A Rumble Over Russert

Who gets to critique his journalism?

Dan Kennedy objects to my writing a “Russert Watch” column for CJR online on the ground that I support Barack Obama (which I do).

His objection is incoherent. “It becomes much harder to evaluate someone honestly once you’ve identified yourself as a backer,” Kennedy writes. Why? He doesn’t object to the content of my first column itself. In fact, he mentions only one of my Russert criticisms—and agrees with it. So what’s the beef?

Anyway, I’m not writing a column on Obama, I’m writing a column on Tim Russert. I’ve been writing about Russert for a decade or so. I was writing about him—critically, in the main—when I’d never heard of Barack Obama. I’ll write straight about Russert whatever his subject. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, or if Obama is, I’ll still treat him straight. If you think I get Russert wrong, criticize me for that. (In truth, as Kennedy doesn’t note, I began the first column with a tip of the hat to Russert.)

There’s an absurd notion abroad in the land that criticism on the part of a self-acknowledged partisan deserves to be discarded automatically on the ground that it’s, well, partisan. It crops up all the time in disingenuous journalism. “That charge is political” substitutes for “that charge is erroneous.” The metadiscussion stands in for the evaluation of the value of the truth in the critique.

If everyone who declares a political interest is morally bound to clam up in public, then criticism is neutered—just what we don’t need any more of in our public life, says this writer-citizen-professor- opinionator.

We invite comments and discussion.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.