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Remembering Russert

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Tom Brokaw will be the temporary successor to the late Tim Russert, as we now know. Meanwhile, the Boston Phoenix had a superb editorial last week on Russert and his passing.

The average American family makes about $31,333 a year. And while the average working-stiff reporter makes between $20,000 and $50,000 a year (a precise figure is hard to come by), top talents at the nation’s largest papers regularly make $100,000 a year or more. At big national magazines, the salaries of editors in chief often break $1 million. Surprisingly, TV salaries are not as high as some might think. Anchors in the 25 largest markets make an average of $130,000. These figures may not be the stuff of daily Champagne and caviar, but neither are they the stuff of abject want and longing. It is not a stretch to suggest that the press may not be sufficiently afflicting the comfortable because, as a group, it has gotten rather comfortable itself, too sure of its own assumptions.

These, of course, are sweeping generalizations. They should not be taken as a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. All institutions are less than perfect. That’s a sentiment, a bit of understatement, that Russert himself would endorse. If the observations above were made on Meet the Press, Russert might counter by asking about groundbreaking stories in the New York Times that exposed the extent to which the government ignores the Constitution by tapping phone and computer lines, or citing the Washington Post’s reporting on the deplorable conditions that wounded soldiers endured at military hospitals. It would be in keeping with Russert’s generous character to cite other fine broadcast competitors or colleagues in an effort to deflate too vigorous a critique of a profession he clearly loved.

That was the Russert technique: he sought not so much to deflate as to correct. His job was more difficult than it looked, and he did it well. Russert held guests who came on Meet the Press to the same high standards to which he held himself. He was legendary for asking any and all tough questions. If he appeared at times to be more exacting with progressives, it was probably to compensate for his own sympathies, which, while centrist, tended to be liberal. He made newsmakers squirm because he believed the public had a right to know what politicians were up to. Russert held official Washington accountable. If others in the media did as good a job as he did, maybe the nation would not be in the mess it is in today — or, to qualify that statement in a way that might meet with Russert’s realistic approval, the mess might not be as bad.

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