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Why Did Tim Russert Give Two Journalists a Pass on Ethical Improprieties?



Tim_russert_hiRussert-hating is almost an Olympic sport with some journalists, so I'm sometimes reluctant to join in the chorus of those who criticize the Meet the Press host for his chummy, insiderish excesses.

But then I watched Sunday's show, which began awfully enough with an extended interview featuring Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd -- a guy so far behind, even Russert cited a poll showing he had zero response among voters, justifying his status as a running joke on the Daily Show.

Writewhenimgonecover Then talk turned to the new book by Thomas DeFrank, Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Daily News, called Write It When I'm Gone. First, New York Times columnist William Safire admitted that he sent a memo to Richard Nixon in the early days of Watergate, not long after he had started work at the newspaper, telling the embattled president how he could survive the scandal.

Next, DeFrank admitted passing up the biggest scoop of his reporting life -- that Gerald Ford admitted to him he thought Nixon was finished as president one year before he resigned -- for fear of derailing his career. Ford had blurted it out while discussing his reaction to a Safire column, and then pressured DeFrank into agreeing to only write it after the president was dead.

Later in the interview, DeFrank also admitted Ford told him that he hated Ronald Reagan -- thought he was remarkably ignorant of details of major issues, but a great salesman -- despite many public speeches in which the former president said the exact opposite.

Did Russert even mildly challenge these guys on why they let these politicians lie about such stuff whenSafire_william  their job was to pierce those lies?  Did he ask Safire why he felt it was ethical to write columns for the nation's newspaper of record while advising the president on how to handle an emerging scandal? Did he note that the Watergate scandal might not have lasted so long if the world knew even the vice president had given up on Nixon?

Of course not. Indeed, it fell to Safire (pictured, at right) to note his discomfort with journalists only agreeing to publish the truth about a politician's statements after they're dead. As he quite rightly noted, that doesn't produce a whole lot of accountability when they're alive.

Meetthepresslogo Viewers of Sunday's Meet the Press got a bitter taste of how politics and journalism worked 30 years ago, served up by a joking Russert -- too busy buttering up his guests to challenge their actions. Those who think today's White House Press Corps are lapdogs to powerful politicians need only hear stories like these to realize that was a tradition which started an awfully long time ago. 

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:41pm]


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