Those Russert Replacement Rumors

…and why they’re more than idle chatter

At the conclusion of yesterday’s Meet the Press, temporary moderator Brian Williams made an announcement:

Beginning next week, my friend Tom Brokaw has agreed to step in as moderator of “Meet the Press”, to get us through this election season. We’re fortunate to have Tom not only, of course, as part of our NBC News political all-star team, certainly a big part of our “NBC Nightly News” family.

The news—which “we think will please loyal viewers of this great broadcast,” BriWi noted—delicately skirted its subtext: that Brokaw will be merely the interim fill-in for Russert. As in, temporary replacement. Yes, temporary. To be clear, as Brokaw himself told the AP: “The plan is for me to be in place until they can find somebody who can take it over on a permanent basis.” And as he reiterated to Howard Kurtz: “My job is to get us to the election and let Steve make a decision. I’m very happy to hand this off to the next generation of NBC News personnel.”

The oblique lines of Williams’s announcement, ironically, bring the Russert replacement rumors—their whisperings given Official Voice last week, in a pair of articles about the BriWi fill-in by the NYT’s Jacques Steinberg—more directly into our mainstream discourse. (Too soon, some say—see the angry commentary on the matter from NBC News president Steve Capus—but if there were a Seinfeld-like show focused on the social mores of the media world, it would apparently advocate one week as the acceptable amount of time to wait between the death of a newsman and the public discussion of his replacement.)

Much like its political analog, the Veepstakes, the Russert-heir buzz makes a worthy conduit for a Bigger Conversation. Just as the Veepstakes gives us a convenient excuse to round out the edges of a presidential candidate and extend our conversation beyond those edges—parsing both the policy stances and the personal qualities the candidate doesn’t himself necessarily embody—the Russert rumors provide an opportunity to talk about the trite but ultimately instructive question of what we want in our newscasters.

Each suggested Russert successor—Williams, Brokaw, White House correspondent David Gregory, NBC political director Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough—embodies something that we want (and, sometimes, need) in the person who will come to represent the “press” in Meet the Press. Todd, for example (who many say was Russert’s own preferred heir), offers extensive and detailed knowledge of politics, but lacks the authoritative presence of, say, Brokaw. Williams offers panache and big-picture political knowledge, though he lacks the everyday-guy aw-shucks-ness that helped make Russert America’s Sunday-morning sweetheart. Matthews’s, Olbermann’s, and Scarborough’s strengths generally lie in opinion-giving, rather than fact-gathering; each offers a kind of bloviatory √©lan that has proven immensely popular with viewers, not just on MSNBC, but on other networks, as well. Which combination of qualities will fit the times and the show that, in may ways, represents them?

One of the more interesting questions begged by all this, as far as I’m concerned, is that of the NBC-MSNBC divide—or, put less euphemistically, the divide between straight news and opinion in broadcast journalism. You don’t have to be a daily watcher of Hardball or Countdown or even Morning Joe to know that that divide is narrowing literally before our eyes. Our notion of “authority” in news is shifting, its root moving slowly away from objectivity and toward the opposite pole of conviction; impassioned opinion-mongering is increasingly the mode du jour when it comes to broadcasting. (See the success of shows like The O’Reilly Factor and its left-wing nemesis, Countdown.)

Yet we continue to retain the traditional standard of objective news reporting as a kind of Platonic ideal in our journalism, hovering just beyond our line of sight but guiding us nonetheless. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite continue to be models of an enduring legacy that is grounded in the notion of journalism’s fundamental sobriety of purpose. We often, without pausing to think about what we really mean by the word, shorthand that ideal as “gravitas.” (Brokaw and Williams are often described as having gravitas; you’ll almost never hear the term applied to a broadcaster of a more Matthewsian bent.)
See, for example, Sandy Socolow’s take on Keith Olbermann in Peter Boyer’s fantastic New Yorker profile of the newscaster:

Asked about the prospect of an Olbermann reign at “CBS Evening News,” Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite’s final executive producer, responded emphatically. “Oh, no, no, no, he’s not a newsman,” Socolow said. “He’s not a reporter. I’ve never seen anything that he’s done that was original, in terms of the information. It’s all derivative. I like him, I agree with his perspective, and I think he’s very, very good on television. But he’s not a newsman.” Socolow added, “Ten years ago, if he had done at CBS what he does every day on the air at MSNBC, he would have been fired by the end of the day.”

Later in the profile, Boyer presents an excerpt from a letter sent to Steve Capus from White House counsel Ed Gillespie, accusing NBC news of liberal partisanship. “Mr. Capus,” Gillespie wrote,

I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the ‘news’ as reported on NBC and the ‘opinion’ as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines.

The debate surrounding Russert’s replacement forces a familiar but nonetheless urgent question: What, exactly, is the line between news and opinion these days? Where should those lines be drawn, both in our newscasts and in our newscasters themselves? NBC’s selection of Russert’s heir—or heirs, perhaps—won’t answer those questions, but it will advance the discussion. Especially because that decision, once made, will be as descriptive of our media world as it is prescriptive for it.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.