Russert Watch: Sunday, 4-20-08

In which Tim goes the Charlie Gibson route on Obama

Editor’s note: Todd Gitlin’s “Russert Watch” will run each Monday on

Having agreed just the other day to write a weekly appraisal of Tim Russert’s performances on Meet the Press, I settled in to watch this week’s show and thought for some time I was going have to blow a mild kiss. Interviewing Clinton’s Geoff Garin and Obama’s David Axelrod, Russert started out with the insider’s usual obsession with horse race questions. But he sounded more dutiful than giddy, perhaps because these particular horses have been circling the muddy track too long. How often can you light a fire under a question like, “How does she win”?

Then he flirted with a question of political substance, in the mild form of this question to Axelrod: “Will she bring the necessary changes to Washington?”—an invitation to Obama’s man to define her (again!) as an insider, though this would not have been very illuminating, since said changes were unspecified. Then, as Garin and Axelrod had at it, Russert let them go on sparring for several minutes in a manner that political junkies might enjoy. He seemed to recognize that they could play their own inside baseball without his having to kibbitz. This was pretty routine stuff as the Sunday shows go.

He proceeded to raise an actual policy question of what Clinton had meant by proposing to raise an anti-Iran umbrella over unspecified Middle Eastern countries as well as Israel. Garin made a pass at an answer about “appropriate steps.” Russert pressed and Garin, not a policy guy, said: “We will not sit idly by.”

Then came the moment of disingenuous slime:

RUSSERT: David Axelrod, based on the last couple of weeks, many Democrats fear Republicans in the fall will string together an ad which shows Michelle Obama saying that she really never had pride in America until this campaign when Barack Obama was running; Barack Obama with his hands clasped in front of him rather than holding his heart during the pledge of allegiance; Barack Obama not wearing a flag pin; Barack Obama talking about clinging to faith and to guns, suggesting…; Barack Obama meeting with Bill Ayers, a former…Weatherman underground figure. Are you concerned that all those kinds of issues could be strung together to create an impression of Obama that would make him almost unelectable to a lot of swing voters?

The justification for this litany, no doubt, is that these charges are “out there”—read, flourishing on right-wing Web sites—and it is a safe guess that the Republicans will string them together soon enough, though why they would need to do so yet is beyond me, since the mainstream will do it for them. By asking the question, and couching it as a question of mood and tactics (“Are you concerned…?”), Russert does the stringing work himself. It’s a dishonest way of fouling the electoral process while refusing to take responsibility for it.

This is how the Swift-Boating process worked in 2004 and it is how it works in 2008. The charges originate out in hyperpartisan space. Then the mainstreamers, purporting to muse about how the charges are playing, amplify them.

While going about his stringing, Russert didn’t get the facts of the smear straight. There’s a matter of accuracy. Even the right-wing bloggers (one example) who have been promoting the picture of Obama, hands away from heart, in contrast with Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson with their hands over their hearts, note that the fatal occasion was the playing of the National Anthem, not the Pledge of Allegiance.

Tim Russert, will you pledge to correct your error and, if you’re going to go on playing the game of Hot Smear Pursuit, at least get your facts straight?

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Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.