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A Proper Farewell for NBC Newsman

June 19, 2008

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

Jun. 19–A TV wake of six days and five nights for NBC newsman Tim Russert came to an end yesterday with a moving memorial service on cable channel MSNBC. Aptly representative of the arc of Russert’s life, those eulogizing the 58-year-old anchor of Meet the Press ranged from an elementary school nun in Buffalo, N.Y., to the stars of mainstream media and singer Bruce Springsteen.

From the announcement of Russert’s death shortly after 3:30 p.m. Friday to yesterday’s service that began at 4 p.m., TV served one of its primary ritualistic functions as a medium of mourning, offering access and an outlet for the affection that millions of Americans felt for an ebullient anchorman — as well as the grief they experienced at his death.

What viewers witnessed this week — particularly on Russert’s home cable channel on MSNBC — was a media farewell similar to TV’s six-day treatments for former President Ronald Reagan in 2004 and for Pope John Paul in 2005. With moments like Springsteen’s solo rendition of “Thunder Road” via satellite from Europe where he is on tour, the emotion occasionally was just as intense for the journalist as it was the religious and national leaders.

As TV goes into overdrive the way it did in the wake of Russert’s death, reporters and anchors often take on symbolic roles. And so it was Friday on MSNBC with retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw assuming the role as head of the mourning NBC and MSNBC News family.

Brokaw was one of the first on the air Friday and he forged the template for virtually all that followed, describing his colleague as “the true child of blue-collar Buffalo — who was always in touch with that ethos. … Tim loved his family, his faith, his country and politics.”

Brokaw set the stage again yesterday at the memorial service, opening and closing the event, and often embracing other speakers as they returned from the podium.

He promised that the memorial would be done “Irish style,” describing that as “some tears, some laughs and occasionally some truth.”

Brokaw said a construction foreman stopped him on the street this week and tearfully said of Russert, “He was so, so smart, and he seemed to be one of us.”

The longtime leader of NBC News said viewers saw Russert as “their beefy Irish cop on a corner in a neighborhood called America. The guy with the pocketful of Tootsie Rolls for kids, wisecracks for the regulars, the walking sports page, the storyteller who knew everything that was going on in and out of sight.”

After cataloging Russert’s love of Washington, Brokaw called him a “citizen-journalist speaking for those with no voice or lobbyist on K Street.”

In addition to Sister Lucille Socciarelli and Springsteen, the speakers included Maria Shriver, NBC anchorman Brian Williams and Russert’s 22-year-old son, Luke, who seemed to be everywhere in the media this week. One of the most powerful images of the past six days was that of the recent Boston College graduate standing alone on the set of Meet the Press alongside his father’s empty chair after a memorial telecast hosted by Brokaw.

Calling his father a “force of nature,” Luke asked those in the hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where the final memorial service was held, to imagine another special edition of Meet the Press this Sunday “inside the pearly gates” — with his father grilling the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and Theodore Roosevelt.

He received a standing ovation from the audience.

Springsteen’s performance was a surprise not listed on the program. He recounted an appearance he did years ago on NBC’s Today show and his surprise at seeing Russert in the front row cheering him on during a rendition of “The Promised Land.”

“He had a real belief in that promised land,” Springsteen said. “And that was the passion heard behind all those tough questions. … He believed in joyful duty and honesty of service … and that’s his legacy.”

And then, Springsteen sang.

It was a perfect TV moment — a poet speaking directly to the hearts of those in the hall and in front of screens across the land.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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