COMMENTS: NBC News’ Washington Bureau Chief Dies

The shocking news of the sudden and untimely death of Tim Russert was Story of the Day. All three newscast led with his collapse while at work at the age of 58. Russert was the preeminent political journalist of his generation--not only bureau chief of one Washington DC's major newsgathering organizations, NBC News, but also the on-air moderator of the leading Sunday morning political interview talkshow, Meet the Press, a chair he had occupied since 1991. NBC had expected to spend the day on in-depth reporting on Afghanistan, with anchor Brian Williams located at Bagram AFB. Its newscast scrapped those plans--and even scrapped most of its commercials--to devote its entire newshole (28 min v ABC 5, CBS 12) to covering its own loss. Even though ABC and CBS offered a more conventional rounded news agenda, the three networks combined still spent 67% of their airtime (44 min out of 66) on remembrances of Russert.

ABC's White House correspondent Martha Raddatz called the news of Russert's death "stunning" and mourned "a profound loss for this city." On CBS, Richard Schlesinger labeled Russert, husband of Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth, "the toast of Washington."

NBC assigned its lead-off obituary to Pete Williams, hired by Russert from his job as Pentagon spokesman to become NBC's Justice Department correspondent. Williams took us through Russert's Buffalo NY roots, his parochial school education, his political experience in New York State's Democratic Party, his catchphrase If It's Sunday It's Meet the Press, his Election Night white eraser board in 2000 with the forecast Florida, Florida, Florida that is now in the Smithsonian, and his bestselling book in tribute to his sanitation worker father Big Russ & Me. Williams pointed out that his boss "collapsed and died two days before Father's Day." Russert described his own family's care for his aging father in a feature report on NBC Nightly News in February 2007. It was replayed in his memory.

ABC anchor Charles Gibson recounted that advice Russert received from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who brought him to Washington, that his working class Buffalo background would give him a sense of the capital city that "insiders would never have." CBS' Anthony Mason said Meet the Press, routinely subjecting major newsmakers to hourlong questioning, "set the agenda for the week in Washington and any politician seeking a path to higher office knew you had to pass through Russert."


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