The Unbearable Inanity of Tim Russert

By Matthew Yglesias
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On May 27, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson appeared on Meet the Press hoping, no doubt, to get a question about Iraq policy. Richardson was advocating the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces, an important policy distinction at a time when his rivals all favored retaining a substantial "residual" presence in Iraq. Soon enough, the host of the show, Tim Russert, turned to the topic:

     On your Web site you say this: "Troops out in '07. We should get our troops out of Iraq this year. No residual forces left behind. We must remove all of our troops. There should be no residual U.S. forces left in Iraq." Now, I want to compare that to what you said in your book, Between Worlds, which just came out about eighteen months ago. You write this: "At this point ... we must see this mission through. We mustn't stay in Iraq past the point where the new government asks us to leave, but neither can we unilaterally pull out before the Iraqis have achieved control over their own internal security. We owe them the opportunity to make their democracy work. We must not undermine their efforts now." That's exactly what you're doing, undermining their efforts.

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Russert apparently meant this as a question. For some reason, we were supposed to be astonished that Richardson's view of what would be good policy in the spring of 2007 wasn't the same as his view of what would have been good policy in the winter of 2005. One imagines FDR getting a question about how he could favor the Normandy landings when he'd refused entreaties for operations in France just eighteen months earlier. "Now, I want to compare this invasion of France to what you said in your fireside chat in late 1942."

Still, Richardson made what he could of the opportunity, answering that things in Iraq had changed. "There's a civil war, there's sectarian conflict," he said. "I believe we must withdraw all our troops by the end of this calendar year with no residual forces because our troops today are a target." Richardson then began to explain his reasoning, "We are viewed—," only to be interrupted by Russert, who came up with, "To be sure—that's totally contrary to what you wrote in your book."

If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press, where newsmakers go to be grilled by one of television news's most respected figures. If moments like the above exchange between Russert and Richardson seem unhelpful—even ridiculous—to you, rest assured that Washington thinks otherwise. Tim Russert, it is said, is tough—supertough—and wily, too, like a knuckleball pitcher. As Jim Geraghty put it, "Every once in a while a Washington media institution really does matter, and Meet the Press is one of them." Why? "Because Tim Russert, without commercial interruption, will throw hardballs and curveballs for a solid half hour, and standard delaying tactics won't work." So Meet the Press thrives, delighting precisely the sort of person who doesn't realize that a hardball is a kind of ball whereas a curveball is a kind of pitch.

Actually, the balls Russert favors may be hard, but the pitches he throws aren't curveballs, which go someplace useful. They're sillyballs, which go somewhere pointless. Russert has created a strike zone of his own where toughness meets irrelevance. John McCain entered the zone last May, when he went on the show and repeatedly asserted that the Bush tax cuts had increased the federal government's revenue. Hearing this, a tough but conscientious journalist might have pointed out that this is demonstrably false. Russert, however, reached for a trusty hardball and sent it sailing. McCain, he pointed out, was now supporting extending the very same Bush tax cuts that he had once opposed.

Well, yes, but this was a bit like asking someone who says the world is flat why he used to say the earth was round. The contradiction Russert pointed out was real—but hardly central. In fact, if tax cuts actually had increased revenues, then McCain's change of heart would have been perfectly logical. The real problem was that McCain's theory of the relationship between tax rates and revenue wasn't true. In Russertland, though, as long as you acknowledge the contradiction, the questioner is satisfied. "You say the world is flat, but just three years ago you said it was round." "You know, Tim, yes, I used to say the world was round, but times change, and that's why I support the Bush administration's bill to construct a restraining wall to prevent ships from sailing over the edge of the sea." And so on.

Since I've complained that Russert unfairly cut off Richardson while giving Mc-Cain a backhanded sort of pass, you might suspect I'm accusing Russert of partiality. Not at all. Although Meet the Press may have a weakness for right-leaning guest panels (see Paul Waldman, "John Fund Again?" March 2006 Washington Monthly), the unbearable inanity of Russert transcends partisanship. It's an equal-opportunity bias against anyone with anything substantive to say.

Ask Fred Thompson, who appeared on the November 4 episode, in which Russert confronted him with the following press report: "At a campaign stop in South Carolina Wednesday, Fred Thompson said that the Iraqi insurgency is made up of a bunch of kids with improvised explosive devices,' and suggested that the appearance of losing to such an enemy would harm U.S. national security." Rather than take on Thompson's argument that allowing the insurgency to drive the United States out of Iraq would be too dangerous, Russert chose to focus on the word "kids" and accuse Thompson of trivializing the insurgency. That led to this exchange:

     MR. THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, that's, that's not exactly what I said. I mean, I don't minimize the fact that, that we've got terrorists coming in from Syria, from, from Iraq—I mean from Iran and, and other places, in Saudi Arabia, pouring in there. We, we have Sunni-Shia violence; there's no question about that. I've never disputed that. Al-Qaeda, although I think they're back on their heels now, still strong there, there's no question.

MR. RUSSERT: But you should not trivialize ...

MR. THOMPSON: And I said ...

MR. RUSSERT: You shouldn't trivialize [them] as a bunch of kids.

After all, what about the insurgent thirtysomethings? This is a helpful example of how a journalist can be useless to all parties. If you're a hawk and think Thompson was making a fundamentally sound point, then Russert, by going off on a trivial tangent, was undermining it unfairly. If you're a dove and think Thompson had a fundamentally unsound point, then Russert, by going off on a trivial tangent, was failing to undermine it properly. But just because you're pissing off both sides doesn't mean you're doing anything right. Maybe you're just being an all-around clown. Whoosh—into the strike zone.

Unfortunately, Russert's brand of journalism, rather than being ghettoized as a pointless or perverse form of entertainment—like shoulder self-dislocation or cat surfing—has immense influence. Russert is frequently a debate moderator during high-profile political races. His strengths were on full display during a Democratic debate on October 30, when Russert focused intensely on the question of whether illegal immigrants should have driver's licenses. It's true, of course, that some symbolic yes-or-no answers really do reveal something useful. But sometimes they don't. Driver's licenses don't fall under federal jurisdiction, none of the candidates were proposing any federal legislation to change that fact, and any state's driver's license policy is shaped in response to our dysfunctional national immigration policy. (In theory, a governor who supported building a border fence might nevertheless favor licensing illegal immigrants because they are already here.) In short, a yes-or-no answer on this issue would genuinely be misleading. But Russertism doesn't care about that. "Do you consider drowning preferable to stoning? Yes or no?" "Well, Tim, the problem is with capital punishment." "Yes or no?"

To say that such exercises offer no information would be unfair. But the information is purely meta. Viewers watch a candidate getting grilled by Russert not to assess the candidate's views but to assess his or her ability to withstand the grilling. And, when this sort of toughness and sparring becomes its own reward, the vacuity of the questioning is almost guaranteed. After all, if you asked a politician a serious, important question and got a perfectly good answer, then maybe, for a moment, you couldn't be tough. Instead, Russert relies on his crutch of confronting politicians with allegedly contradictory statements they've made—to highly monotonous effect.

Worse, Russert has a legion of imitators. At the same debate in which Russert harangued Democrats about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, audience member LaShannon Spencer came up with an intriguingly open-ended request for candidates to talk about the qualities they would look for in Supreme Court appointments. However, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux swiftly transformed this into a cliched question about "whether or not you would require your nominees to support abortion rights," even though everyone knows all the candidates are pro-choice. Under Russertism, that's a better question, because it's more likely to cause someone to stumble.

And that's really the game here. Russert's goal isn't to inform his audience. He's there to "make news"—to get his guest to say something embarrassing that lands in the next day's papers or on the NBC Nightly News. The politicians, in turn, go on the show determined not to make news. And why do they bother? Because, as Geraghty has noted, it's a rite of passage, and any politician too chicken to play Russert's inane games would never garner the respect of the political class. And then, seven days later, it all happens again like clockwork. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

   

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Matthew Yglesias is an associate editor of the Atlantic. His first book, Heads in the Sand, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in April.  
 
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