for the good of us all and Tim never forgot the purpose of truth in getting at it was the good of us all. We needed the truth. And boy, did I look up to him.

“We needed the truth,” Matthews said, back-pedaling furiously in praise of Russert. Moments earlier, he’d said that Russert had been a dupe—a stooge; a mark—for those who toyed with the truth in the run-up to war in Iraq.

Russert was “Everyman,” Matthews said. Because he was “Mr. America”—“the true American patriot”—the Bush Admin was able to sell him a big pile of disastrous bull-roar. According to Matthews, “the guys who wanted the war used that one thing that would sell the patriot in Tim Russert.” His colleague Russert got sold, Matthews said. Russert got played. Like a dupe.

Matthews, of course, is describing a private discussion. There’s no proof that this discussion occurred—and as far as we know, Russert didn’t express his views about these matters on the record. But did Russert really get played, as embellishments led us to war in Iraq? You don’t have to rely on Matthews. Who can forget the embarrassing exchange Russert had with Bill Moyers, just last year? Had Russert been duped by the war machine? Fairly plainly, Moyers was asking—and as he answered, Russert made one of the most embarrassing statements a big journalist ever has made:

MOYERS (4/25/07): Critics point to September 8, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times. And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the New York Times. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

MOYERS (voice-over): Bob Simon didn’t wait for the phone to ring.

Has any journalist on this level ever embarrassed himself so badly? Russert complained that no one called him with the actual skinny. As he continued, Moyers compared Russert’s passive conduct to the work of CBS’s Bob Simon, who somehow managed to air a report casting doubt on the nuclear claims. Simon hadn’t been sitting around hoping the phone would ring:

MOYERS (continuing directly): You said a moment ago when we started talking to people who knew about aluminum tubes. What people—who were you talking to?

SIMON: We were talking to people —to scientists—to scientists and to researchers, and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start.

MOYERS: Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 Minutes?

SIMON: No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called.

MOYERS: And you just picked up the phone?

SIMON: Just picked up the phone.

MOYERS: Talked to them?

SIMON: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras.

MOYERS (voice-over): Few journalists followed suit.

Simon sought—and obtained—information. Russert, massively more influential, seemed to say that he just sat around, hoping his phone would ring. Scripted pundits avoid this embarrassment when they speak about Russert’s great preparation—about his abiding love for the truth, which only We Irish truly possess. But if Russert’s concern for the truth seemed shaky in that part of his session with Moyers, the aforementioned “blarney” was still in place. If we want to be honest, we have to say this: For good or ill, Timothy Russert never stopped selling his self-pimping blarney—the blarney which helped make him such a big star. At one point, in a bit of obscene self-promotion, Russert interrupted this life-and-death discussion to hand this pure blather to Moyers:

RUSSERT (to Moyers): Look, I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo. I know who my sources are. I work them very hard. It's the mid-level people that tell you the truth.

“I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo!” If we’re going to be honest, we have to say this: Russert presented this self-promotion in every conceivable situation. This was not a good thing about Tim. This conduct was really quite bad.

Why didn’t Russert make those calls? We can’t tell you. According to Matthews, Russert’s “Everyman/Mr. America patriotism” made him a bit of a dupe for the claims of the war hounds. But then, Russert bought the pseudo-conservative company line on many large aspects of modern politics. He bought the company line on Social Security—pretty much made it his pet issue—and he relentlessly pimped the issue, in grossly misleading and incompetent ways, over the past dozen years. Then too, he pretty much bought the company line about who “the phonies” were. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw said Russert knew who “the phonies” were because his blue-collar dad would tell him. (Yes. He actually said that.) But it was always fairly clear who Russert thought the phonies might be. Last Saturday, Joe Klein, to his credit, discussed this part of Tim’s work:

KLEIN (6/14/08): Tim was boggled by [Bill] Clinton, impressed and appalled by him. The only real differences we had in 30 years of friendship were over his treatment of both Clintons, which I thought was occasionally too sharp—and had its roots, I believed, in the strict lessons about sex and probity he'd learned from the nuns (which he often joked about). Our last conversation, sadly, was an argument over that.

Russert was “appalled” by Bill Clinton, Klein said. Klein’s specific complaints about Russert’s work are rather muted mute—but he deserves credit for offering anything like a real assessment of Russert’s actual work. But let’s see: Matthews called Russert a dupe on the war—and Klein said Russert was “appalled” by Bill Clinton, due to his Irish Catholic upbringing. But then, Russert’s attitude toward the Clintons—and, alas, toward Candidate Gore—seemed fairly clear through the years.

Company hacks will never discuss it. But in the initial reports of Russert’s death, a few small glimmers of truth crept in. In the Post’s report of Russert’s death, Howard Kurtz recalled an incident:

KURTZ (6/14/08): At times he could be a lightning rod. Russert moderated a 2000 Senate debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, and drew criticism for pressing the then-first lady about her trustworthiness after she had blamed charges about her husband's infidelity on their political opponents.

While politicians in both parties praised Russert as a fair-minded inquisitor, some liberal critics complained that he reserved his toughest questions for Democrats.

In fact, Russert’s conduct at that debate drew very sharp criticism, even in the Buffalo News. (Columnist Mark Sommer: “Not long into the debate, the Meet the Press host and South Buffalo native leveled an astonishingly cheap shot at Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.” More below.) But then, when Jim Rutenberg reported Russert’s death in the New York Times, he reported a similar possible flaw with Russert’s astonishing fairness:

RUTENBERG (6/14/08): Some liberal press critics said Mr. Russert was too soft on the administration and, at times, pointed to him as a symbol of the coziness between reporters and their sources. Mr. Russert loved politics and would say he viewed them as noble.

In his off-camera life, Mr. Russert did treat some of those he covered like friends when he crossed paths with them at the Palm steakhouse or at dinner parties...

But Mr. Russert was ambitious, refusing to take no for an answer from presidents and senators and pushing NBC to extend the program to a full hour. His top-dog status this year, his 10th in first place in popularity ratings, made him something of a target. The Columbia Journalism Review featured an online ''RussertWatch,'' a critical eye on his coverage. The Clinton campaign sometimes viewed him as a longtime hostile presence on television.

Really! The Clinton campaign viewed Russert “as a longtime hostile presence?” The pundits who have rattled Press Novels haven’t been mentioning wrinkles like that. But it’s much as Klein said, except a bit more so: Though Russert didn’t played the perpetual fool in the manner of a Chris Matthews, he sometimes seemed to be chasing the Clintons—and Candidate Gore—rather hard.

How bad was Russert’s work in this area? His interview with Candidate Gore in July 2000 remains the worst hour we’ve ever seen from a broadcaster. But then, his performance in last year’s October 30 debate was almost surely the worst performance in presidential debate history. Meanwhile, that first half-hour of the May 25 Meet the Press was taken straight from the Brezhnev playbook. Russert didn’t play the fool on a nightly basis, the way Matthews does. But Joe Klein’s comment is well worth perusing—just as Matthews’ was.

Town criers stood in line this weekend to hand you the company line about Tim. For ourselves, we have little doubt that Russert was deeply decent and generous, as a person. But when it comes to Russert’s work, Matthews and Klein suggested a much less flattering picture. Others know about these problems—but they happily lie in your faces. They happily lie to the little people they say their colleague loved.

In the past week, pundits have painted a ludicrous picture of the press conduct of the past twenty years. What really happened when Tim met Jack Welch? When that kid from Buffalo moved to Nantucket? On Monday, Chris, Mike and Patrick semi-discussed it. Trust us—here in the heart of the Brezhnev era, few other big pundits will.

TOMORROW—PART 4: It’s what We Irish do so well, Chris, Mike and Patrick agreed.

THE NUNS MADE HIM DO IT: We hope it’s true! We hope Joe Klein did argue with Russert about his Clinton/Gore-trashing. According to Klein, Tim’s attitude “had its roots, I believed, in the strict lessons about sex and probity he'd learned from the nuns.” Unfortunately, Jack Welch went out and built a news network which was suffused with those values and attitudes. Lesson: It’s a very, very bad idea to build an ethnic news network.

For the record, here’s part of the way Mark Sommer described Russert’s conduct in that Clinton-Lazio debate. Seven years later, Russert would team with fellow “Lost Boy” Brian Williams—and the boys would beat on Clinton in a way which was much, much worse:

SOMMER (9/18/00): Before the start of last week's nationally televised Senate debate in Buffalo, moderator Tim Russert lectured the audience at WNED-TV studio on the need to act respectfully toward the two candidates.

It's too bad he couldn't follow his own advice.

Not long into the debate, the "Meet the Press" host and South Buffalo native leveled an astonishingly cheap shot at Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Russert dredged up footage of an interview she gave on the "Today" show in January 1998, which aired shortly after reports of the Monica Lewinsky scandal first surfaced. Then he asked if Clinton "regretted misleading the American people." Not that there seemed to be a need to ask the question, since Clinton has already answered similar questions before.

Like a bull in a china shop, Russert proceeded to challenge Clinton to "apologize for branding" anyone who had criticized the president as part of " 'a vast right-wing conspiracy' " (which misrepresented her original statement that had alluded to an orchestrated effort).

The problem is that there was no need for Russert to revisit the sex scandal. It seems only TV news—where the line between legitimate and tabloid news coverage grows blurrier by the day—never grows tired of it. However, Russert could have at least raised the issue—and its painful consequences for Clinton—with greater sensitivity and tact. But he didn't. Instead, he chose pyrotechnics over illumination, sensationalism over substance.

That's because Russert knew his bottom feeding approach guaranteed headlines—even if it did so by taking the focus of the debate between Clinton and Republican rival Rick Lazio away from the needs of Western New York.

Russert's "Monica" questions stood in stark contrast to the questions posed by The News' political reporter Robert McCarthy and WGRZ-TV anchorman Scott Levin. Their questions concerned issues people in Western New York are concerned about, such as the upstate economy, education and affordable health care.

Much of that is opinion, of course. But seven years later, Russert moderated another debate with Clinton—and his performance was massively worse. Throughout the past week, all the stooges agreed to pretend that they knew nothing about this.

The nuns made him do it, Klein opined. Others recited silly novels—this kind this small mafia loves.