Tim Russert Sets High Bar for Journalists

 
 
By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2008-06-16
 
 
 

I don't believe that you can be a journalist in Washington and not have been affected by political journalist Tim Russert. One way or another, he set the standard for how journalism should be conducted here, and as a result, how journalism should be practiced everywhere.

During this period of extended mourning for Tim-who died of a heart attack on June 13-many have said that he set the gold standard for journalists. In reality, he was more than that-he was our mentor, our teacher and our best example. He served to make journalism better.

I won't pretend that I was Tim's friend. We'd met a handful of times during my visits to the NBC bureau here in Washington, and he always had time for a few words. But the only time we ever really got to talk was on the plane shuttle between Washington and New York, on which he and I were frequent occupants.

On one such occasion a decade ago, I was in the dreaded center seat and he was seated next to me. We introduced ourselves.

I found that he'd read my then-recent book on the Internet on the political process. We chatted for the hour-and-a-half that it takes to fly that 42-minute flight-about the book and politics in general but also about our kids and football.

When we landed, he headed for a car that was waiting for him, and I headed for the car-rental company. But when I saw him again years later, he remembered me, and asked again what was going on. It was a question he always asked.

For my part, when I had the chance to visit NBC, I learned to pay attention to the way he worked. Just preparing for a story was never good enough. Instead, Tim prepared for five or six stories.

He taught me, by example, that just doing an interview was never good enough. You had to talk to everyone, learn everything and conduct interviews you'd never use. You had to have five times the research you'd ever need for any story before you could say you'd done enough.

While Tim was by no means a technology journalist, he did believe that technology would play a critical role in the politics of the future. But he also believed that it could not be relied upon as the sole means of answering a question or illustrating a story.

In the election of 2000, he brought out his famous whiteboard, and he did it again in subsequent elections. Why? The network graphics people-with all the technology that money could buy-could not keep up with the pace of change.

But what he did do was demonstrate that standards aren't related to technology. The standard for reporting was to be right-every time. Whether you were reporting on an obscure ruling by the Federal Communications Commission or a critical budget bill before Congress, you did the same work. You talked to every source and tracked down every lead. You got everything right.

Now, Tim Russert is gone. He was two years younger than I am now. Yet, over all these years, I looked to him as an example of the right way to be a reporter.

I never had the pleasure and honor of working with Tim, but I did have the joy of having him as an inspiration. I think that I'm a better journalist because of it.

But I also think that his influence goes far beyond me. He was the standard for all of Washington journalism, and ultimately the standard for journalism everywhere. Tim's passing is a loss for all of us who try to practice our trade in the nation's capital, but it's also a loss for all of us who try to work as journalists everywhere, regardless of our specialty or our beats.

Tim Russert did more than set the standard; he raised the standard. Journalism is better because he was one of us. And the world and society is better because he inspired us.

Good-bye, Tim. I hardly knew you, but you changed my life and the lives of those I work with, forever.

Thanks, Tim, for my life.

Executive Editor Wayne Rash can be reached at wayne.rash@ziffdavisenterprise.com.

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