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Tim Russert (1950-2008)

What does Tim Russert have to do with basketball, not to mention women’s basketball?

As I spent some time perusing the many articles remembering Russert, I got the impulse to see if he had ever had a Meet the Press episode about the Don Imus incident.

I had forgotten that Russert was actually one of the more prominent figures tangled up in the Don Imus controversy as a long time friend and frequent guest on Imus in the Morning.

Two days after the incident, Russert chose to keep his scheduled appearance on the show -- on the same day of Imus’ apology – despite critics calling for Imus to be fired.

As I did more digging, it occurred to me that Russert’s response to the Imus incident – arguably a low point for both of their careers – speaks volumes about Russert as a journalist and a person…for better or worse. And I think one of the best ways to honor people in death is not to hide controversy, but find a way to represent their life as fully and honestly as possible.

High Praise

On the day of Russert’s death, journalists from across the political spectrum lauded him for passionately representing his Catholic, working class, Buffalo, NY roots in his work. He did his best to represent what people like his father, an old truck driver, wanted to know about politics.

He’s been described as persistent but gregarious, tough but fair, idealistic but the closest thing to objective in a world of sound bytes and spin. He was a well-intentioned man in the harsh and unforgiving world of television, a world where good intentions alone don’t get ratings.

Honestly, I was rather indifferent to Russert as a journalist. Some might complain that he booked more conservative guests than liberals, but to quote my dad while he watched the 2000 Republican Convention, "You must know thy enemy." I also appreciated the way Russert challenged guests to face their own hypocrisy, although it occasionally felt like cheap shots for some and enabling for others.

Imus Discussion on Meet the Press

Eventually, I found that Russert did in fact dedicate 30 minutes of Meet the Press to the Imus incident and had a reasonable panel to discuss it. One of the panelists, Gwen Ifill, directly challenged Russert during that show. Russert’s response to Ifill says a lot about what he stood for and believed in (transcript here):

There were passionate, emotional debates within, within were aware of that. And yet, I thought it was important and helpful because it was civil as people worked their way through it. I don’t think anyone felt that what Don said was defensible, including himself. I mean, I feel profoundly sad for the team. They went to the pinnacle of the basketball, into the finals, and this is what they had to talk about all week.

I also feel sadness for Don Imus and his wife and his family. I think he said a terrible thing. I think he regrets it. She’s a former college athlete. They’ve done a lot of good things for a lot of good people. And I think the discussion was not whether or not he said something terrible or offensive, but what should be the magnitude of his punishment, which I think is a fair discussion to have.

Whether we applaud or detest Russert’s response to Ifill’s challenge, that moment seems to capture the spirit of both the praise and the criticisms that he has received in death.

What I think we all have to appreciate about Russert is that he believed so strongly in the power of dialogue to seek "truth" that he worked as hard as he could to create a public forum that he thought would benefit all of us. Throughout the interview, he wasn’t just playing devil’s advocate -- he was asking all the questions that mainstream U.S. society was wondering about but afraid to ask.

For me, Russert’s handling of the Imus incident demonstrates his faith in the democratic ideal and optimism that we can create a stronger democracy through dialogue and reconciliation. Rather than dismissing that idea as idealistic, I see this as an opportunity to re-examine that ideal in a society filled with injustice. And that includes working to make sure that the next generation of young women doesn't have to suffer the same type of indignity by discussing it publicly.

Was Russert overly idealistic? Of course. Did he represent the full spectrum of political positions equally? No, though he represented the mainstream consciousness better than anyone else, for whatever that’s worth. But were his beliefs, faith, words, and actions consistent? I say, yes. And not all of us can claim the same. And when I look at it that way, Russert's death is a major loss to society but a reminder to keep looking for ways make this a better society to live in.

Transition Points:

Gwen Ifill wrote an excellent piece posted on the Root (retrieved via The New Republic) about the Imus incident and her appearance on Meet the Press:
Tim remained a friend to the end. Even when we disagreed – as happened during the infamous Don Imus episode last year – he never stopped wanting to hear what I thought. Imus was his friend, and he had appeared on the radio show many, many times. So when Meet the Press producer Betsy Fischer called to invite me to participate in a Sunday roundtable focused on the controversy, I at first refused.

I felt compelled to call Tim and explain. If I come on your show, I told him, I will be forced to criticize the journalists who had enabled Imus over the years, leading up to his stunning insult of the Rutgers basketball team. Tim knew – and I knew – that Imus had insulted me too, years before. When I told Tim I didn't feel I could come to his house and insult him, he quickly assured me that he wanted me to come and say what I had to say. People needed to hear it, he told me.

So I went, and I told him to his face that I found his defense of Imus disappointing. I got a lot of kudos for speaking truth to power that day, but the real news was that Tim allowed me to say what I had to say, knowing it would not make him look good. That does not happen a lot – in life or politics.

Relevant Links:

NBC’s Tim Russert dies of heart attack at 58

Meet the Press Transcript for April 15, 2007

Whoa. Tim Russert Died Today.

Gwen Ifill Calls Out Russert, Brooks For Their Silence On Imus

Tim Russert - The Other Side

Martin: Imus might be spark for debate on sexism
Now is the time for this nation to undergo a direct examination of the depths of sexism. My media colleagues shouldn't go just for the easy target ­ rap lyrics. That is no doubt a logical next step, but sexism is so much deeper. It is embedded in our churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, Fortune 500 companies and in the political arena. We should target our resources to this issue and raise the consciousness of people, and expose the reality.