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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


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