Newscasters show us grief every day. Hurricane victims, plane crashes, war. But last Friday afternoon, they began broadcasting their own. As word spread that Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert had been stricken with a fatal heart attack, voices started cracking all over the cable-news spectrum. You could see Russert’s on-air colleagues digest the raw news of his death in real time. There was obvious shock in Tom Brokaw’s eyes when he appeared on NBC to break the story with a special bulletin at 3:30 p.m. EDT, leaving the clearly shaken Andrea Mitchell and Keith Olbermann to absorb the news on MSNBC for the rest of the day. At one point in the afternoon, Mitchell actually crumpled into sobs on live TV while recalling how Russert had nicknamed her “Mitch.”
It was a sad day, to be sure, but also, frankly, a little jarring, watching all these TV personalities famous for keeping their cool through floods and terrorist attacks and other disasters so totally lose it. It went on for much of the weekend, and not just on MSNBC; CNN and Fox News also devoted huge swaths of airtime to reminiscing about Russert’s career and rerunning loops of condolence videos from presidential candidates and other public figures (both Obama and McCain expressed sorrow and claimed Russert’s friendship). The coverage made Russert seem more like a slain head of state, or a princess killed in a car accident, than the burly 58-year-old newsman who turned up every Sunday morning looking like an unmade bed to interview cabinet members and senators on TV’s longest-running public affairs program. For a guy much of the apolitical television audience has probably never heard of, it was quite a send-off. (Pictured, on Sunday’s tribute episode of Meet the Press, are pundits James Carville, Mary Matalin, Mike Barnicle, and Brokaw.)
Still, maybe it was appropriate. Inside the cathode-tube beltway —among those few million wonksters who regularly watch politicalcoverage on the cable-news networks — Russert was a giant. Since hetook over Meet the Press in 1991, enduring his inimitablegrilling style (which usually involved him digging up old quotes thatdirectly contradicted the guest’s current policy positions) has been arite of passage for every politician with an eye on the White House.His election night pronouncements have become the stuff of legend —like when he predicted that the key to the 2000 race would be “Florida,Florida, Florida” (and jotted it down on a white board just in caseanybody missed it). It’s also now clear that Russert was a charismaticcharacter off camera, as well, a mentoring figure to half the folksreading the news on cable TV these days, judging from all the impromptuon-air tributes over the weekend. Whatever his Q-rating with thenon-political public, the man was obviously genuinely loved by hispeers.
And that, to be cold-hearted and analytical about it, is what madewatching cable TV these past few days so riveting. Usually when we getbad news on TV, the newscasters are there to buffer the shock andprovide enough safe space so that we’ll keep on watching. This time,though, the bad news was about one of their own. And you could see thehurt all over the screen.