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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Meet the Press: A Requium

NBC broadcast an obviously different edition of Meet The Press on June 15 to remember Tim Russert. Tom Brokaw did a wonderful job in leading Betsy Fishcher (exec producer), Mike Barnicle, Mary Matalin, James Carville, Gwen Ifil, Maria Shriver and Doris Kearns Goodwin through an hour of reflection on Russert's life and achievements in terms of both his personal and professional relationships. As a encomium to one life well led, it's worth watching for that.

On a higher collective plane, two things seemed to emerge from the legacy of Russert's professional achievements. First, directly because of Russert's INTENSE dedication and preparation, Meet the Press became the unthinkable for American politicians and, as a result, an absolute necessity for America. It became the most-feared show but at the same time, a must-do show for any politician in the country. An appearance was feared because a candidate who failed to prepare (for the obvious) and couldn't handle potentially an entire show of questions would obviously fail to convince the public they had what was required to succeed not only at the pure electoral level but succeed in true terms of public policy. At the same time, Meet the Press was a must-do show because anyone who HAD the ability had to prove it by appearing on the show to answer that question - can you handle MTP?. As Brokaw put it, the "Russert primary" became a very real part of the American electoral process.

I hope NBC and the dozens of people who might be considered to fill the slot on Meet the Press take that lesson to heart. It is possible to be successful in the professional AND commercial sense with REAL news but it takes WORK. A lot of work. Not showing up an hour before showtime for make-up, inviting to guests from the extremes for "balance", then letting them recite their talking points and calling it a wrap. True journalism isn't just one of many possible careers or a path to TV stardom, it's a required gear in the transmission of a functional democracy. First gear, in fact.

The other lesson that emerges from Russet's career boils down to this: give someone a hand up. Russert's current executive producer, Betsy Fischer, started as an intern on Meet the Press. Gwen Ifil became a regular partly because she did a stint in Buffalo but also because he saw her same interest in getting past the "story" and the "spin" to getting to the facts. More importantly, a nobody from Buffalo got his start by joining the staff for New York Senator Patrick Moynihan. Mike Barnicle told a story of how Russert found himself amidst a staff full of "A-list" Harvard and Yale law graduates on the Moynihan staff and was somewhat anxious about his academic credentials. Moynihan took him aside at one point and said words to the effect of "What they know, you can learn -- what you know in your heart, they can't learn."

No matter what you do for a living, there are people you work with every day who might be temporarily "stuck" just like you might be but there's something you know they might not but might be willing to learn. Seek those people out. Share what you know. Round them out a little bit. Help them widen their horizons a bit. Give them a hand up. Maybe someone will do it for you as well. We'll all be better off.

Watch the show on the web or your DVR.