Many share Russert's devotion to the craft

June 22, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

He was an unlikely media star, a rumpled, Columbo-like character out of The Front Page. That appearance made him a throwback in the unsettling transition from print to electronic to cyber communication.

In an earlier time, the stereotype demanded a fedora with a "PRESS" card tucked under the band.

But he was a hack with a TV profile. He was more than a dogged reporter. He was an exemplar of media power. His face and his Sunday morning presence sold his books with Oprah-like power.

The Tim Russert story - the story of his life and of his sudden passing - commanded headlines the way presidents and their passing do. The continuing accounts of his life are reminiscent of the Princess Diana story and its painful grip on the world's attention. Many of the same elements of her life and sudden death were there in the life of Mr. Russert.

By convention, the reporter must never be part of the story. In the new media world, the rule cannot be honored. Mr. Russert had been part of the story for years.

As with Diana, people felt a personal sense of loss at his death. How unfair it seemed. How shocking that the life of one so much a part of our collective life had ended - as if celebrity could protect one from calamity.

Like Diana, Tim Russert had that quality of genuineness. He seemed to be the real deal. In the family album of photographs we've all seen for the past week or so, there was a man who man loved his family, his life, his profession - and the wonder of its success.

And there were the children. Luke Russert, just graduated from college, has the same openness that made his father seem down to earth. Diana's sons had that same role. We were swept up in these stories. We found ourselves grieving like family.

Unlike the princess, Mr. Russert's appeal lay partly in what he didn't have. He didn't have her beauty. He didn't have made-for-the camera, blow-dried perfection that, unfairly or not, puts glamour above substance.

Even after everyone knew his style and toughness, Mr. Russert was disarming. Civility may have made him seem a bit halting in his pursuit of the quarry. A candidate's handlers undoubtedly warned against complacency.

Understandably, the newsman's colleagues say they can't imagine a presidential election without him.

Yet, in his story, colleagues see reflections of many other reporters with the same drive and devotion. It's an alluring, adrenalized vocation that consumes many, and not always in a good way. The job of covering presidential elections is worth it, but the cost in personal health and family well-being is high. Mr. Russert seemed to revel in efforts that courted burnout, and his heart condition could not have been helped by the hours he kept.

Some will undoubtedly suggest that the reporting during this election will be better as a tribute to him. The coverage - and the lessons taught in the recounting of his life - will be part of his legacy.

Sappy as it may sound, self-aggrandizing as it may be, we are certain that democracy depends on our efforts. The bumper sticker slogan "Democracy depends on journalism" is not wrong. People need to know their leaders. They need to know as much as possible before taking that leap of faith called voting.

Others have marveled, as Mr. Russert did, that we get paid for doing this work. And it's not just political campaigns and conventions. It's the whole landscape of human stories: reporting on a community organization's effort to help victims of sharp-dealing mortgage brokers, for example.

A colleague suggested to me last week that reporters may seem to care about nothing because they're trained to keep their own views and values in check. We don't talk; we listen. We're loath to express opinions (unless, like your faithful correspondent, we are opinion writers). Some may mistake the silence as an absence of caring and concern.

But many of us are just as immersed as Mr. Russert was in the public life of our nation.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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