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The Tempest Over Tim: Did the Media Overplay Russert’s Death?

June 24, 2008

It sounds redundant, but sometimes death can be followed by overkill. Such seemed to be the case recently when NBC _ followed shortly by every television network and newspaper in the known universe _ conveyed to audiences that the passing of Tim Russert, 58, on June 13 was a national tragedy of profoundly epic proportions.

In the days that followed the death of this popular author and TV host, a lively debate emerged regarding his colleagues’ voluminous and quasi-lachrymose tributes. Did NBC and its ilk go over the top?

Deceased cultural figures provide quick tests of our interests and priorities. If an author whom highbrow critics adore _ but regular readers ignore _ dies, how much space and time should be allocated to noting it? Or the reverse: At the demise of an individual who is famous and beloved _ but not especially revered in academic circles _ such as Russert, a man with best-selling books to his credit and a weekly audience of millions who watched him as ringmaster of “Meet the Press,” is wall-to-wall coverage warranted?

Jack Shafer, the cool-eyed and even-handed media columnist for slate.com, complained in his column last week that the media had lost its head over losing Russert.

Calling NBC’s response a “neverending video wake,” Shafer went on to point out that, while Russert’s employer might be excused for its gooey excess, other networks and publications shouldn’t be let off the hook quite so easily. “I wonder whether the media grievers gave a moment of thought to how this Russert torrent they produced played with viewers and readers,” Shafer wrote. “Did the grievers really think Russert was so important … that he deserved hour upon hour of tribute?”

Maybe it’s my natural bias toward literature, but I tend to believe that the Russert grief-othon emanated as much from the books he wrote as from the TV show he ran. Books such as “Big Russ and Me” (2004) and “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons” (2006) weren’t just vanity projects by a guy with high name recognition; they were heartfelt meditations on the importance of work and family in a world that sometimes forgets about the gratification of physical labor and the powerful bonds that link parents and children. I have friends who aren’t habitual book-buyers, but whose shelves include Russert’s books, for which they paid retail. And those books are not there just for show.

Those books have been read and re-read.

Russert’s colleague, Tom Brokaw, has achieved a similar feat: He has produced books that transcend their author’s fame, books such as “The Greatest Generation” (1998), which sparked a new appreciation for the sacrifices and contributions of the Americans who helped win World War II.

Had Russert not written “Big Russ and Me,” had he not celebrated his working-class roots and reminded us, every chance he got, of his passion for his family, I don’t think the media outpouring at his death would have been nearly so intense and prolonged. But Russert was not just a TV star. He was a man who made us look down at our own hands and _ if we haven’t gripped a hammer or dug a posthole in a while, if those hands are smooth and soft _ begin to realize anew that the real work of building this nation and its families came from other kinds of hands, hands that were rough and callused.

That said, Shafer and others do have a point: Just because the media control the microphone doesn’t mean we should use it to yammer on promiscuously about a fallen co-worker. You have to wonder how Russert _ who, despite his occasional lapses into on-air sentimentality, was actually a hard-nosed journalist who valued intellectual rigor above raw emotion _ would have handled the death of a colleague: Respectfully, to be sure, and thoroughly, but after a decent interval, he would’ve gotten back to work. Back to reporting on issues such as a complicated war, an unraveling economy, an impending election.

Figuring out how to rank cultural figures is a tough job. The inches and minutes lavished on obituaries are an instant index of what we consider important: Two paragraphs for the college professor who changed myriad young lives, and then a full-page feature on the guy who invented Cool Whip? Does that make sense? Well, it does if the obit for the latter is written by someone as clever and incisive as Mark Steyn was in his 2004 essay in The Atlantic, the one that reflected on the passing of William A. Mitchell _ the father of Cool Whip. Mitchell wasn’t Jean Paul Sartre, but you could argue that, in some sense, his cultural legacy was as great. Certainly it was tastier. Evaluating the news value of a public figure’s passing is an art, not a science. The argument over the coverage of Russert’s death might rightly be dubbed the Cool Whip question: Does a snackmaker trump an existential philosopher?

Is a ballplayer more essential than a molecular biologist? A journalist more significant than a religious figure or a diplomat? Obit lengths supply a sudden window on our priorities, a rough draft of our shared value systems.

We are what we mourn. And in mourning Russert, we reveal that we have learned well what he tried so hard to teach us: Loving relationships are the purpose of life, its true gift, transcending money and fame and even a hosting gig on “Meet the Press.”

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Julia Keller: jikeller@tribune.com

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Tim Russert

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