The Times Gives Tim Russert a Big, Wet Kiss

After reading today's New York Times story on Tim Russert, I had to go back and check the byline to make sure that the piece had really been written by Todd Purdum and not the NBC publicity department.

Ostensibly a story about Russert's role in Plamegate, the piece is more hagiography than reportage. Purdum paints a number of different portraits of Russert. All of them glowing.

We get the High Priest of Journalism, who "now wields as much influence as any single working journalist in Washington" -- and to whom "the cream of Washington officialdom presents itself for confession."

We get the two-fisted truth seeker, a "newshound" "who may be the capital's most intimidating interlocutor outside a courtroom or Congress."

We get the devout and self-sacrificing Choir Boy-Monk, who "never goes out on Saturday nights, preferring to attend the 4 p.m. Catholic Mass at Georgetown University Hospital chapel before preparing for his program."

We get the Zen Master who, while acknowledging "some discomfort with his unusual role in the [Libby] case," is centered enough to say: "It is what it is."

We also learn that Russert is "a big, bluff lawyer-turned-journalist" with "sharp-eyed instincts for covering the political world," who "moves easily in the worlds of official and social Washington" (despite those homebound Saturday nights). And we also learn of Russert the Scholar who took "four years of Latin."

What we don't learn is whether anyone has been critical of the way Russert has handled the Plamegate story.

Tip for Todd Purdum: Lots of people have. Especially bloggers like Tom Maguire, Jeralyn Merritt, Eric Boehlert, Digby, Atrios, Mickey Kaus, Jane Hamsher, The Heritik, Americablog, John Amato, and yours truly. And if you haven't gotten hip to the blogosphere yet you should check out your own paper's new Blogger Reaction page. Or, if you tend to summarily dismiss bloggers, how about Accuracy in Media, which called for Russert to remove himself from all NBC coverage of Plamegate?

The point is, there wasn't even the merest acknowledgement that there were other less worshipful takes on Russert. Not even after the jump (did I mention that this was an above the fold, front page story?).

Curious about this utter lack of basic journalistic balance, I phoned Purdum, whom I had gotten to know, together with his wife Dee Dee Meyers, when he was the Times' Los Angeles bureau chief.

When I asked him about the lack of opposing viewpoints (after all, even an article about Mother Teresa would include some mention of her critics) Purdum said, "I don't feel like I'm the person you should ask. You should ask those questions of my editors." Then he added: "Hindsight is always 20/20 and if I were doing that piece again, maybe I'd do things differently." Hindsight? But, Todd, you wrote the piece yesterday. Did something happen since then to bring you fresh insight?

But as he had suggested I call his editors, seeming to imply they were the ones responsible for the one-sided nature of the article, I did. I called Phil Taubman, the Times' Washington bureau chief. I'm still waiting to hear back.

The answer, though, is hard to avoid: this is what happens when one member of the beltway media priesthood is covering another. We get sloppy wet kisses instead of balanced reporting.

And it's not just Purdum. Why is no one in the mainstream media talking about the most troubling aspect of the latest Russert revelations -- the fact that Libby had called him to bitch about Chris Matthews -- and what it reveals about the cozy, symbiotic relationship between those in power and those in the media? Over the last decade, far too many reporters have forgotten that their mission is to uncover the truth, not to do the bidding of the powers-that-be.

Why did Libby (whom Purdum says Russert had no "particular prior relationship" with) call Russert to complain about Matthews? Why didn't he call Matthews himself or Hardball's executive producer? Or why didn't Libby call the president of NBC News to voice his complaints? Why did he pick Russert?

And why didn't Russert, in his role as NBC's Washington bureau chief, say to Libby, "If there is a factual error, let us know and we can correct it"? Instead, as Russert told Brian Williams following Fitzgerald's press conference: "I immediately called the president of NBC News and shared the complaint."

Was the goal to get Matthews to back off? Was the message to Russert: enforce the rules of the fraternity or risk losing your access?

Libby was acting like the White House version of a Hollywood publicist who says, 'Be nice to my star or you can forget about having him on your cover.' Misbehave and you'll be punished.

So it's no surprise to learn that Dick Cheney -- no fan of the limelight -- has appeared on Meet the Press no less than 10 times since becoming Vice President but, during that same time, has not made a single appearance on MTP competitor This Week with George Stephanopoulos -- unlike Rumsfeld, Rice, Card, et al who have appeared on both.

After all, even the High Priest of Journalism can't offer his viewers the confessions of those who don't show up.