[Marxism] Tim Russert is STILL dead ... and so is American journalism

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Wed Jun 18 15:46:50 MDT 2008

One of the advantages of working the god-awful shift I now have that
forces me to get up when late-nighters are going to bed is that if
someone dies in the middle of the day on Friday, it's no concern of
mine. By the pre-dawn hours of Monday when I next get to put a show on
the air, he should be good and buried. So when I heard Russert had
gone to gasbag heaven, I shrugged my shoulders. And normally that
would have been the end of it.

But it just so happens that I currently have cable TV access, being
the guest of my homeowners insurance at some rent-by-the-week fleabag
motel as my house got flooded from a leak and is currently
qualitatively even more of a disaster area than I am capable of
explaining. And every time I flipped through the channels, what I got
was an orgy of adulation for Russert.

I can't honestly say I watched his program more than once a year all
the way through -- although hardly a week used to go by when I wasn't
obligated to read the reports on it and listen to snippets  culled
from guests on his show. And what always struck me about Russert is
that he was the very archetype of the modern American TV celebrity
journalist, meaning not a journalist at all, not in the slightest.

>From fresh out of college, the guy got plugged into the network of
political operatives --as an Irish Catholic from New York, on  the
Democrat side of course-- and after a career there jumped over to news
management, as a v-p of NBC News. He didn't have one day's experience
as a real reporter, never followed those "small" stories for months on
end which is in the end what gives good reporters the most important
tool of their trade -- an instinctive ability to detect lies, spin and

Having served a couple of years as a news manager, Russert then was
gifted with hosting meet the press. As we all know, this is the
longest running program on television, but one of the main reasons for
it hasn't been discussed anywhere on TV in recent days, so I'll just
take note of it here: it is also one of the cheapest programs in
television. There is nothing cheaper than having guests that cost you
no money come to your studio and blab in front of a camera. Originally
I had written "unpaid guests" but struck it, and that is precisely the
point:  Guests will come, even for no direct monetary payment,
provided they aren't otherwise rewarded.

The reward in the case of Russert's show was a certain amount of
prestige, plus being allowed to put out in his forum whatever you were
pushing. And it wasn't so much aimed at the tiny direct audience of
the program, but the larger audience that read articles about it or
saw sound bites later on Sunday or early Monday morning.

Part of the game is asking "tough" questions. I am reminded of
outtakes from an interview with Fidel that Ted Turner did almost two
decades ago and that someone once showed me.

It was a two-camera shoot, and as one of the cameras was being
reloaded with tape, Fidel gently upbraided the CNN founder, who had
been lobbing one softball after another at the Comandante. Ask tougher
questions, Fidel told him, otherwise they'll just say you did this
because you're a friend of Fidel Castro. And Turner, in his slow as
molasses southern drawl, made thicker, or at least the journalistic
legend has it, by the lithium he took to keep from going crazy,
replied "I don't mind if people say I'm a friend of Fidel Castro."

Russert plaid the game better than Turner, and without the mogul's
disarming honesty. In Washington, that game is played with access --
getting leaks and counter-leaks. By and large, none of the "leaks" are
real, it's all a charade. The "White House source" or "high ranking
Pentagon official" who whisper in Wolf Blitzer's ear the
pre-announcement of whatever will be officially confirmed shortly
thereafter is invariably the press secretary. The leaks are spoon-fed
to the kept press, nowadays just a handful of the TV News celebrities,
mostly cable, so that they can come across as authoritative, well
informed, always a step ahead of everyone else. The "deep throat"
anonymous source of the Watergate days is gone, dead and buried,
because what had made THAT possible was a wrenching division in the
ruling class and its political circles as the United States faced up
to the reality that its army with all its heavy artillery, air
support, logistics, and hundreds of thousands of draftees to use for
cannon fodder was being systematically defeated, broken, by a bunch of
Vietnamese peasants who had over their American adversary only one
advantage: fighting for a cause that was just.

The U.S. army is being broken in Iraq and Afghanistan just as surely
as it was in Vietnam, but as yet it has not opened up a yawning
division in the ruling class and its political and opinion-making
circles like the Vietnam War did. A big part of it is the difference
between the people who staff these positions, taken as a layer. Back
then national-caliber figures in these arenas took themselves and what
they did much more seriously. Today the archetypes are people like
George W., a product of marketing and PR spin and --yes-- his
journalistic counterpart, Tim Russert. They're the fair-haired
children of the post-war boom, one a child of privilege, the other
coopted into privilege for having the gift of the facile phrase and
the "just a working class kid from buffalo" shtick that became the
unending cliche of his obituaries.

It's commonplace to talk about the administration "chicken hawks,"
but the point is valid, and not just about the administration. What
qualified Russert to talk about war, never having heard a shot fired
in anger, reported on a a battle by talking to survivors, looked at
the bodies of the dead or gone to cemeteries to check for freshly-drug
graves of young men, an indicator of what is really going on that is
much more reliable that official communiques from the general staff?

Cocooned in privilege, the war to them is about managing public
perception, sound bites, what appears on the TV screen and what is
excluded. As I said, Russert is an archetype of this layer, victim to
a heart attack almost certainly attributable to self-indulgence (one
glance at his smug, self satisfied face makes the case) and
appropriately buried by an orgy of self-indulgent journalism, or what
passes for it nowadays.

It used to be taught that journalism was a public trust, a calling to
comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What we've seen
over the past week is how the top layer in today's news racket
instinctively reacts on the basis of me, me, me.

Even in terms of gasbags on TV, Russert may have been large of girth
but small-bore as a celebrity. Ninety percent or more of the public
had neither watched his show nor knew who he was nor cared. He was
certainly less well known than even some of the starlets of the Cable
TV firmament, like Wolf Blitzer, Christian Amanpour, "God among men"
(as one of his fan sites puts it) and Vanderbilt scion Anderson
Cooper, not to mention bloviators of hate and right wing propaganda
like Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. And, of course, none
can hold a candle to Oprah.

What accounts for the outpouring of coverage is the same thing that
probably killed Russert: self-indulgence. The circuit of talking head
gasbags and top managers confuse the public with the face they see
every morning in their bathroom mirror. That --and not a lack of
concern or interest by younger people-- is why the demographics of TV
news viewership lead to the shows being dominated by ads for pain
killers against arthritis, .

Thus for all you hear about the campaign and things like the gas tax
moratorium proposal, there's no serious coverage or pontificating
about, for example, Obama's proposal to eliminate federal taxes on
retired couples with incomes under $50,000 a year. This doesn't
concern the TV gasbags as it wouldn't affect any one in their circles.
They rake in seven figure salaries or close to, and have commensurate
pensions or comparable arrangements.

And you don't hear much either about another one of Obama's proposals
-- to uncap the social security tax and even raise the rate for those
making more than a quarter million an year. Let's be clear this isn't
AT ALL a socialist proposal, But from a bourgeois point of view, if
you're worried about the increasing inequality and extremes of wealth,
it makes sense. And, in terms of American bourgeois politics, it is an
extremely sharp move. It takes Republican scare-mongering about social
security going broke and uses it as a pretext (pretext because the
claim is bogus) to raise income taxes on the rich -- and taxes that
are going to stick, because an attempt to repeal them would be seen as
an attack on social security.

And as the dimwits of the Bush administration proved just a couple of
years ago, Social Security is STILL the third rail of American
politics. Even packaged as a plan to "save" it, and coming fresh from
his re-election victory over Kerry, Bush couldn't even get the
Republicans in Congress to take his proposals seriously.

And from the point of view of serious, responsible, bourgeois ruling
class policy, Obama's proposal makes perfect sense. I saw Krugman the
other day witlessly criticize it by saying it was the wrong way to
raise taxes because it put the money into the social security trust
fund, rather than in general government funds where it is needed to
curtail the deficits. But the "social security trust fund" is a
complete accounting fiction. There isn't one red cent in the trust
fund. It used to be said it was just a box full of iou's but even that
is an exaggeration. It's just an entry in a spreadsheet. The bottom
line is the government takes the money for social security and spends
it, all of it. Sure, it "owes" the trust fund, but that is like
taking money from your right pocket and putting it in your left pocket
and keeping a running tab of how much your left pocket owes your right
one. If Obama gets elected and if he follows through with the
proposals, the effect will be to raise taxes to reduce the
government's real deficit -- the amount it has to borrow from capital

Decades ago, certainly through the Reagan years and perhaps even into
the Bush I years, these sorts of issues would have been discussed
seriously although obviously strictly within a bourgeois framework in
the Sunday morning talk shows. Today it is unthinkable, if for no
other reason than none of the gas bags understand enough about policy,
economics and politics to seriously take it up.

How little they know is obvious from the dominant narratives of this
campaign: Obama's supposed problem with the "blue collar vote" meaning
white people. Obama's real problem was with the white geriatric vote
-- people raised or who came of age while white supremacy was still
the official, openly proclaimed ideology and apartheid the law of the
land. I think it is a problem deeply rooted in history that will cost
him the election unless he is able to duplicate in the fall the kinds
of increases in voting by young people and Blacks that we saw in
places like South Carolina. With a "normal" turnout Obama likely will
lose some of the key swing states (notably Florida) and although he
will do better in many traditionally Republican states, not by enough
to win them.

At any rate, the talking head gasbags on TV have just spent a half
year talking about this election campaign and completely missed the
story sitting before them in every exit poll.

And this highlights a pattern that's been emerging over the last
couple of general elections. If the presidential elections were
decided by the popular votes, the axis of U.S. politics would shift to
the left. That's because very little effort NOW goes into getting out
the vote in places like California, because it does not do the
Democrats any good to win California 60-40 instead of 55-45 and lose
Ohio or Florida. I know, for example, in Georgia the AFL-CIO and the
unions take much of their staff at election time and ship them to
Florida. They could and would have been more effective increasing the
Democrat vote on their home turf, but (at least until this year and
Obama) no one has dreamed that a Democrat could win Georgia's
electoral votes. An election decided by the popular vote, where every
vote counts, would increase Democrat turnout significantly -- perhaps
2-3% nationwide. To try to maintain a 2-party system, Republicans
would need to shift towards more liberal positions.

The reality is that Obama is stronger in strong Democrat and strong
Republican states, but the states that are weakest for him in terms of
demographics are some of the swing states. This raises the possibility
that he might well win a very resounding victory in the popular vote,
and still lose in the electoral college.

That would be a hell of a story for the ruminating gasbags on TV to
chew for a couple of months until the conventions, but they simply
can't do it -- they don't know enough about the country, the
composition of the population in different states, what that means,
established voting patterns and why those patterns exist, and what
Obama's primary showing suggests might change in those patterns in the
fall. These people are supposed to be professional political analysts
and so on, but in reality their world is confined to the Washington
cocktail circuit.

Which is where, of course, they met the late Mr. Russert, by all
accounts a very personable fellow, and hence the necrophilia of the
past few days.


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