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NBC Lost More Than a Newsman

June 15, 2008

If it’s Sunday, it’s “Meet the Press,” as Tim Russert said so many times in his unmatched 16 { years as moderator of network television’s longest-running show.

Yet, without Russert, who died Friday at age 58, Sundays, “Meet the Press,” broadcast journalism and, certainly, NBC this political season won’t be quite the same.

“He was, without question, the most important, influential reporter in Washington, print or broadcast,” Chris Wallace, a “Meet the Press” alumnus who now anchors rival “Fox News Sunday,” said from D.C. “He had an authority I don’t think anyone else in this town had.”

Take that night early last month, when Hillary Clinton was routed in the North Carolina presidential primary and only eked out a victory in Indiana. Russert declaring the race for the Democratic nomination over became news itself.

“There was kind of a sense that if Russert says it, it’s over,” Wallace said. “That’s a big thing to lose, someone who had that kind of authority, that kind of credibility, not only in the media world but also in the political world.”

Russert, officially, was a senior vice president at NBC News, its Washington bureau chief, managing editor and moderator of “Meet the Press,” anchor of MSNBC’s “The Tim Russert Show” and NBC’s political analyst.

He was really NBC News’ anchor.

Not its anchorman, its anchor.

He kept NBC News grounded.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said, by e-mail, that if critics try to use Russert’s absence to further their attacks on NBC News “they can go to hell,” and that Russert’s “last e-mails to me were insistent that I keep fighting back.”

The network, which is wrestling with its identity as the opinions of its MSNBC hosts are used by critics to cast aspersions on its broadcast reports, has benefited from Russert’s perceived neutrality.

Without him, that counterbalance is gone.

Others will replace Russert in front of the camera and behind it, but no one except perhaps former anchorman Tom Brokaw is as well-regarded by viewers.

It was Russert who so often bridged the network’s broadcast and cable news outlet with his seemingly ubiquitous appearances.

He was the most visible link to NBC News’ past after Brian Williams succeeded Brokaw on “NBC Nightly News.”

And even as the voluble hosts of MSNBC generated criticism, Russert, a former Democratic operative, nearly always stayed out of the line of fire.

On Fox News Channel, Brit Hume said Russert initially was “regarded by guys like me who have never been anything but reporters with a little suspicion,” but he won them over.

Russert’s great lasting legacy is likely to be his role in saving the nearly moribund “Meet the Press” (which dates to 1947) and, probably, the Sunday-morning genre.

His stunningly simple idea was to confront politicians with earlier sound bites and direct quotes no longer in sync with current stances.

It’s a template commonplace today everywhere from “The Daily Show” to every political blog.

“He turned Sunday-morning talk shows into a first-rate lawyers’ cross-examination, and it gave Sunday-morning talk a whole new vitality and energy,” Wallace said.

Some of that vitality and energy died Friday with the Washington insider who never lost touch with his blue-collar Buffalo roots.

What NBC has lost, in what looks to be a hotly contested presidential race, is not only its chief guide, but perhaps its compass too.

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The last word: “You can’t measure productivity in hours and inches. I’m not sure where it gets you. We’re talking about talent. You can’t put a time and process meter on developing a good newspaper story.”

_Dean Singleton, chief executive of the famously lean and cost-conscious MediaNews Group Inc., on Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.’s earlier announced effort to evaluate the output of its newspaper reporters.

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Phil Rosenthal: philrosenthal@tribune.com

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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