Tim Russert's death and the media's reaction

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Why doesn't every family receive the same respect and distance?

"Get the widow on the set


We need dirty laundry."



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Strange to start out a blog about the passing of my favorite on-air newsperson, Tim Russert, with that excerpt from Don Henley's acerbic song, "Dirty Laundry." More on that later.



I was as upset by Russert's sudden passing as any person who had only met him once but had watched and enjoyed him for years could be. What was there not to like and admire about Tim Russert? Smart. Lawyerly in his approach. Devoted son, husband, father. Hard worker. The kind of guy you could sit down with and talk about anything over lunch, or perhaps go to Buffalo and talk about nothing over a beer.



There may be those who will say that NBC went over-board in its coverage or the reaction to his death. I am not one of them. To hear the heart-felt reminiscences of those members of his extended family, was to understand even more deeply what a terrific guy he was and what a loss we had suffered. Perhaps no one brought that across any better that Andrea Mitchell, who confessed that other than Russert, only her father called her "Mitch."



Luckily there was no other major news during that Friday or the weekend that followed, so that NBC could devote so much of its newstime and prime time to him.  That is, if you don't include the devastating and deadly floods in the Midwest (who needs to see one more news reporter in hip waders, trying to give us some "perspective" on just how bad the flooding really is?) and perhaps some casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are the kinds of personal tragedies that so often get played out on network news.



My only beef with all of the coverage is this:


During it all, you never saw one camera crew staked outside the Buffalo home of his father ("Big Russ") or any other family members. You didn't see a mad scramble to get footage of his widow and beloved son, Luke, getting on a plane in (where they had been celebrating Luke's college graduation). No footage of Mrs. Russert and Luke arriving at their home to begin the process of planning his funeral. You didn't see a beleaguered family representative, reluctantly marching out to an impatient bank of waiting cameras, issuing a statement on behalf of the family, and thanking everyone -- including the President -- for their condolences.



Why not?  Because it was a death in the family -- the family of the news media. And everyone treats their families diifferently than they treat strangers.


Yes, it could be argued that a statement from the family wasn't "necessary," since there were so many other people -- even Ethel Kennedy, landing at Reagan Airport in Washington -- who were more than willing to share their grief and their fondness for Tim.



Don't get me wrong. I'm glad there were no phalanxes of cameras outside the Russert residence. But why doesn't every family get shown this kind of respect when they have suffered an unspeakable loss?



I realize that I'm writing this in a culture in which the "Jerry Springer" show thrived and in which TV shows that consist only of footage of people doing incredibly stupid, dangerous and injurious things to themselves are popular. I also understand the basic human urge to rubber-neck at the scene of a motor vehicle accident, creating the very real possibility of causing yet other accidents.



But why doesn't every family deserve the space to grieve in private, without feeling the need to come forth and feed the cameras and the reporters what they want?



Several years ago, a Boeing 737 jetliner crashed in Pittsburgh, Pa. , killing everyone on board. Among those killed were three businessmen from the Mid-Ohio Valley. WTAP had a small but aggressive news department, but we made the conscious decision not to go to the homes of the deceased, to get "reaction" from them. The local newspaper did contact the family and ran quotes from them. While we kicked ourselves upon reading those quotes, we also realized that we had shown some taste and restraint (how old-fashioned) by not charging up to the houses with lights on and microphones out-stretched. We had the luxury of doing that because we are the only TV station located in this community. We feel certain that there are many things about which we can exercise restraint that we might not be able to do in a more competitive environment.



But if NBC and the other news media can show this kind of respect when dealing with the death of one of their own, why can't they do so with everyone else? The answer is: we (the audience) won't let them, I suppose.



And what about Don Henley's song, written to protest the unfair treatment he felt he had received at the hands of the media, in dealing with accusations of misconduct on his part which were later dismissed in court? In the case of Time Russert’s death, no one was scrambling to "get the widow on the set." Oh, if only that could happen more often.


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