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Tim Russert - A Good Man but Biased Journalist

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I have mixed feelings when I think back on the life of Tim Russert. Here is a man who on the one hand, worked very hard and was always exquisitely prepared for his job and from reports was generous with his time in terms of mentoring fellow journalists. It also seems that he was a kind and congenial fellow off the job and a great father.

His reputation was that of a man who was tough on everyone who came on his show but the evidence shows that almost every time there was a major national issue it seems he came down hard on Democrats and was easy on Republicans.  

Tim Russert was one of the members of the press that could not get enough of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Not only did Russert use his influence to prolong the story, to keep it in front of the public much longer than the public was interested in it, he routinely mischaracterized data to have the story seem worse than it actually was. As this 1998 article in "The Daily Howler" shows when quoting Russert:

RUSSERT: It’s quite striking, Matt. The vast majority of Americans believe the president is lying--about two out of three--and yet the same number want him to remain in office. They believe that he has been an effective president and what he has done, as much as they don’t believe him and don’t agree with it, it does not disqualify him in their minds from remaining in office at this time.

Russert displayed an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the thoughts of “Americans,” based on the two bits of data he was reviewing. These are the data that were shown on the screen at the same time he made his remarks:

Did the president tell the whole truth? No: 60% Yes: 26%
Can the president still lead the country? Yes: 65% No: 32%

Sixty percent is hardly a “vast majority,” by the way, but other problems with Russert’s analysis were apparent. The poll had notasked if people “thought the president was lying;” it had asked if they thought the president “had told the whole truth.” And, at the risk of being accused of parsing too closely, the two questions are hardly the same. One can fail to “tell the whole truth” in a deposition without ever actually “lying” at all; Russert is describing response to a question that NBC did not ask. Given Russert’s penchant for ratcheting things up, “60% believe that Clinton did not tell the whole truth” has now become “The vast majority believe that Clinton is lying.” This is miserable, sloppy, incompetent paraphrase. But hang on folks, it’s gonna get worse.

The Daily Howler article goes on to give additional examples of Russert misstating data to make Bill Clintons actions and statements in Lewinsky-gate look worse than they were and compares NY Times analysis of the same data to show how fair reporting compares with what Tim was selling.

In this 1998 Salon article concerning a Russert interview by Matt Lauer, Russert is shown to be passing on what can only be described as gossip about whether the Secret Service 'facilitated' the affair between then President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Russert alternately accuses and then feigns innocence and makes 'clarifying' statements saying that he wasnt asserting whether these accusations were fact, they are just "suggestions" out there.

Russert wasn't satisfied to let the Lewinsky affair die with the passing of Bill Clinton's administration. In televised debates, Russert asked Hillary clinton questions about the Lewinsky scandal during her first run for the senate in 2000 and again during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary. why an extramarital affair of her husband has anything to do with Hillary's qualifications to be Senator or President is beyond me. It is something I expect Republicans to try to raise, but not a journalist whose job is supposed to be to get at the important issues in politics and be fair and unbiased.

In the runup to the Iraq war, Tim Russert was one of the administration's chief press Cheerleaders for the War. In this 2003 interview where Russert interviewed then Secretary of State Colin Powell Russert asked Secretary Powell several times what would happen if UN Weapons Inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei reported that Iraq was in violation of UN Resolution 1441 but never asked if we would still go to war if Blix and ElBaradei never found such violations. There is none of the tenacious and aggressive questioning of Powell about the justifications for war that Russert would have asked a member of a Democratic administration in the same position. In many questions, Russert was repeating false Bush administration accusations like the existence of terror camps in Northern Iraq, existences of long dismantled Iraqi Nuclear programs etc. Russert's questioning of Powell reminds me of the disgusting practice of push-polling. "If you found out candidate B was a felon, would you still vote for them or would you vote for candidate A?"

In 2005, The Huffington Post's David Fiderer wrote this article commenting on Russert's role in the prelude to and aftermath of the Iraq war and pointed out how Russert made many incorrect statements and how Russert had to know that those statements were incorrect:

Russert’s lie: (repeated three times) Inspectors never found any nuclear weapons program in Iraq until 1995, when Saddam’s son-in-law defected and revealed secret nuclear program unknown to the inspectors. It was sheer luck, not the inspections, that kept Saddam from building 21 nuclear bombs by 2003.

Russert’s message: Today inspectors say they find no evidence of nuclear weapons. But experience shows that Saddam can develop nuclear weapons right under the inspectors’ noses. Bombs could still be in Iraq, so the danger - and the justification for war - remains.

The truth: After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the first intrusive inspections in Iraq led to discovery and destruction Saddam’s remaining nuclear weapons program. In 1995, Saddam’s son-in-law revealed a second crash nuclear program (using a fatally flawed design) that U.S. bombs smashed during the Persian Gulf War, prior to the inspectors’ arrival. Before 1991, Iraq relied on European technicians, equipment and manufacturing expertise for its nuclear weapons program, (which, after seven years, remained unsuccessful.) Lacking foreign assistance thereafter, Iraq remained incapable of building any nuclear device.

“Lying” is an inflammatory charge and tough to prove because it presupposes knowledge of Russert’s state of mind. (I only know what I see on TV and in transcripts.) Whatever his motivation – currying favor with The White House, competing with Fox News – Russert’s lies are so obvious that no other explanation makes sense.

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A political blogger for the International Business Times, Steve Leser is a hot national political pundit. He has appeared on MSNBC's Coundown with Keith Olbermann, Comedy Central's Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Russia Today's (RT) Crosstalk with (more...)
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