Thursday, June 19, 2008

Three's Company

I have waited, I think, a respectful amount of time - or at least I hope I have.

The near-orgy of self-love that swirled around the passing of Tim Russert has died down at last -- and to be fair, thankfully, there was a decent amount of commentary about the almost unseemly, well, quantity of Russertania that accompanied his passing. "As big as Reagan's funeral...." "A Modest Man gets A Grand Goodbye..." etc., etc.

I think a lot of people can agree that all of the media's worst faults were on display for the entire week -- foremost among them an incredibly distorted view of its own importance. But then there's also the issue of scope even within the profession itself -- where was the similar outpouring for Peter Jennings? David Brinkley when he went? What will have to be done when Walter kicks the bucket, for gosh sakes? Will Bob Scheiffer's family be bummed if he doesn't get, oh, one-third the coverage? What would happen if David Gregory suddenly keeled over? If the NBC Nightly News devoted its full nightly half-hour to Russert, how much for Andrea Mitchell? Does she get a full segment between commercial breaks?

The guy was the host of Meet The Press, people. So was Garrick Utley, who may be dead already for all I know -- if he's not, he's gotta be pretty steamed.

Now, I am quite sure he was a decent man, a great friend, clearly a terrific Catholic and a fine son, a great citizen of Buffalo, a Bills fan, or so I've been told 453 times the past week -- and poor old Big Russ, my heart goes out to the guy....

And yes he was pretty darn good at what he did, his commentary on MSNBC this election season was usually spot-on, and his enthusiasm for the historical nature of the Obama and Clinton candidacies was in general really infectious.

But he was too close to the forest.

The worst moment of recent American political life, maybe even recent American history, was without a doubt the Election of 2000. What happened in that travesty of an election cannot be overstated, and better, more astute political commentators have written far more probing indictments of the horrors visited upon the nation by both the press and the politicians during that sorry period.

But what I remember is this:

The Networks called it wrong.


They jumped the gun -- twice -- on Florida. With devastating consequences.

Had they not, had they not called Florida for George W. Bush prematurely, had they not, in their absolute insane and ridiculous but completely congenital desire to tell the story in advance of the story's actually happening -- it is almost a certainty that Al Gore would have won the election. Why? Because there would not have been, as there was throughout that brutal six week period, a sense that something was being taken away from George W. Bush. And all the votes would have been counted.

Imagine it: Florida would have been, all night long, 'too close to call' -- and, with Florida never in anyone's column, it would have been in everyone's interests, George W's as well as Al Gore's, to count all the damn votes. They would have had to count them -- because we wouldn't have known who won the election!

As in fact, though not in perception, we didn't.

We didn't really know -- but we thought we knew. We thought we knew that Bush had won, but that if the votes were counted, well, who knows what could happen? But that first part -- we thought that Bush had won -- that's what killed me. We thought we knew it because those fucking assholes at the networks had decided they had to call Florida! (And how could they have called it for Bush? When earlier in the night they had been burned by calling it for Gore? Once they realized they better pull back from that first premature call, how could they not have exercised a little self control?)

But what really gets me is this:

The morning after the election -- now that we'd all agreed that Bush had won but that Gore was contesting the election -- not now that we'd all realized we still didn't know who won, a crucial difference -- I was dumbfounded as I switched among the channels.

The networks didn't get it. They didn't understand the colossal role they'd played. The commentators were reveling in what a crazy night it had been, how historical, how crazy, with calls being retracted, and madness and oh Tom, did you even go to sleep last night? They were acting like a bunch of 13 year-olds after an all-night Fantasy Baseball draft.

And the worst offender, in my memory anyway, was Tim Fucking Russert. Sitting there with a big dumb grin, like he couldn't believe he was lucky enough to have been part of it -- with his damn 'Florida, Florida, Florida' whiteboard -- as if he hadn't helped create the problem, as if it was all just fun and games. Over and over and over and over, these morons on the morning after the greatest disaster to have befallen their profession since I don't even know, they delighted in retelling the blow-by-blow of their monumental ineptitude: 'And then NBC called it for Gore, and then CBS did, and then NBC took it back, and then ABC did, and then CBS and NBC both called it for Florida, and, and, and...!" The whole thing made Dewey Defeats Truman look like a scoop.

Well, we all know what happened as a result of this giddiness -- George W. Bush happened. An unnecessary and stupid war happened. Abu Ghraib happened. Katrina happened.

And I think Tim Russert, God rest his soul, went to his grave never even beginning to think about how he'd helped bring it all about.

So you'll forgive me if I don't add to the chorus of praise for the guy. Me, I'm still smarting for how quickly and unceremoniously we said goodbye to John Ritter.

1 comment:

Brooks Hansen said...

Garrick Utley, definitely dead. Taken by cancer much too young. And even in his day, a throwback to what true class and dignity looked like (apparently not unlike Roald Dahl). May he continue to rest in peace, it would never have occurred to him to jump the gun on something as important as a presidential election.