So much airtime on so many Sunday mornings has made Tim Russert's weekend job as moderator of Meet the Press the most memorable and recognizable part of his legacy. Yet anchor Brian Williams would always introduce Russert whenever he would appear on NBC Nightly News by using his full title: "NBC News DC bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press." His weekday behind the scenes job as leader of the bureau was just as important.
The DC bureau has been the backbone of NBC's journalism. Each evening at the news hour, NBC Nightly News has relied on Russert's inside-the-Beltway corps of correspondents much more heavily than either CBS Evening News or ABC World News. Tyndall Report's data show that since 1991, when Russert took the chair at Meet the Press, his DC bureau has accounted for fully 30% of all Nightly's weekday stories, an annual average output of 1520 minutes, more than 25 hours. By contrast, the other two newscasts' DC bureaus were 23% less productive (ABC 1176 min, CBS 1165) in an average year. In those 17 years, NBC has had the busiest of the three DC bureaus in every single year save 1995.
It was not just this greater workload that is a tribute to Russert's skills as a bureau chief. His skills on the assignment desk and as copy editor are evident in the quality of the bereaved stable of correspondents he leaves behind: David Gregory at the White House, Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon, Andrea Mitchell at the State Department, Pete Williams at Justice, Lisa Myers on investigations, Tom Costello on the alphabet soup of executive branch agencies, Kelly O'Donnell on the campaign trail. Of those names, none was hired away from another network news organization. All were hired and groomed in-house under Russert's leadership or inherited when he took over the bureau. Anchor Brian Williams was one of Gregory's predecessors at the White House in Russert's bureau.
The converse does not apply. Several of the correspondents who thrived under Russert's mentorship at NBC's DC bureau are now leading lights at the competition: CBS' Katie Couric was at the Pentagon, CNN's Campbell Brown at the White House, ABC's Claire Shipman at the White House, CBS' Chip Reid at Capitol Hill, ABC's John Cochran at the White House, PBS' Gwen Ifill on the campaign trail.
This is how Andrea Mitchell described her late chief on Nightly News on Friday: "Tim was our teacher and our mentor -- my mentor...There are real leaders in this world. There are not that many of them. He led this bureau here in Washington, our political team. He had all of us on Meet the Press only last Sunday and he was so enthusiastic about bringing us all together, many off the road to share stories...He was also a player coach. This was a man who not only led this bureau, but taught all of us. And the first call every morning would be: 'Hey, Mitch, Here is what you should go after today.' He inspired me to learn Capitol Hill when I went there and to learn the State Department. Every beat I have been on, he taught me how to do it best...There is no way to share with our viewers how broken our hearts are tonight.
The importance of the DC bureau at NBC News is reflected in the network's general emphasis on the primary of politics. A longstanding hallmark of Today, where Russert was a frequent guest, was to cover more politics, especially in its first half hour, than either ABC's Good Morning America or CBS' Early Show. Much of the improvement in MSNBC's ratings vis-à-vis CNN and FOX News Channel is attributable to its unrelenting emphasis on Campaign 2008.
The strength of NBC News' political bench, nurtured by hours of airtime at MSNBC, means that the most visible absence created by Russert's death--the empty moderator's chair at Meet the Press--may be an easier void for NBC News management to fill than Russert's behind-the-scenes expertise as DC bureau chief.
Almost all the obvious contenders for the Meet the Press job are already working at NBC News. This is how Tyndall Report handicaps them:
Chuck Todd NBC's political director is no smooth, sophisticated on-air presence--but neither was Russert when he took the job back in 1991. His call of Campaign 2008 has been exemplary throughout the primary season so he obviously has a spot-on sense of the political pulse. The public policy and foreign policy aspects of Meet the Press would be unchartered territory.
David Gregory NBC's lame duck White House correspondent has already begun his transition from cantankerous reporter to dignified interviewer-anchor, substituting on Today and hosting his own Race for the White House on MSNBC. NBC is clearly grooming him for an eventual full anchor role but he might not be there yet.
Chris Matthews MSNBC's Hardballer already has a successful Sunday morning presence with his syndicated week-in-review panel show but his argumentative, hyperactive interviewing style would be hard to translate to the august rhythms of Meet the Press. Under Russert, NBC made great strides in establishing his show's reputation as fair-minded and respectful. Matthews' bombast would undercut those attributes.
Tom Brokaw NBC's former Nightly News anchor could find a perfect coda to his broadcasting career by following in the steps of David Brinkley and turning Sunday morning talk into a font of wisdom and perspective. Brokaw certainly has the interviewing chops for the job but it would be highly uncharacteristic of the always-forward-planning management at NBC to go retro.
Andrea Mitchell NBC's politico-diplomatic correspondent has already occasionally substituted at Meet the Press for Russert--as has Gregory. Mitchell has a well-rounded knowledge of politics and policy, domestic and foreign. Her appointment would provide NBC with a viable claim that it had the nation's preeminent female journalist--not Katie Couric at CBS nor Diane Sawyer at ABC. Mitchell has the finest Rolodex of contacts inside-the-Beltway so booking the show would be a breeze for her. However her skills are more as a reporter than an interviewer.
Joe Scarborough MSNBC's Morning Joe would have been an unthinkable candidate even a few months ago but he has found his voice as the cable channel's intelligent replacement for radio-on-television Imus in the Morning. After a pair of former Democratic operatives--Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos--providing fodder for the liberal-media-bias culture warriors, a former Republican congressman would be just the antidote.
Gwen Ifill PBS' Washington Week anchor is the only non-NBC Newser on Tyndall Report's list but she sports the Russert pedigree, having been hired for television by him from The New York Times. Ifill always seems too large a presence for the collegial reporters' fivesome of the PBS half hour, brimming with more curiosity, knowledge and attitude than those constraints allow. An hour each week one-on-one with world leaders would allow her to strut her stuff.
As for the name to replace Russert as DC bureau chief, those are harder shoes to fill.