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By David Podvin

In 1992, shortly after being named moderator of Meet The Press, Tim Russert was having lunch with a broadcast executive. The mealtime conversation was about the pros and cons of working for General Electric’s NBC subsidiary. Russert expounded on how being employed by GE had brought him to the realization that things functioned better when Republicans were in charge.

“You know, Tim, you used to be such a rabid Democrat when you worked for Pat Moynihan,” said the executive. “But now that you’ve gotten a glimpse of who’s handing out the money in this business, you’ve become quite the Jaycee. Were you wrong about everything you used to believe so strongly?”

“I still believe,” Russert said, leaning across the table. “I believe in everything I ever did. But I also know that I never would have become moderator on Meet The Press if my employers were uncomfortable with me. And, given the amount of money at stake, millions of dollars, I don’t blame them. This is business.”

The executive agreed. “But are you concerned about losing yourself? You know, selling out?”

Russert pounded the table. “Integrity is for paupers!”

When Tim Russert joined NBC News in 1984, he began a personal transformation from Democratic congressional aide to broadcaster-in-charge of General Electric’s political interests. His early efforts for the network drew some criticism from the GE corporate suites as being “too knee jerk”, a euphemism for “insufficiently pro-GE/ Republican”. The executives at General Electric viewed with hostility the Democratic Party that wanted to burden them with obeying laws that the company preferred to break and complying with regulations that it preferred to ignore. While Republicans turned a blind eye to the serial environmental crimes and bribery committed by GE, the Democrats were less submissive. The company was especially upset that the Democratic Party had taken a position against transferring public ownership of the broadcast airwaves to the media conglomerates.

The ambitious Russert soon learned that, in order to climb the ladder at NBC News, he had to please two sets of managers: the news executives who were ostensibly his bosses, and the employers of the news executives. In the years that followed, he refined the strategy to ingratiating himself to General Electric Chairman Jack Welch.

For much of the eighties, Russert coordinated specials on summits and foreign policy related topics. His breakthrough performance occurred in 1990, when he oversaw the production of the prime time special, “A Day In The Life Of President Bush”. The show was so worshipful and fawning that one embarrassed production assistant referred to it as “Deep Throat: The Missing Footage”. By this time, however, Russert had figured out that only one opinion counted. Jack Welch loved the program, telling an associate that it “hit just the right note”.

When the moderator position on Meet The Press needed to be filled in 1991, Russert was chosen from on high. The show had been struggling in the ratings, earning less than a million dollars a year. The new moderator changed the format, eliminating the panel and turning America’s longest running program into The Tim Russert Show. The revised philosophy of Meet The Press was borrowed from the book Animal Farm: All Guests Are Equal, But Some Guests Are More Equal Than Others. The more equal ones, who all coincidentally had an “R” appear after their names on the show’s graphics, were asked questions about policy and the moral shortcomings of the opposition party. The lesser equals were usually challenged to disassociate themselves from issues (liberal) and individuals (Democrats) that Russert found to be lacking in virtue.

In 1992, Russert enthusiastically led the media frenzy about the relationship between Gennifer Flowers and Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, but he refused to report about a similar relationship between incumbent Republican President George Bush and Jennifer Fitzgerald. Four years later, Russert focused on questions about Clinton fundraising, while studiously ignoring the lengthy record of well-documented influence peddling by Republican nominee Bob Dole.

Throughout 2000, with less pretense of objectivity than ever, Russert dutifully echoed the Republican theme that the Democratic nominee was “dishonest”. Week after week, the topic on Meet The Press was the “repeated lying” of Al Gore. One lowlight of Russert’s descent into shameless propagandist occurred when it was revealed that George W. Bush had been convicted of drunk driving in Maine, thereby proving that the Republican candidate had been deceitful when he was questioned about whether he had ever been arrested.

Russert’s immediate response on national television was, “The question on everybody’s mind is, ‘Did the Gore campaign have something to do with the release of this information?’”

That was not the question on everybody’s mind; a poll taken immediately after the revelation showed that most Americans did not believe that Gore was involved.

It was, however, the question being faxed nationally by the Republicans in a memo circulated to their operatives who were responsible for diverting attention from the fact that their candidate was guilty of, for want of a better term, “repeated lying”.

As media mogul and future Fox network founder Rupert Murdoch noticed, Russert’s brazenly partisan approach attracted large numbers of white male viewers. In 2000, Meet The Press earned a $50 million profit for General Electric, which was sixty times more than when Russert was named moderator.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Russert established a link between Meet The Press and the G.O.P. opposition research team that was responsible for digging up dirt/manufacturing dirt on Al Gore. On election night, after conferring with Welch, Russert demanded that Gore quit the race before the legally mandated recount took place in Florida. The next morning, on the Today Show, he repeated the demand. During the recount, Russert actively campaigned for Bush, going so far as to insist that Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman endorse the counting of illegally cast military ballots that would benefit George W.

There have been reports from those who were present that journalist Tim Russert was wearing a Bush For President lapel pin when he attended the traditional Al Smith Dinner in New York shortly before the election. This should be interpreted as less of an endorsement than a brownnosing. Russert was accompanied by Welch, who was a strong supporter of Bush and completely intolerant of dissent on the matter.

During the Lewinsky episode, Russert latched onto the sexual aspect of the scandal with obsessive fervor. When the story appeared to be running out of steam, he showed America his creative side. The following was written by Martin Schram of the Nando Times:

 I was especially dismayed to hear Russert present what sounded like a misbegotten Virtual Scoop:

"There are lots of suggestions coming out of people close to Ken Starr that perhaps the Secret Service 'facilitated' for President Clinton. Remember that code word -- it was used about the state troopers in Little Rock ... Was the Secret Service -- was a Secret Service agent -- an accomplice in trying to cover up a relationship with Monica Lewinsky?"

Sounds like a major, unsavory exclusive report from a source in the independent counsel's office -- that the Secret Service was pimping for a president of the United States.

But rewind and rethink. We only heard Russert say there were "suggestions" from people "close to" Starr that "perhaps" an agent had facilitated in the president's philandering. Were these "suggestions" based on any substantial evidence or proof obtained by the independent counsel? Or was it just a prayerful hope of someone in Starr's office who hates Clinton but has not a shred of evidence that this might have happened? Which of course means that it would be a journalistic outrage to air the story if that was all it was.

Now fast-forward. It is midday, on MSNBC, the all-news cable channel. Behind the scenes, Starr's spokesman, Charles Bakaly, has called Russert, and Russert has conceded the source wasn't in Starr's office; it was a congressional source. Which means it may have been a political opponent of the president -- who may or may not know if there is any substantive indication that such a thing had occurred.

Now, on MSNBC's regular noontime show, "Investigating the President," Russert sounds like he is just repeating his morning scoop. But he actually tells a much different, much weaker version -- while never indicating that he is issuing a correction:

"This morning I reported that congressional sources had told NBC News that Ken Starr is very interested in finding out" what Secret Service agents may have done -- as "accomplices" in a "cover-up."

Wait! This is more than just saying the source was "congressional"; now Russert is saying that Starr is merely "interested in finding out" if any agent had facilitated on behalf of the president. Well, of course he is! And so am I! But it is not newsworthy that either Starr or I want to ask these questions. It would only be news if either Starr or I had proof that this happened.

Fast-forward again. On NBC's "Nightly News," Russert reports live from the White House lawn: "Members of Congress have been talking to investigators, people, lawyers associated with the grand jury, people who are free to talk"-- what the heck does all that mean? -- "and they are coming to some conclusions that perhaps Secret Service agents may have been, quote, facilitating." (Again, just perhaps.)

"We don't know whether that's Republican spin, partisan spin, ideological spin, or there's a germ of evidence."

Translation: We don't have any idea whether any of this is true. But we've spent all day raising the smarmy specter that the Secret Service may have been pimping for the president -- just as the president's political opponents hoped we would. Even though we didn't have a germ of evidence that it was true.

Mr. Schram is an excessively generous man, lavishing the undeserved benefit of the doubt on Russert in a situation where there is no doubt. This was not a “misbegotten virtual scoop”. It was a lie. What was happening has been on public display countless times before: Tim Russert was acting as an operative for the political interests of the multinational corporation that keeps him fat and happy.

The spectacular rewards of manipulating the public for GE were realized in 2001, when Russert received a new contract worth tens of millions of dollars. The wages of sin have been huge, while the cost has been the negligible loss of whatever integrity he might have once possessed. He is not an objective journalist; he is a partisan deceiver. He exaggerates Democratic wrongdoing, going to the extreme of inventing criminal behavior. Conversely, he has been unrelentingly oblivious to all Republican scandals; his infinite fascination with the missing intern in the case of Democrat Gary Condit was accompanied by total disinterest in the dead intern who was found on the office floor of Republican Joe Scarbrough. Russert spent years obsessing about an ill fated land deal called Whitewater that involved a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but he remains indifferent to the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer funded kickbacks that George W. Bush has been ladling out to his campaign contributors.

Russert has every right to serve General Electric and its chosen political party, but truth in advertising mandates that he should never appear on television without having “We Bring Good Things To Life” emblazoned on his forehead.

The saga of Tim Russert is not unique, or even uncommon. With minor changes, it could be the story of Peter Jennings, or Brit Hume, or Jim Lehrer, ad nauseum. This is the modern reality of the mainstream media: those who dutifully conform to the company line and deceitfully ignore any facts that are incompatible with increasing corporate profits are compensated with vast fortunes, while whatever democracy remains in this country struggles to survive without a free press and an informed electorate.

The founders of America conceived of a nation with an unregulated flow of information that would provide the citizenry with access to the knowledge they needed to govern themselves. That patriotic vision has been distorted by the huge conglomerates that control the mainstream media, and by journalistic prostitutes like Tim Russert, who corrupt our society with their eagerness to pervert the truth in exchange for personal wealth.

Podvin on the Media

Podvin, the Series


Last changed: December 13, 2009