The Russert Work Ethic
Between the years 1991-2008, Tim Russert rose to prominence as television’s pre-eminent journalist. He had already sharpened his political skills working for Senator Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo but had no experience whatsoever in television. Nevertheless, with the full confidence of NBC officials, he stepped into the limelight hosting the Sunday morning program Meet the Press, later known as Meet the Press with Tim Russert and a Saturday evening program of conversations with notables of various professions. What was the secret of his success? Why was he admired by so many public officials? There are a few reasons:
1.The Russert Preparation. As moderator of Meet the Press, Mr. Russert prepared so well that he could argue a complex political issue from all sides. He read as much as possible about the positions of his guests and then argued the opposite side. The ease with which he spoke on camera belied his dogged preparation.
2.Meet the Press’s Mission. Mr. Russert’s goal was to elicit information. If a guest dodged a question, he returned to it later in the interview and posed it in a different way. Prior to facing him on Sunday mornings, his guests needed to hone their own positions. Failure to do so resulted in embarrassment on national television. He applied tough questions to all political figures regardless of party affiliation. Republicans and Democrats greatly respected him, but both feared his probing questions.
3.The Russert Style. It is said that he had better political insight than many others more experienced in the business because he made the most complex political issues understandable and compelling. He delivered the information in simple, clear sentences, simple enough for his aging father to understand. The New York Times’ obituary observed that Mr. Russert “leavened his prosecutorial style with exuberance for politics–and politicians, on both sides of the aisle.” He so loved what he did that during the 2008 presidential year, he quipped to Al Hunt and Tom Brokaw, “Can you image that they pay us for doing this!” Mr. Russert’s joviality permeated his interviews but never became part of the interview, claiming that his views did not matter. His guests took center stage. He posed the questions and allowed each guest a full and uninterrupted answer. Listening intently, he responded until the topic was treated as fully as possible within time constraints. He had no control over the answers given, and they were often discussed in the media the following day.
4.Respect for His Guests. Though he was a tough inquisitor, Mr. Russert treated each guest with respect. If they erred, he responded: “Let’s look at what you said.” But he already knew their positions, and they knew that he knew. There was no skewering of guests with mean-spirited ‘gotcha’ questions, no questions that could be considered sarcastic, accusatory or insulting.