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“the unbearable inanity of tim russert” January 16, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, interviews, media, news, politics, television.
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matthew yglesias hit the nail on the head with this one. it’s as if the guests on meet the press and russert have to come to a mutual agreement. the guests dodge his seemingly “tough” questions and russert continues to ask them.

“the unbearable inanity of tim russert”:

Actually, the balls Russert favors may be hard, but the pitches he throws aren’t curveballs, which go someplace useful. They’re sillyballs, which go somewhere pointless. Russert has created a strike zone of his own where toughness meets irrelevance. John McCain entered the zone last May, when he went on the show and repeatedly asserted that the Bush tax cuts had increased the federal government’s revenue. Hearing this, a tough but conscientious journalist might have pointed out that this is demonstrably false. Russert, however, reached for a trusty hardball and sent it sailing. McCain, he pointed out, was now supporting extending the very same Bush tax cuts that he had once opposed.

Well, yes, but this was a bit like asking someone who says the world is flat why he used to say the earth was round. The contradiction Russert pointed out was real—but hardly central. In fact, if tax cuts actually had increased revenues, then McCain’s change of heart would have been perfectly logical. The real problem was that McCain’s theory of the relationship between tax rates and revenue wasn’t true. In Russertland, though, as long as you acknowledge the contradiction, the questioner is satisfied. “You say the world is flat, but just three years ago you said it was round.” “You know, Tim, yes, I used to say the world was round, but times change, and that’s why I support the Bush administration’s bill to construct a restraining wall to prevent ships from sailing over the edge of the sea.” And so on.

To say that such exercises offer no information would be unfair. But the information is purely meta. Viewers watch a candidate getting grilled by Russert not to assess the candidate’s views but to assess his or her ability to withstand the grilling. And, when this sort of toughness and sparring becomes its own reward, the vacuity of the questioning is almost guaranteed. After all, if you asked a politician a serious, important question and got a perfectly good answer, then maybe, for a moment, you couldn’t be tough. Instead, Russert relies on his crutch of confronting politicians with allegedly contradictory statements they’ve made—to highly monotonous effect.

And that’s really the game here. Russert’s goal isn’t to inform his audience. He’s there to “make news”—to get his guest to say something embarrassing that lands in the next day’s papers or on the NBC Nightly News. The politicians, in turn, go on the show determined not to make news. And why do they bother? Because, as Geraghty has noted, it’s a rite of passage, and any politician too chicken to play Russert’s inane games would never garner the respect of the political class. And then, seven days later, it all happens again like clockwork. If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.

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