Of course Russert coverage was over the top; now give Gwen Ifill or Chuck Todd the job
The unexpected death Friday of Meet the Press host Tim Russert produced what one critic called "An orgy of coverage" by the world's media, led by Russert's employer NBC News. Into Monday, the tributes to Russert kept coming on MSNBC, which went wall-to-wall in memorializing the Washington bureau chief and lead political analyst on the day he died, while NBC offered an hourlong special Friday night, a special Saturday Today show hosted by Matt Lauer and Al Roker, an hourlong Russert tribute on Meet the Press and a long interview with Russert's impossibly poised son Luke on Monday's Today show. (at left, Luke touches his dad's chair at the end of Sunday's Meet the Press)
Critics are carping that NBC in particular has wasted too much journalistic energy on eulogizing a political journalism giant who was still, after all, just one man. But after covering the deaths of several local and national journalists over the past 18 months or so, I also see this as part of the peculiar cycle of grief that news operations go through when one of their own passes away -- particularly, if that person was a star.
Part of it is the natural inclination to bury your sorrow in work. Part of it is a wish to pay tribute by creating something lasting and laudatory about that person. Part of it is the realization that such tributes echo the feeling of news consumers. And part of it, frankly, is the fact that such tributes draw a huge amount of attention from the audience, which is grieving in its own way.
So, tempting as it is to jump on the bandwagon and wag a finger at NBC for going on too long about Russert's death -- and ignoring criticisms that he had grown too chummy with Washington power brokers over the years, letting the White House spin him like everyone else about evidence leading to the war in Iraq -- I'm going to pass. Sometimes, you just have to let people -- and institutions -- grieve they way they need to.
The other question a breathless media can't wait to debate, is who will take over Russert's host chair on Meet the Press, the longest-running TV program ever. Crass as it feels to consider this, even now, here's my idea:
First, NBC needs to give everyone time to get over Russert's death by slotting a series of guest hosts in the job. Even ABC anchor Peter Jennings was diagnosed with an illness months before he died -- this loss has been sudden and unexpected, and it will take viewers a while to get over it. Naming a successor now will look crass and needlessly quick, and it won't be fair to whomever is stuck trying to live up to Russert's legend.
First guest host should be White House correspondent David Gregory -- he's done it many times, and is clearly a rising star at NBC News. Longtime viewers will find him a comfortable fit and he can make it plain that he's just filling in until a final decision is made. Other guest hosts should include: reporter Andrea Mitchell, who has also subbed for Russert and knows Washington better than anyone; analyst Chuck Todd, who is NBC's finest political mind besides Russert and should get more airtime; former anchor Tom Brokaw, who has often distinguished himself with incisive commentary during election coverage; Gwen Ifill, an MTP regular who hosts her own version of the show on PBS. As a Russert protege, giving her the big gig might be considered the ultimate tribute.
Who shouldn't substitute: Hardball host Chris Matthews and Countdown host Keith Olbermann. Both are too opinionated and too unpredictable for the job. If Russert proved anything in his time, it's that an MTP host should be impartial as possible, to give politicians the sense they're getting a fair shake.
Who should get the gig: Ifill or, depending on how he does as substitute, Chuck Todd. Gregory should be seasoned on cable as a backup for Matt Lauer -- his destiny is wider. Brokaw is too old school; Meet the Press needs a bridge to the future. Ifill could hit the ground running and Todd is a new school Russert -- a sharp political mind with little or no anchor experience.
Here's hoping NBC make a smart choice...To send condolences directly to the Russert family, click here. The wake will be held today from 2-9 p.m., St. Albans School, Cafritz Refectory, Mount St. Alban, Massachusetts & Wisconsin Avenues, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016.