As faithful readers of Russert Watch know by now, I like to multitask while watching Meet the Press (you need to diversify your Sunday morning portfolio to lessen your risk of ruining your whole day). Sometimes I'm doing yoga, sometimes I'm talking with friends.
This morning, I was talking with John Cusack, who came up with some timely advice for Russert: "In order to protect his brand as a hard-charging, truth-probing journalist," he said, "Team Russert needs to do an Oprah: haul back on his show Cheney and Rumsfeld and all the politicians who've lied to him on the set and damaged his credibility and confront them straight out."
For those who did not watch Oprah this week, here's how the master herself did it when she felt her brand was being threatened:
WINFREY: I really feel duped. I feel duped. ... I feel that you betrayed millions...
WINFREY: I feel that you conned us all...
FREY: I've struggled with the idea of it, and...
WINFREY: No, the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie.
That's how it's done. And keep in mind that the lies Frey told didn't result in thousands of people dead, billions of dollars lost, and a less safe America. And yet week after week, Russert has allowed politician after politician to use his show, and his credibility, for their own lying purposes.
So there is a large supply of less-than-truthful politicians to call on the carpet. In fact, Tim's lead guest today, Senator Bill Frist, was one the worst offenders. (Tim announced at the top of his show that this would be an "exclusive" -- though, since getting Senators to talk on TV is not that hard, that can only mean that nobody else would be interviewing Senator Frist while Tim himself was interviewing him.)
The good news today is that Tim did actually move in the right direction. A blushing Russert Watch can take only partial credit for this -- the bulk of the credit goes to dozens of our friends in the blogosphere jumping in (see JustOneMinute, First Draft, Open Letter to Tim Russert, kausfiles, TalkLeft, Kos, Atrios, AMERICAblog, Crooks & Liars, FishBowlDC, FishBowlNY, firedoglake, MyDD, The News Blog, Hullabaloo, etc., etc.) All of which proves the value of oversight -- we are all more on our toes when we know someone is watching. (If only more in Congress felt this way about the executive branch.)
But this small progress made today's show all the more frustrating because Tim still can't bring himself to do the full Oprah. The guest knows that during the follow-up -- and there were follow-ups today -- if he just slices his first answer a bit thinner, Tim will move on, and the truth crisis will be averted.
Two perfect examples from today. First, Terri Schiavo (video at C&L).
RUSSERT: Do you regret going to the floor of the Senate and saying, "I watched the videotape and that's not a persistent vegetative state."
FRIST: No, I don't. I'm a physician. I was watching a board-certified neurologist...
RUSSERT: Were you wrong in your diagnosis?
FRIST: I didn't make the diagnosis. I raised the question of whether or not she's in a persistent vegetative state.
But Frist did make the diagnosis. He didn't just raise the question. He also answered the question: "I watched the videotape and that's not a persistent vegetative state." Yet instead of coming back with the Oprah -- I really feel duped, Senator. I feel that you betrayed millions of Americans. That diagnosis was a lie, Senator. It was not a question. It was a lie -- Russert decided to go with the Russert: "Are you going to run for president?"
Ah, yes, the irresistible allure of the running-for-president question. Tim's pathological obsession with this question got Frist off the hook.
The second missed opportunity for Oprah-style truth extraction without novocaine occurred when Russert was pressing Frist about the sale of his HCA stock:
RUSSERT: You told CNBC, "It should be understood I put this into a blind trust. So far as I know I own no HCA stock. ...It's a blind trust. Totally blind. I have no control." That's not accurate.
FRIST: You know, I could have been more precise in my words.
Could have been more precise? Saying you could have been more precise implies that there was some precision there to begin with. But there wasn't. Frist owned HCA stock and he knew that he owned HCA stock. What he said was a lie, and deserved a full Oprah from Russert: "No," Russert could have said, "it isn't that you were imprecise, it's that you were lying."
What does Russert go with instead? Why, the Russert, of course: "The Securities and Exchange Commission's investigating, the Justice Department's investigating. If they find wrongdoing, would you then not run for president?"
Congratulations, Senator, you ran out the clock and made it to the running-for-president question yet again.
But if Tim cares about his brand half as much as Oprah cares about hers, he should, for starters, yank back on the show Dick Cheney and make him retract a series of lies uttered on the set of Meet the Press:
It's now public that, in fact, [Saddam] has been seeking to acquire... the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb. [9/8/02]
"We do know, with absolute certainty, that [Saddam] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." [9/8/02]
"Well, I think I've just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons... It's only a matter of time until he acquires nuclear weapons." [3/14/03]
"We know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization." [3/14/03]
"We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda." [9/23/03]
Every single one of these lies was uttered on the set of Meet the Press. So it's not just Cheney's credibility that's at issue, it's Russert's. Does anyone now doubt what Oprah's reaction would be if her show had been used to spread those lies?
But maybe Oprah's just got more fight in her. As John Cusack put it this morning: "Hey, I'm Irish too, and if there's one tribe that historically doesn't like bowing to royalty, it's the Irish. I hope one Sunday morning Russert will wake up and get his Irish on."