Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pundits on Russert: "It's Novels All the Way Down"

A tip of the sombrero to Zelph for putting me onto the Daily Howler.

If you've ever wondered why Tim Russert never, never, never ruffled any Republican feathers, get this (read the whole thing at the Daily Howler):

Special report: Novels, all the way down!

PART 1—RESPECTFUL/OBEDIENT: If we might paraphrase Bertrand Russell: When the pundit corps remembers Tim Russert, it’s novels, all the way down. In today’s Post, Gene Robinson’s column is a “cluelessness classic.” But let’s start with the discussion of Russert conducted last evening on "Hardball."

Under Jack Welch, NBC News became a news division without real precedent in modern history; to a remarkable degree, it became an ethnic news division.(Note: By long tradition, most American news orgs were “ethnic” in the sense that they were all-white.) How thoroughly ethnic did this news org become? When Bush and Gore debated in October 2000, MSNBC assembled a five-member panel to discuss the sessions:

Brian Williams (moderator)
Chris Matthews
Mike Barnicle
Peggy Noonan
Doris Kearns Goodwin

Remarkably, all five were East Coast Irish Catholics! First guest commentator on the air each night? Tim Russert, East Coast Irish Catholic! (Tom Brokaw tagged along with Russert, presumably serving as chaperone.) Under Welch, East Coast Irish Catholics were put in place at the news division’s key spots. (We have no idea if this was done as part of some conscious plan.) Russert became moderator of Meet the Press; Matthews became king of NBC cable; and Williams was locked in place as Brokaw’s successor on Nightly News. Once his runs for public office ceased, Pat Buchanan (East Coast Irish Catholic) emerged as top cable pundit. Under Welch, Robert Wright (East Coast Irish Catholic) became president and CEO of NBC. And the network hired so many O’Donnells, they were routinely said, by us, to have their own page in the company’s phone book.

[Note for the nervous: We were raised East Coast Irish Catholic ourselves. Our grandmother’s maiden name: Callahan. Location of service: Outside Boston.]

Everyone in the wider press world avoided noting this peculiar way of staffing a news division. Except USA Today’s Peter Johnson, who offered this as part of an unusually frank profile of Russert:

JOHNSON (11/1/00): Russert, a Roman Catholic, refers to his religion on Meet the Press and speaks reverentially about moderating. "If there's such a thing as a non-religious vocation, this is it." Colleagues say he shares a Catholic bond with NBC president Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch.

In the 1990s, Russert bought a summer home on Nantucket—joining Welch and Wright on the island. Matthews bought a $4.4 million home there in 2003.

Is there actually something wrong with building a news division this way? Consider last night’s discussion on "Hardball." Producers had assembled a three-man panel to discuss Russert and his legacy. . . . More
It's not about Catholics, or East Coast, or Irish. It's about locking in one specific filter for US news reporting, which includes the original sort of what gets reported, as well as the spin and the point of view. It's about respect, obedience as defined by one of the most powerful man in US media, GE Chairman Jack Welch (now retired).

As telling, to me, is the Nantucket enclave. This is the kind of information we deserve but never seem to have about who's giving us the daily feed. Maybe I'm just a jaded little Chi, but I don't think Russert or Matthews ever did or ever will dump on the (extremely wealthy, powerful, Republican) neighbors, do you?

Remember to visit the Howler for Part II and maybe more.