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Paul Abrams

Paul Abrams

Posted: June 14, 2008 05:52 PM

How Russert Impacted the Primary: A Footnote to History


Tim Russert has been broadly praised for his neutrality and objectivity questioning politicians on Meet the Press. Yet, even the evenhanded can skew outcomes.

For this primary season Russert provided an open invitation to all presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans, to appear for an hour on Meet the Press. For the first half hour, Tim asked mostly substantive policy questions.

For the second half hour, he "Russerted" them, asking about prior actions or inconsistencies. He did this to everyone. Some--such as campaign contributions from questionable sources--seemed potentially relevant to a candidate's character and credibility. Others, such as questioning Richardson for mistaking when he was 17 years old a verbal offer from a scout for a contract to play professional baseball, seemed a bit tangential to his likely conduct of the presidency.

Everyone, but one. Hillary Clinton was still the "inevitable" nominee and had decided not to appear on the Sunday programs. But, the pressure mounted, and then, one Sunday, she appeared on all of them. All from her home, not the studios. One morning, similar questions, her in control, over and done with. Just one half-hour each.

There was an unmistakable message conveyed. The Clintons called the shots. Hillary Clinton was likely to be President, and networks that did not go along faced the prospect of 8 years of second-rate status for access.

Russert went along. He interviewed Hillary for a half hour, and it was all substance-policy. She provided sufficiently long-winded answers to questions such as why she voted against the Levin Amendment that would have required Bush to come back to Congress for war authorization if the UN inspections were deemed inadequate that there was not much time to pursue her mischaracterizations of the amendment, and it was not clear that Russert really knew, right then, what she had said was wrong.

That was it. Or, was it?

It so happened that the next "debate" of the cycle was moderated by...you guessed it, Williams and Russert. In that session Russert waved sheets of paper asking Hillary about her tax records, the Clinton Library/Foundation records and records from the White House that documented her activities.

It was also in this debate that the first chink in the armor of inevitability arose--Hillary's version of "I was for it before I was against it" on the question of drivers licenses for undocumented aliens.

That is, Russert was using the time in the debate for questions he would have asked on Meet the Press but could not because the Clintons had succeeded to that point in not playing by the same "rules" as all the others. Hillary would have been far better off if she had done the full hour on MTP, and handled those questions, before a much smaller audience, and without her comrades to pick up the ball and run with it.

Bias? It seemed to this observer that Russert was angry at being manipulated, and showing he had remedies even if his network would kowtow to Hillary's inevitability as they had to Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War.

I believe that is part of the larger story of bias in the media that arose, not entirely but in part, because of the heavy-handed manner in which her campaign treated the media. Under those circumstances, once one chink in the armor is revealed, others inevitably(!) emerge.

What part did Tim's pique play in the unraveling of the Clinton juggernaut?

A footnote to history.