A cultural loss

In a classic ‘the dog ate my homework’ style, can I apologize for the lack of the last segment of the 200 Things You Simply Have To Know About New York list? I may or may not have written the vast majority of the final 50 points on a series of Post It notes, which were stuffed into my jeans pockets and subsequently thrown into the washing machine this weekend. I’d like to think that Charles Dickens, William Golding, Joseph Heller, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy had similar domestic appliance-related woes at various points during their writing careers. I know for a fact that the first draft of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ was almost entirely destroyed when his wife accidentally spilled hot water from the kettle as she attempted to make a cup of instant soup. These are the issues that face all writers at some point, I know.

So as you wait eagerly under your Google Reader feed for the final installment to drop merrily into view, I thought I should mention another writer – and one far better than I could ever dream of being. Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau news chief and host of ‘Meet The Press’, passed away on Friday after suffering a heart attack at work. The outpouring of tributes and emotion – whether from journalistic luminaries, politicians or the man on the street – suggests that this was a man whose ability to ask the difficult question and provide insight made him loved by all. Clearly Russert’s death has impacted a huge number of people.

It’s at times like this that I really notice that I’ve only been in the US for ten months. For while I know of Russert’s work, he hasn’t formed part of my cultural and journalistic upbringing for the last thirty five years in the way that, say, Michael Buerke, Sue Lawley or Kate Adie have. If Sir Trevor McDonald dropped dead tomorrow, there would (in the UK) be a tidal wave of tributes and sorrow which I would be able to understand given that Trevor’s news reports (not to mention his surprise Tiswas appearances) were a constant presence in my life from the age of about six. There is a very clear emotional attachment to these people that you invite into your house every night, and one that only time and repeated exposure can bring. But that’s a long way from happening for me with American newscasters, meaning that I can’t quite relate to the grief in the way that I might otherwise hope to.

In fact, such is the limited amount of TV that I watch at the moment given a move of country and job as well as the acquisition of a ready-made family, the only television stars that I might mourn the loss of would be Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colichio. ‘Top Chef’ is hardly ‘Meet The Press’, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

12 thoughts on “A cultural loss

  1. Brooklyn


    To use a traditional phrase for Mr. Russert, Zichron l’vracha, his memory be for a blessing.

    But,I respectfully dissent from the outpouring regarding his passing.

    I am an avid watcher of MSNBC, and liked Mr. Russert’s work, although I thought that, like all TV interviewers didn’t “go in for the kill,” hard or often enough when political knaves or scondrels sat in the other chair because I assume, he, like his brothers and sisters on the air, didn’t want to face an empty chair the next time the opening credits rolled. To the extent he was viewed as tough at all, it’s like if I were considered tall while among midgets, it was a matter of comparison only..

    Of course I agree that for his friends and families his death is a tragedy, like it would be for all our friends and families if we died and died suddenly. But what would be the coverage of our deaths irrespective of our personal virtues?

    But, the coverage of his death(which I expected) does not reflect the death of an Abraham Lincoln, a Winston Churchill, a Charles DeGaulle, a Jonas Salk, a Dr. Crick, but the media’s habitual obsession with itself and its own.

  2. Expat Mum

    Funny but my reaction to his death was complete shock and sadness. (Been here 18 years.) I watched him a lot and loved his ordinariness and the fact that he seemed without the usual guile or ego. I think the TV pundits recognise that they have lost a decent guy.
    I don’t think he was as “nice” to his guests as most other anchors, and let’s face it, this culture just doesn’t do the Jeremy Paxman type interview. The closest we get to any kind of tough interviewing is when those idiots on Fox decide to take someone down sound bite by shouting sound bite.

  3. Brooklyn

    Typically American in my insularity, but I do not know who Jeremy Paxman is or what is style is like, but please tell me if Mr. Russert ever asked Dick Cheney or any senior Bush official the following question and insisted on a direct answer:

    The Administration was advised that “torture” is conduct causing death or failure of a major organ. If I hit your hand repeatedly with a hammer to extract information, would that be torture? And if it would, do you disavow the torture memorandum’s definition?

    Oh, for the record, to correct errors in Post #1:

    Correction 1:To use a traditional phrase for Mr. Russert, Zichron l’vracha,may his memory be for a blessing.

    Correction 2:
    he didn’t “go in for the kill,”

  4. Paul Sheffrin

    Brooklyn, here for your enlightenment and for the entertainment of those who delight in this classic piece of BBC, here is Jeremy Paxman asking former Home Secretary Michael Howard about the circumstances leading to the resignation of the then head of the UK Prison Service.

    It illustrates perfectly how UK TV journalists are altogether far less deferential towards senior politicians, in my view, than their US counterparts. I make no judgment whether or not this is a good thing, but it sure does make good TV

  5. Brooklyn

    Thank you Paul. My view of US broadcast “journalists” is now even lower than it was before.

    They have a model, in English, for insisting that politicians give direct factual answers to direct questions, or at least say “I don’t know” or “I refuse to anwser” instead of lapping up spin and out and out BS like a cat laps up cream.

    US broadcast “journalists” simply do not have the guts, or have been neutered by their employers.

    At the very least, every Sunday interview show should be preceeded by a diclaimer containing a Paxman clip with subtitle “What you are now watching is a real example of a member of the press challenging the government; what will follow is a supine employee of our network lying on his or back before a politician.”

  6. Expat Mum

    I remember Paxman interviewing some despot a few months ago, (possible from Iran) listing all the charges against him and simply saying “Don’t you think that’s enough?” Brilliant. However, most of them still spin when they want to.
    BBC America Friday nights.

  7. Brooklyn


    “However, most of them still spin when they want to.”

    I’m not surprised. But the job of a journalist is to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes, not to force him to get dressed. It’s up to the electorate to decide if a naked emperor is acceptable.

  8. Q

    For the last few days anyone in the city who finds out I am originally from Buffalo clasps me on the shoulder, slowly shakes their head and sighs: “You lost a good one.”

    I would argue that Tim’s ability to be endeared by so many people (particularly cynical New Yorkers) is what made him a great interviewer. If he didn’t ask the hard questions the outpouring of respect for him would be severely lesser. Perhaps those who make the claim that he wasn’t tough enough are confused by an interviewing style founded on honesty and appreciation; not made on trickery or sensationalism that is, sadly, the common practice of so many others today. If you are in that number I would point you towards this obituary which better describes his technique and legacy.


  9. Brooklyn


    Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but the following query remains unanswered:

    Please tell me if Mr. Russert ever asked Dick Cheney or any senior Bush official the following question and insisted on a direct answer:

    The Administration was advised that “torture” is conduct causing death or failure of a major organ. If I hit your hand repeatedly with a hammer to extract information, would that be torture? And if it would, do you disavow the torture memorandum’s definition?

  10. Brooklyn


    Such a question is neither “trickery” nor “sensationalism.” It puts a flawed policy to the test of logic.

    And, I vigorously reject the implied claim that an interviewer should “appreciate” a member of the government during an interview. A journalist should not be a fan, and certainly not a “pal,” of the person he is interviewing if the interviewee is responsible for government policy. The sorry history of the last 7 years is more proof of that than one could ever want.

    The key attitudes towards a government interviewee should be skepticism and a distate for evasion and misdirection. Neither is incompatible with honesty or even courtesy if the evaded question is repeated calmly and quietly.

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