The shocking premature demise of Tim Russert on Friday the 13th leaves NBC News, the nation’s best network news operation in awful shape heading into this most epochal of elections. The professional loss of their most respected on-air figure, and the man who directed their DC bureau for 20 years, is easily calculated as incalcuable. Consider also that their people may be traumatized after the scene at their office, and Monday will be for some the first time back since Friday. Situations like that often trigger thoughts of one’s own mortality, and certain of his colleagues may have already decided that this is the ride for them.
Russert’s death was noted with sadness by many people who might be scarcely inclined to comment if similar fates had befallen most of his peers, including celebrities and political observers in other countries. Under his watch, “Meet the Press” was easily the most credible political show on TV; after the retirement of David Brinkley, Russert owned that time slot and nothing ever came close again. Since the Sunday shows on CBS and ABC have been weak for years, with the shows on cable not much better, it seems possible that the entire franchise of Sunday-morning political chat has died with Tim Russert.
Russert’s achievement will probably never be duplicated–but worse, his workload may prove impossible to approximate in the crucible of this year. Election cycles always bring big turnover in the media ranks, and with all the heat building around this contest, the potential for catastrophic fuck-ups and melt-downs is high. Unlike many of his peers, Russert’s singular job was secure, since he defined its parameters and made it something no one else could do. It’s worth wondering how much time the bureau chief spent in recent months mediating the public feuds between star MSNBC talkers Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, or keeping David Gregory from bolting over his place on the network totem-pole.
If there was anyone in America who could step in now and keep NBC News competitive, they would probably be welcome, but the baggage attached to that job could keep quality contenders away. They would do it, but they know they can’t. This leaves the immediate problem, though, of “Meet the Press”. Viewers will be interested in transitional matters for a while, but brand loyalty alone won’t get people up early on Sunday mornings. If the show is no good, viewers can cop the highlights later on replay or online. I have no idea what will happen.