Monday, June 16, 2008

R.I.P. Tim Russert/F.O. Unctuous media mourners

Just finished watching the Tim Russert (1950-2008) “Meet the Press” tribute to the late, beloved moderator. I liked Russert and was raised not to speak ill of the dead. That means you’ll find nothing here but praise for Russert and his equally dead Buffalo Bills (2007 record, 7-9; overall since 1960, 355-388).

But his untimely passing and the Beltway reaction to it gives us a good opportunity to examine the ritual of journalistic deaths.

It was all on display this morning on the set of “Meet/Depress.” As host Tom Brokaw began to get weepy, my wife asked incredulously: “Aren’t they going a little overboard here? I mean the guy was great and everybody liked him, but it wasn’t like he was Walter Cronkite.”

Or even Harvey Korman.

She was miffed that the recent passing of Korman, the side-splitting straight man for Carol Burnett and the comic actor who played Hedley Lamarr in “Blazing Saddles,” didn’t receive as much attention as Russert.

I was surprised she was surprised.

I spent about five years in the newspaper business and have been an avid reader throughout my life. I’m convinced the only reason anyone stays in the business is that they’re assured a really snazzy obit.

I’ll never forget the day when the death of Pope John Paul II coincided with the death of a “curmudgeonly” long-time copy editor at one of the Pittsburgh papers.

Now, history will forever recall that JPII was one of the most celebrated and significant figures in the history of the Catholic Church, if not the entire world.

The curmudgeonly thrice-married copy editor -- and “curmudgeonly” is journalistic shorthand for “nasty coffee-breathed bastard” -- had spent a lifetime chasing errant commas, split infinitives and infuriating better informed writers by changing their carefully crafted leads until they had a near-libelous impact.

Yet many readers of the Pittsburgh paper that day could be excused if they’d read the front page and allowed, “What a lamentable day. The world’s lost two men of true greatness. Oh, how will we carry on without these two titans?”

Media people figure an elegant obituary is the best reward for a lifetime of low pay, terrible hours, public scorn and job security so tenuous that they’re all afraid to read the business pages of their own papers.

What’s happening with Russert -- watch Matt Lauer treat Russert’s son Luke like the Luke that knew Jesus on Monday’s "Today" Show -- is similar, but with that peculiar Beltway twist.

What’s particularly galling to me is that Russert, a truly outstanding journalist, is being eulogized on a panel featuring disgraced plagiarists Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I don’t understand how verifiable plagiarism is not the career death sentence in places specifically organized to promote journalistic integrity.

Included in the panel was James Carville and Mary Matalin, the repulsive reptilian couple that makes millions of Americans, both Republican and Democrat, dive for the remote whenever they’re reminded that they’re a couple.

The only thing missing was Don Imus.

He’d have fit right in sitting around Russert’s empty chair telling us how great he was, what a family man he was, how every president, senator, and congressman in the cozy circles they all run in are better because of Russert. And, implied is the message that, don’t worry, we’re all still here to carry on for him and take care of you simple folks out there in the great flyover.

Come on. Enough’s enough.

I mean, it’s not like the guy was Harvey Korman.

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