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TV eulogies walk fine line

The death Friday of NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press Tim Russert was a shock to all. And while he was certainly revered and respected by colleagues, critics, viewers and interview subjects alike, the news coverage of his death surprised me a bit. Well, at least one part of the news coverage surprised me, and it raises some interesting ethical issues, including what is news.

Word of Russert's death broke when NBC stepped away from second-round coverage of golf's US Open for a "Special Report" around 3:30 Friday afternoon. With NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams half a world away in Afghanistan Friday, former anchor Tom Brokaw fronted the segment. ABC's Charles Gibson followed a short time later with his own cut-in during General Hospital. And for the rest of the afternoon MSNBC, CNN and FoxNewsChannel devoted their broadcasts to Russert's death. A satellite live shot established, Williams even led MSNBC's coverage until 4:30 p.m. ET when he turned things over to Keith Olberman so Williams could get ready for Nightly. None of that surprised me. After all, Russert had become an icon in journalism and politics. After all, he had hosted Meet the Press, the longest-running show in TV, longer than anyone. And his Election Night 2000 white boarding has become part of the 100 Most Memorable TV Moments and part of the Smithsonian. But what surprised me was that evening's broadcast of Nightly News

At 6:30 p.m. ET, Williams, reporting live from a US military base in Afghanistan, not the first story or the first block of the show to Russert. He devoted his entire 30-minute broadcast to his election coverage partner, save a 50-second commercial break, which included a promo for an hour-long tribute to Russert NBC planned to air Friday evening. There was no doubt Russert's death (he being a well-known, very public person, especially in this unprecedented election year) was going to be a big deal (it was the lead story on ABC's World News and The CBS Evening News Friday), but devoting an entire network newscast seemed a bit much, not just for Russert, but for anyone. I don't remember Peter Jennings's death a few years ago getting all 30 minutes of World News, and that was his show. CBS did not devote its entire newscast to Ed Bradley when the 60 Minutes correspondent died in 2006. Nor did NBC do this when David Bloom died while covering the opening days of the war in Iraq for the network back in 2003. Not even the death of Presidents Reagan and Ford, the Pope and Princess Diana received such premium coverage.

Russert died just days after Jim McKay, one of the founding fathers of sports broadcasting. McKay's death received just a few moments mention during ABC's coverage of the Belmont Stakes, and that's saying something considering McKay was the face of ABC Sports for 40-some-odd years and horse racing was his favorite sport. Granted, McKay has been out of the spotlight for years, unlike Russert. And while all the networks, especially ABC and ESPN spent time on tributes to McKay, they also realized there was other news of the day to consider, acknowledging that McKay's death, while significant, was just one of many stories to be told. NBC viewers learned nothing Friday evening of the devastating flooding in the Midwest or even why Williams was in Afghanistan.

I understand Russert's sudden death (at work, no less) certainly shocked, stunned and even traumatized his NBC News colleagues, but assigning seemingly everyone at the network to eulogizing him cheated the viewers. In fact, so many NBC correspondents were involved in the afternoon cable coverage, that I wondered who would wind up actually putting together the story for that evening's newscast. It turned out to be Pete Williams, who was one of the few reporters I did not see on MSNBC between 4 and 6:30 p.m. And while I as a viewer appreciated the insight into Russert as a journalist and person, did I really need to hear from newspaper reporters Mike Barnacle, Bob Woodward and Sally Quinn? Or how about Williams's live interview with Ethel Kennedy just moments after she got off a plane at Reagan International Airport in Washington? What was that?

The network newscasts are supposed to bring us the news of the day with the biggest impact. And while the death of someone many NBC viewers had come to know, appreciate, respect and even love was a big deal, it should not have overshadowed the fact that flooding threatened tens of thousands of people in the Midwest and their homes. Or that John McCain and Barack Obama (who did sound off on Russert's death) were continuing their presidential campaigns, the issue that Russert loved most. Or that all of us continue to face the effects of soaring fuel and food prices and a sagging economy. Surely all of those stories were in the works at NBC Friday before Russert's sudden death. There was no reason some of them could not have been part of Nightly News.

Tim Russert was a respected man and journalist who will be missed by many, especially those of us who appreciated his political perspective and analysis. But he was a devoted journalist who knew the show must go on and the news must be reported, and I think Russert himself would be embarrassed and a little disappointed that that did not happen Friday. Sunday morning's special edition of Meet the Press, Russert's show, his second son, his own son Luke called it, that was the apt tribute. That was the way to honor the man and his work.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo

Kevin - obviously you have offended

The Moynihan/Cuomo liberals.... I'm on your side on this one. You spend a few minutes remembering a friend, and you move on. A one-half hour schmooz-fest when people tuned in to see the world and national news was well over the top. As DeGaulle said, "The graveyards are full of indispensible men." Somehow, we survive and carry on.....

Russert Death

How sad, and pathetic, Russert's death is being politicized... "The Moynihan/Cuomo liberals..." The show was HALF AN HOUR!!! Doesn't he deserve 30 minutes?!?! If you didn't like it - you had the choice to change the channel. I appreciated what NBC did in this situation & felt it was entirely appropriate.

I DID change the channel

I watch the news to be informed, not to stand in adoration of the latest media-annointed super-star, even when post mortem as in this case. I also didn't realize that it was verboten to mention his political roots, considering the numerous pictures of him in the company (and employ) of Moynihan and Cuomo that were proudly flashed across the screen. Fly with the crows, get shot with the crows. I doubt that Russert's politics varied greatly from theirs, or he would have fussier about the company he kept. How soon will the Pope be cannonizing Saint Tim?

Russer Coverage

Just because it hasn't been done in the past - doesn't mean it was not the right thing to do. I, as a viewer, appreciated the coverage. I was grateful NBC Nightly News devoted the entire show to paying tribute to Russert. I remember thinking before the show started that I hoped they gave Russert the entire show. He deserved it.

I believe that you couldn't

I believe that you couldn't have been further off base with your comments. When Peter Jennings died, ABC covered it on the following day's GMA and World News. I believe that whole weeks' worth of World News was focused on his career. Then, they had a primetime news special. I'm sure that ABC News Now even covered it, as well. Was this too much from the network for which your employer is affiliated? It sounds like a double-standard to me. In addition, NBC did give their Nightly News and Today Show this treatment when David Bloom died while covering Iraq in '03 (Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and Soledad O'Brien anchored a special edition of Today while Tom Brokaw did duty on Nightly News and a primetime special on that Sunday; don't remember if Russert himself did a special "Meet The Press" on Bloom). Tim Russert's death was indeed a shock and the way that NBC paid tribute to him was not an ethical lapse by any measure of the imagination. It was human and what anyone else would have done (except for you, of course). NBC Employees and his closest friends reminisced from the first word of his death by Tom Brokaw right through this morning's "Meet the Press". Even his competitors on ABC, CBS, FOX News and CNN were affected so much by his death that their coverage focused on Mr. Russert's death (Campbell Brown, Larry King Live and Hannity & Colmes come to mind). This was a very public way for all of Russert's fans and viewers to properly grieve. Seeing previous "Meet The Press" episodes that aired on MSNBC and the number of specials aired, especially where he discussed his book "Big Russ and Me" served as an electronic form of visitation and reflected Mr. Russert's professionalism and showed why he had such a profound effect on the political and news scene that I'm afraid will never be seen again. Mr. Russert's death was very much the news as he made the news week after week during his tenure at NBC News. This news indeed made all of the other stories take a back seat, but we already knew about Afghanistan and the Midwest Floods beforehand. The Internet is here to read up on those stories and I guess you have a remote control to surf through the 500+ channel cable universe to hear about these stories if you really need this type of fix. I think any of us would have been proud to have such a huge outpouring of sympathy from our friends. Please show some respect!

Russert Obit

Respectfully, your comments regarding the breadth of the coverage of the Russert death are without base. The fact is Russert was a TV, political and journalism icon. Even competitors place him in the heirarchy of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite in journalism. An old Washington hand, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post and a doyenne of DC society, stated that no one in journalism had more sway politically inside the beltway than Russert. As for his television impact, in 2001 when Russert signed a new contract that would have him host MTP through 2012, it was estimated that MTP brought 50 million dollars annually to the GE bank. Further, all critics agree he revolutionized Sunday TV from a sleepy "throwaway" time period to one that has all the broadcast and cable nets jockeying for both revenue and respect. Finally, the shocking nature of his death at a young age, as opposed to Mr. McKay's passing which was not unexpected, made it a compelling news story. It was in all respects, therefore, a major news event that warranted the coverage it received.

eulogy

I think the coverage this past weekend for Mr. Russert was entirely appropriate given his stature in the news world and the shocking timing of his passing. I liked it very much.