campaign desk

Russert Watch: Sunday, 5-4-08

In which we propose a new name for Meet the Press
May 5, 2008

Some viewers are probably disappointed that Tim Russert devoted only the first fifteen minutes or so of Meet the Press to l’affaire Jeremiah Wright. (That’s by my count; Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times came up with eighteen minutes.) No surprise, Russert brought Wright up at the top of the show as if some impersonal mechanism had tossed him a ball and now it had to be kept in the air.

A generous interpretation would be that Russert felt obliged to keep after the Wright embarrassment because there were loose ends to tie up—and that, once they were tied up, Obama would be off the Wright hook unless any new muck rose to the surface.

It strikes me that Russert must think that he is obliged to rake through the muck when enough of it has piled up during the previous week. Here is how he broached the subject in his stentorian intro:

The epic Clinton and Obama battle continues. Issues such as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the soaring cost of gasoline and food prices dominate the debate.

“Dominate the debate” evidently means “dominate media coverage of the campaign.” So Russert must construe his role as channeling, compressing, and summarizing the state of play in the media. In this sense, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he volunteers to serve as an echo chamber. In which case the show might be renamed: The Press Meets the Press.

What struck me about Obama’s responses is how seriously he took the particulars of the massive derailment of recent weeks. He answered soberly—delivering, in Alessandra Stanley’s words in the morning Times, “long, thoughtful and professorial answers.” About “professorial,” I don’t know (but then I wouldn’t, would I?); to me, he sounded less smooth than that, more like wrestling with the questions, as opposed to delivering up textbook answers.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

When Russert asked, “Is it fair for people to raise questions about your judgment for misjudging Reverend Wright?” Obama acknowledged that it was

fair for people to look at this episode—along with all the other things that I’ve done over the last twenty years. You know, when you’re running for president, your life’s an open book, and I think that people have a right to flip the hood and kick the tires—

and then struggled to bring the conversation back onto his terrain:

and this is one element of a much larger track record that has led me to not only run for president, but to help build a movement all across the country to bring about change.

For the rest of it, Russert mainly asked straightforward policy questions and Obama mainly came back with straightforward policy answers while voicing the magic word “values” eleven times. The response that made news concerned Hillary Clinton’s “We would be able to totally obliterate them,” when she was speaking of Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. Obama called this

language that’s reflective of George Bush. We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber rattling and tough talk, and, in the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran.

For some reason, Russert among other commentators, never asks why Israel’s own nuclear deterrent wouldn’t suffice in this case. I understand why Israel doesn’t come right out and say so, and why the U. S. government doesn’t either—they don’t want to have to invoke the Nonproliferation Treaty. But none of this reticence binds commentators, does it?

Russert did sensibly ask about Senator Clinton’s having

called for an umbrella of deterrence in the Middle East, defending not only Israel, but, she said, ‘other countries in the region,’ suggesting that perhaps Saudi Arabia, Jordan, other places in that region. Should the U.S. have an umbrella of deterrence to protect Arab nations?

It would be a small step forward for humanity, which is hanging on this election, if such questions could lead a session of Meet the Press rather than slot in toward the end.

But at least the subject of Obama’s missing flag pin didn’t come up. Perhaps Russert is saving the subject of empty lapels for coming interviews with the other candidates. Speaking of which, I await the arrival of the Straight Question Express to pick up John McCain at the station.

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.