For many of us, it’s hard to believe that ten years have gone by since we lost one of the giants of journalism, Tim Russert, the longtime moderator of “Meet the Press." His death, as sudden as it was shocking, brought forth tributes from the politicians he covered with such passion and enthusiasm. Viewers, no matter their political stripe, mourned together because they viewed him as a trusted resource - someone committed to the truth who held the powerful accountable, explained the complexities of Washington, and did it with a gusto that made his love for politics contagious.
Yet a decade after the loss of our former boss and mentor, we both find ourselves on university campuses speaking frequently with students eager to succeed in their careers but with no memory or little knowledge of a man who taught us so much, not just about journalism but about making an impact in any profession.
As we reflect back on the many years spent with him on the frontlines covering politics, we want to share with the next generation some of the timeless professional practices that made him the best at what he did.
There was never a Sunday that Tim sat down in the moderator’s chair without doing his homework. He prepared for each interview like a student prepping for a final exam - reading mountains of research material, writing notes and talking to experts. The end result – a list with three hours worth of questions and follow-ups, all for a one-hour show. Sometimes, the hardest part about producing the live program each week was actually getting Tim off the air on-time. He always had one more question that he wanted to ask his guest.
Piled up underneath a tall wooden table in a corner of Tim’s office was a rotating month’s worth of all five major newspapers (plus the New York tabloids!) that he read each morning.
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So ingrained were the contents in his photographic memory that he would frequently ask for a copy of a recent article that was on “A3 on the right-hand side of the page that contained a quote from Senator X.” Thanks to his archival pile, the retrieval was made that much easier. Understanding the world, can’t be done by scrolling through a screen of snaps and tweets.
In a job where curveballs come frequently, it’s important to find creative solutions. Just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “Meet the Press” had a live interview with Vice President Dick Cheney from Camp David. Minutes before the interview, Mary Matalin, then an adviser to the Vice President said, "Tim, we have an issue. Secret Service doesn't want you to say where you're interviewing the Vice President.” Tim looked down, thought for a minute and asked, "How about we say we are in the shadows of Camp David?" She said, "I think that will work.” And it did.
Relationships are key
You never know where the next big tip is going to come from but Tim knew they didn’t always come from the top. He kept in touch with Capitol police officers, staffers on the Hill, and campaign aides, no matter their title. Most often, when he’d break a big story, his source came from way down the Washington food-chain.
He checked in regularly with folks even when he didn’t need anything specifically. He began each morning with a series of phone calls to staff, sources and friends asking simply, “What do you know?” And he listened. He was humble, approachable and kind. A trait he must have learned from his dad, “Big Russ” who told him, “it takes just as long to be mean to somebody as it does to be nice.”
He began each morning with a series of phone calls to staff, sources and friends asking simply, “What do you know?”
A little note goes a long way
So many Washington scrapbooks must be filled with handwritten notes from Tim. “Congrats on the new job.” “Sorry for your loss.” “Thanks for your time.” Rarely more than two sentences and nothing fancy – no engraved Crane’s stationery for him. Just a small sheet from his NBC notepad that likely made a big difference in someone’s day.
Simplify: Learn how to make the complicated understandable
Once upon a time, there was a little whiteboard that explained the crux of the 2000 presidential election in three words: “Florida, Florida, Florida.” (Google it). After a long night of election returns and counting electoral votes, Tim got right to the heart of the matter in explaining what the future of Bush vs Gore was coming down to. While other networks had a series of flashy graphics, Tim kept score of the frantic electoral vote counting with a magic marker and dry-erase board. He made the complicated, simple and he realized technology can only get you so far.
The young people of today who stare blankly when they hear the name Tim Russert stand in contrast to the middle-aged lady in the grocery store last week who, upon spotting a fleece with a Meet the Press with Tim Russert logo, stopped to share a story with one of us about where she was when she heard the news of this death. “I sure do miss his voice every week – that fleece is quite the collector’s item,” she said.
To us, a collector’s item indeed. Not the well-worn fleece, but the memory and lessons from such a great man.
Betsy Fischer Martin was the longtime executive producer of Meet the Press and worked closely with Tim Russert for 17 years. She is currently an Executive in Residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs.
Erin Fogarty Owen was a producer at Meet the Press with Tim Russert from 1999 until 2005. She is currently the Executive Director of University Communications for the University of Nebraska at Omaha.