Tim Russert Q&A: Longtime Moderator Keeps ‘Em Talking

Apr 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

“Meet the Press” debuted on NBC on Nov. 6, 1947. Television’s longest-running television show is being inducted today into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame at NAB’s annual convention in Las Vegas. When its selection was announced, NAB President David Rehr called the public affairs show the “benchmark” for the genre.

Accepting the honor will be Tim Russert, who has been the program’s managing editor and moderator since 1991 and whose contract calls for him to keep those roles until 2012.

“Meet the Press” is well known in political power circles as the most watched of the Sunday newsmaker/public affairs programs. In the first quarter of 2007, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, the NBC News program averaged 4.1 million viewers, outstripping competitors “Face the Nation” (CBS), “This Week” (ABC) and “Fox News Sunday” by anywhere from 1.1 million to 2.7 million viewers.

In the demo that is most important to advertisers in news programming, viewers 25-54, “Meet the Press” had a 33 percent lead over its closest competition, “Face the Nation.”

Mr. Russert, the ninth and longest-running permanent moderator of the program, recently talked with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi about the role of “Meet the Press” in today’s media landscape and how it remains vital six decades after its inception.

He also discussed how it felt to become part of the news as a witness for the prosecution in Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s trial on obstruction of justice charges.

Mr. Russert, 56, is senior VP and Washington bureau chief for NBC News. He hosts “Tim Russert” on CNBC and contributes analysis to MSNBC and the signature programs of NBC News. He’s also the author of two best-selling books inspired by his blue-collar father, “Big Russ and Me” and “Wisdom of Our Fathers.”

Mr. Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, have one son, a junior at Boston College.

TelevisionWeek: As the moderator of “Meet the Press,” what is your role?
Tim Russert: The mission of the show has been consistent: to find the best guests to talk about the most important subjects of the week. My role is to help determine the most important issues, the best guests, research those issues and those guests, ask the toughest and fairest questions, and hopefully you’ll listen to interesting and meaningful answers.

TVWeek: And answers that will make print the next day, which is why they’re called newsmaker shows, right?
Mr. Russert: Yes. Because it’s on a Sunday morning, there is a lot of attention paid. Invariably throughout the day the network, the cable, the radio, the wires will all pay attention to what was said, and the Monday morning papers. Often the gaggles and the exchanges at the White House the next day. It has a way of rippling out throughout the week. With Factiva and Google, I get editorials or letters to the editor or commentaries from papers all across the country, and I’m amazed at the references to Sunday’s show.

TVWeek: What’s the biggest newsmaker show you can recall?
Mr. Russert: Whenever I do the president. When I did Bill Clinton in the Oval Office and George W. Bush in the Oval Office. I remember vividly asking Bill Clinton about North Korea, and he said, “I will not allow North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon.” I could hear the “bing” on computers, the bulletins, as soon as he said it. You just knew it was the lead story all across the world. I remember interviewing George W. Bush, it was in February 2004, and I asked him about the weapons of mass destruction; and he said, “We have not found them and in all likelihood will not find them.” Then I asked him, in light of that answer, did he still consider the war a war of choice or of necessity. He paused a long time and said, “I still think it’s a war of necessity.” That also made big headlines.

There are also times when you don’t make a headline, but it becomes a valuable historic document that can be referred to. For example, E.J. Dionne wrote a column in the Washington Post and said the most important pre-war artifact is not a secret document, it was Vice President Cheney on “Meet the Press” on the Sunday before the war. That’s when he said we would be greeted as liberators. USA Today the other day had the 25 most memorable quotes in the last 25 years and that was No. 16.

The important thing is, there was about a 10-minute segment where I asked what if there is a long protracted bloody insurrection, particularly in Baghdad. He said, “Tim, that will not happen. We will be greeted as liberators.” I asked about troop levels, I asked about the cost of the war, I asked about sectarian violence between the Shiites and Sunnis, and he said of all the places in the world, it won’t happen in Iraq. You look at that now and there are five fundamental judgments made days before the war as to what the administration believed. There was not a right or wrong answer at that time, because we didn’t know how it would turn out. But now when you reflect back you can see there were very fundamental misjudgments. That is invaluable, not only to write history but with new crises. You can learn from them, I hope.

TVWeek: You’ve been able to deal with those five judgments in succeeding appearances by Vice President Cheney.
Mr. Russert: Yes. His most recent appearance was exactly that. I took each of those and went through them. It was a feisty show, to put it mildly. At the end of it, I said, “Should I be happy you didn’t bring your gun to the studio today?” And he said, “You’re not in season, Tim.”

TVWeek: What is the role of the program in the media and the political landscape?
Mr. Russert: An hour is an oasis in terms of television. Most of the interviews you see are very quick, by the politicians’ design. If you’re able to get a public official or candidate to sit for an hour, you can really get beyond the boilerplate. That’s what I have tried to bring to the program. The more you can do that, you can say to the public, these are the issues that we think are important and we believe you think are important. Now you have heard enough from this person that you can make a pretty reasonable judgment as to whether or not they know what they are talking about or whether you agree with them.

I think that can be an invaluable public service. It also can help frame and shape the political dialogue for days and weeks to come. Journalists from around the country will say they were able to ask local officials follow-up questions on that subject. If you can be an incubator, it encourages people to pursue that line of inquiry or research. Then I think we’ve done our jobs.

TVWeek: Has your role or that of the show changed as cable increased the volume of political debate, as blogging rendered political debate a powerful private enterprise and as YouTube has made gaffes into haunting images?
Mr. Russert: I think it’s underscored our uniqueness. They complement us more than compete with us. There was a time back in 1947 when “Meet the Press” was the only public affairs or newsmaker show on television. It must have been interesting to function in that vacuum. But now you have, with talk radio and cable news and the bloggers and an enormous amount of political debate, discussion and dialogue going on.

But the difference, I think, is that most of that is opinion-driven. There are still very few places where you can still find what I think is the objective pursuit of what the guest believes. There’s no agenda. It is not advocacy journalism. And for me a successful show is when the left-wing blogs and the right-wing blogs, and the right-wing talk radio and the left-wing talk radio, and liberal cable shows and the conservative cable shows, are all critical of “Meet the Press,” which happens often.

If you are only going to tune in to an outlet that agrees with your position, then “Meet the Press” is not for you. That’s not why we exist. But I believe, based on the response we get, that there is still a very healthy
appetite among people for tough questions, adversarial questions, but also a level of civility and objectivity that’s not often found in many outlets.

TVWeek: Since you succeeded Garrick Utley as “Meet the Press” moderator, you’ve dealt with three administrations. From the perspective of getting the guests you want, how much difference has there been between them?
Mr. Russert: When times are good, they are much more accessible. When times are bad, it is much more difficult. The administration is very frugal in providing guests. This will shock your readers. There’s this sense that politicians can’t wait to be on television. That’s certainly true for some outlets, but we have offered a full hour to all the major candidates for president. Only one has done it: John Edwards. Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, they all say we’re going to do it, we’re trying to find the right time. I watched Romney on “John Gibson” on Fox. I watched Rudy Giuliani on “Hannity & Colmes,” which is fine. I have every confidence that ultimately they’re going to realize that it’s important for them to sit for one hour and answer tough questions. I don’t think you make tough decisions without answering tough questions. Everything in time.

They’re constantly complaining that television gravitates to sensational and simple and they want to talk about substance and real issues that matter to people. Well, here’s the chance. It is not gotcha. It is trying to keep politicians honest in terms of their communication with the voters.

With the enormous increase in the number of advocacy journalists and ideological pamphleteers, there is a real reluctance to acknowledge a shortcoming by someone they believe they are in sync with. It’s fascinating. Like George Bush can do no wrong or George Bush can do no right. That can’t possibly be true. So you’re caught in this crossfire, which is fine, but it’s not as if they are speaking the truth, that they have a monopoly on the truth and the mainstream media are the captive of cozy relationships and have been hoodwinked by the Bush administration or hoodwinked by the liberal Democratic cadre.

TVWeek: I have, over the years, kidded you about how hard it is to get some guests to speak English. They speak politics-ese.
Mr. Russert: And often a Washington alphabet that is impossible for people to understand. I have a rule. Whenever someone says, “We’re going to take SR 1482 to conference,” I say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is SR 1482? And what is conference? Or secretary of HHS. Wait a minute. Slow down. No numbers. No alphabet. Speak English.” That’s where my dad has been enormously influential. He’ll constantly say, “I want to understand these guys, and when they start speaking that Washington insider shorthand I turn it off.”

TVWeek: Who has the leverage, between “Meet the Press” and its counterparts and the White House or the Hill?
Mr. Russert: We’re there as an opportunity for politicians to come, answer questions and share their views. They can accept an invitation or not. [House Speaker] Harry Reid has been on all the other shows twice. He hasn’t been on “Meet the Press,” I think, in two or three years.

TVWeek: Why do you think that is?
Mr. Russert: They’ve said, “We’ll let you know when he’s ready.”

TVWeek: Who needs whom the most? Who wants whom the most?
Mr. Russert: If Attorney General Alberto Gonzales doesn’t want to come on “Meet the Press” over the last month or so, that’s his decision. No one can force him. But we are going to do a show on that issue. A show that I think is going to put it in context, in perspective. We’ll have the U.S. attorneys who were fired. We’ll have members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We’ll have representatives of the administration. But we’ll be able to provide the viewer with a very good sense of what the issue is and what the debate is all about. Many times the administration or the congressional figure will calculate that if they don’t go on, then we’ll move on and we won’t cover the issue. Nonsense. They don’t produce the program. They don’t select what the most important issue of the week is. I happen to think if you do well on “Meet the Press,” you can make a very good impression. I think Gonzales is going to have to answer questions. If it’s not going to be on “Meet the Press,” certainly April 17 he’s going to be under oath before Congress. But you can’t force people to come on.

TVWeek: When you do go ahead and do a program on the topic without the central figure, do you hear from their people afterward?
Mr. Russert: We hear from both sides all the time. I said to the White House we have a specific invitation [to Gonzales] and if he declines the invitation we’re going to say that, because I don’t want to be receiving e-mails and phone calls and letters all day long saying “Why didn’t you give the poor attorney general a chance to defend himself?” He had the offer of a full hour. They’re always saying, “There’s no one here at the White House, but have you thought about….” But there has to be some comparability. If one side has a United States senator, you’re not going to take a K Street lobbyist to represent the other side. It was very difficult finding a Republican senator willing to defend Gonzalez. Everybody was traveling that Sunday morning.

TVWeek: Are there many weeks in which someone doesn’t accept your invitation but shows up on another show that week or a week later?
Mr. Russert: Yes. And there are times when they will say no and six weeks later, when the news is better, they’ll be pleading, “Let me come on.” Where were you when we needed you, right? That’s their right. I can’t force them to come on.

TVWeek: How does your assignment as NBC’s varsity inquisitor affect the rest of your life? You do live in Washington. It is a political town.
Mr. Russert: I think it has enhanced my ability to get calls answered and to get information, which I pass on to my fellow correspondents. I have dual hats. One is moderator and managing editor of “Meet the Press” and the other is bureau chief. I think they enhance each other.

TVWeek: Has anyone ever dropped you from their Christmas card list?
Mr. Russert: Oh, yes.

TVWeek: Who was the last one?
Mr. Russert: I don’t know. I’m not a very social animal. I don’t go to many dinner parties or cocktail parties. I just don’t do it. I don’t find it very helpful or productive, to be honest with you. I much prefer to go to a baseball game or basketball game with my son. Or stay home and read.

TVWeek: What kind of off-air conversation can you have with the people you have cross-examined or otherwise put in the spotlight?
Mr. Russert: If I’m seeking information, I will say, “OK, tell me about this debate on the war. What are you trying to achieve? Why are you putting in these other spending measures? What is the end game on this?” There are things people will say to you on the telephone that they won’t say on television. There’s no doubt about it. You have to have your filter and your governor on at all times because they’re advocates. They’re trying to spin and persuade you, but you can pick up some very valuable information.

TVWeek: There is this perception that the Bush administration just doesn’t answer questions.
Mr. Russert: Well, you can look at the history of questions they have answered. If the answers they gave were wrong or misleading, then it’s been exposed. There’s a reason, I believe, the president is at 30 percent in the polls. The public has made a decision on a lot of these issues. There’s a reason 60 percent of the American people believe the war was not worth it. Sometimes, in a very interesting and sometimes crazy way, or sometimes very messy way, somehow the public gets the information. And they’re pretty good at sifting through it. Right now, the public wants to end the war, but they don’t want
to lose it. And that’s a pretty hard needle to thread right now.

TVWeek: You found yourself becoming part of the news and the judicial process during the investigation and prosecution of Scooter Libby. How did that feel? Did it have any lasting effect on you as a member of the press?
Mr. Russert: I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. It was not my doing. You always have this situation where you’re both a citizen and a journalist. When someone says you did something wrong, like I had some information about Valerie Plame and I revealed it, I mean, that was just not true. You can’t let that stand. The easiest thing for me to say is I don’t remember any of it, but I do. I remember the phone call and it didn’t come up. So I told the truth. Three jurors have spoken publicly, and all three said they found my testimony highly credible. So I wish I had not been in that circumstance, but I was. It has not affected my ability to make phone calls, to get phone calls answered.

I think my situation is a little different because at the heart of it was something I said — I wasn’t revealing what a source said. It was Libby saying I told him, and I was refuting him. I wasn’t breaking a confidence, and I think people saw that. But I do believe there will be sources who will say, “I’m not going to share this information unless you tell me that you will be willing to go to prison to protect me.” I’m not comfortable with the notion of prosecutors subpoenaing reporters on a regular basis because you can quickly, I think, destroy this rather fragile line that exists between being a reporter and a witness; and that can really complicate our ability to do our jobs. If you close down all background or off-the-record information, I think you really do limit your ability to report.

TVWeek: Anything you would or could do differently should you find yourself in that situation again?
Mr. Russert: What are you going to do? If someone accuses you of doing something wrong, you can stay silent or you can say that’s not true. If you observe a crime, what is your obligation as a citizen, what is your obligation as a journalist? I would like to avoid 5%BD; hours in the jury box, I can assure you of that. That’s not a pleasant experience because you realize that a lot of it was not an attempt to find the truth. A lot of it was an attempt to use you as a vehicle to make the case for the defense or the prosecution, but that’s our legal system.

TVWeek: Does Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist who first published Ms. Plame’s identity, still have any questions he needs to answer for having revealed her identity?
Mr. Russert: He’s written two columns about it, and I’m told he’s writing a book. The interesting thing from our perspective is that after the column came out, and I said this on the stand, people said, “Well, why didn’t you report it if it’s happening in the story?” Well, even though Bob Novak had reported it, we wanted to vet it and we took our time.

TVWeek: How did the public, as you heard from them, understand the situation you were in with the Libby case? What was their main perception of it?
Mr. Russert: A lot just didn’t understand it. It was very complicated. Some saw it as my word against Libby’s, and partisans on both sides were saying that was good or bad. “You’re speaking truth to power. You’re standing up to the vice president and his chief of staff on this thing.” Or they’re saying, “Do you have a grudge against the Bush administration?” I think the vast majority of people saw it as, you know, you got dragged into this, but you came out fine; the jury believed you and your credibility is intact, go back to work.

TVWeek: Does your audience include only people who are inclined to approve of you or how you do your job, or do your regular viewers also include people who regularly criticize you?
Mr. Russert: Oh, sure. I have both, We get a ton of e-mails every week. “There you go again, Russert. What the hell’s wrong with you?” or “Well, you got it right this time.” It’s really wild.

TVWeek: Do you respond to e-mails?
Mr. Russert: They get “thank you” but nothing personal. I don’t respond to them, You can’t possibly do it. One time there was an organized campaign about why I had asked Barack Obama about a comment Harry Belafonte had made. Someone said that was inappropriate and it was racist and “you wouldn’t do that to the Republicans and Karl Rove” and so on. I really was deeply offended by that. The answer was very simple. One, Harry Belafonte was identified as a supporter and someone who stayed in touch with Obama through telephone and e-mails, providing advice and input. Secondly, “Meet the Press” is filled with questions to Karl Rove or the comments made by Jerry Falwell and others in support of the Republicans. So with that one, we did put together a response and sent it back. And I tell you that about 90 percent of the people who had sent in the original e-mail said, “You know what, you’re right. Sorry.” So that was healthy. But it’s hard. Some people just want to engage. They just want to get you to say things and draw it out. They’re advocates and their job is to provoke.

TVWeek: As you’re drawing up questions for a show, does the perception you think people have of you and your role play a part at all?
Mr. Russert: No. I honestly believe that people know what “Meet the Press” is. They know who I am. There’s a very large comfort level that I’m doing the best I can, learning about the issue and asking good questions, good questions and tough questions. I’m not a showboat. I’m not going to go out there and be a carnival barker and reach across the desk and pull someone’s tie and say, “Give it up.” I don’t want to make my guests sympathetic. I think the clicker is the ultimate way that a viewer can express his or her support or frustration or whatever, I think there’s a reason we’ve been the No. 1 show for seven years in a row or whatever, People have an expectation and a respect for the show.

TVWeek: How do you maintain the level of energy or commitment when you’ve been No. 1 for so long? How do you not get full of yourself?
Mr. Russert: If you’re from Buffalo and you have three sisters, it’s pretty easy. The reason I wrote the book about my dad is because the lessons of life can be summed up in one word: grounded. Grounded is everything. You’ve got to stay grounded, to know who you are, where you came from and what’s important in life. With my dad and my sisters, and my mom until she died two years ago, I had the cheapest and most accurate focus group that I could ever have. They’re unbelievable.

TVWeek: In general, how does the “Meet the Press” audience differ from the average news audience? Are they the same?
Mr. Russert: No. I think we have 4.5 million or 4 million viewers who watch the whole show and 6 million who watch some part of the show, then we get another 1 million on the cable replay, and we get iPod — I was stunned by how successful the iPod is. It’s huge. People download it and listen to it. And now we’re streaming at 1 o’clock every Sunday. Even though we went on cable, even though we went on iPod, even though we went on the stream, the TV audience stays the same. It’s fascinating. It’s new viewers who are willing to use different means to listen to you. I would say 100 percent of our audience votes. I dare say a high percentage are active in politics or contribute to politics. I would dare say their education levels are higher than for some other programs on television. I think that’s why the ripple effect occurs. People who watch it across the country are in leadership positions and it plays out.

TVWeek: What’s your take on the preliminaries to the 2008 presidential race, especially as it relates to your show?
Mr. Russert: It’s a great year. It’s only [April] and we are much more engaged in a presidential race than at any time in my lifetime. Just wait until October, Nov
ember, December, leading up to those caucuses and those primaries. It’s a feverish pitch. I’m confident the candidates will come on, and we’ll have benchmark interviews for the full hour and at the end of them have a pretty good idea of where these people stand on Iraq and Social Security and the environment and other sociocultural issues. I’m looking at it with great energy and great anticipation.

TVWeek: Does the thought go through your mind that the public at large might get campaign fatigue, election fatigue?
Mr. Russert: They might, but not our viewers. Election Night 2000, when I had my little white board, “Florida, Florida, Florida,” and then that election lasted 35 days, 36 days, we didn’t know who would win — I’ve never seen the country so focused.

TVWeek: However, that not only was high drama but, depending on which way you voted, somebody was taking something away.
Mr. Russert: But, you see, my point is to constantly remind people how important it is, and I do. All this is high stakes. I’m constantly saying to people, “This is important, not only Election Day but every other day.” Do I think some people will say, “Enough already, the campaign has gone on too long”? Yeah, of course. But we cover the reality, and the reality is these candidates are out there raising money and going to Iowa and going to New Hampshire. We can ignore them and say, “I’m sorry but it’s not time for us. We’re above the news.” We can’t be above the news.

TVWeek: Does the public inside or outside the beltway want you to dish on “Meet the Press” guests?
Mr. Russert: Yes.

TVWeek: How do they ask the question?
Mr. Russert: I’ve done two books, “Big Russ and Me” and “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” and I did those because it was a subject I really cared about, What the publishers really wanted me to write about, and still want me to write about, is behind the scenes at “Meet the Press.” What is Ross Perot really like? What goes on in the green room? George Bush in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton. Condoleezza Rice. I’m not doing to do that. If I did, the working title would be “They’re All Alike.”

TVWeek: Do you think you’ll ever write that book? Perhaps after you’ve moved on?
Mr. Russert: That would be a real test. Now I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my ability to be objective and to have guests come on. But, would I do an end-of-career memoir saying, “This is how I really feel”? I doubt it. I doubt it. I think a lot of those things are best taken with me.

TVWeek: Do you have any anecdotes you can or do share to satisfy people?
Mr. Russert: I share the one about Ross Perot. It was May of ’92, he was ahead of Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush in the polls. He came on and I said, “Mr. Perot, you’ve been focused on the deficit. And now you’re a candidate for president of the United States, emphasizing that issue. You deserve credit for making it an issue that’s being played around the country. So let me begin this way. You’ve identified the deficit as an issue. Now that you’re running for president, what’s your solution?” And he said, “What?” I said, “Now that you’re a candidate for president, what’s your solution?” And he said, “Now, then, if I knew you were going to ask me all those trick questions, I wouldn’t have come on your program.” I said, “It’s not a trick question. How are you going to balance the budget. You said you were going to get under the hood. Take me under the hood.” Oh, man, it got feisty. I went to the airport and a flight attendant ran down the aisle and said, “That interview with Ross Perot was unbelievable. What do you think of him?” I said, “Ma’am, I never comment about my guests and their positions on the issues. You have to find that on talk radio, or cable TV, or whatever. I really try to be objective and let you, the viewer, make up your mind. But I’m endlessly curious. As a viewer, as a voter, as a flight attendant, what did you think about Ross Perot?” She said, “He strikes me as the kind of guy who would never return his tray table to the upright position.” Amen. That would be my opening chapter, my opening story.

TVWeek: How long do you envision doing “Meet the Press”?
Mr. Russert: My contract’s up in 2012. I will be 62 years old. I’ll see how I feel and how the program is doing and go from there. I will have been on the program in 2012 for 22 years. I’m now the longest-serving moderator. [Creator Lawrence] Spivak was with the show for 28 years, but he was moderator for 10 or 11. There’s nothing I would rather do on television. I’ve been asked to entertain other things and I’ve declined, because this is what I like. I think very few times in life are you blessed to know what you’re good at and also to have that opportunity, and I think this is it. I work very hard being good at “Meet the Press,” and I hope the viewers will always find that to be the case.

TVWeek: It’s hard to picture you retiring as long as you’re still alive. What do you do when you kick back? Do you kick back?
Mr. Russert: I like sports a lot. I came in fourth in the office pool for March Madness, and in my physical therapy pool I won. I broke my ankle so I’m getting it fixed up. I was running and jumping down stairs, carrying things. I caught my foot and started to fall. My dog was at the bottom, Buster the Wonder Dog, and I startled him and he jumped up. I tried to leap over him to avoid landing on his head.

TVWeek: The quick brown Russert jumped over the sleeping dog?
Mr. Russert: That’s my story, and Buster’s not talking. But if you’d like Buster, you can have him.

TVWeek: What else do you like to do?
Mr. Russert: I like to read. I do my CNBC show partly as an outlet about books I’ve read, and talk to the authors. I like to walk. It clears the head.

TVWeek: What’s the closest thing to drudgery about your job?
Mr. Russert: When a guest comes on and absolutely will not break out of their robotic training. The tragedy is that when they finish, their handlers will give them high fives and the viewers will give them thumbs down. I will get inundated with e-mails and letterers asking, “Why won’t he just answer the question?” It’s both sides, Republicans, Democrats. They just can’t believe it. But the politician walks out of here thinking, “Well, I avoided that catastrophe.” But guess what? You hurt yourself.” But you just feel helpless. You can use every technique. You hope for the best, but what are you going to do? Boy, there’s nothing more frustrating.

‘Meet the Press’ 60th Anniversary