Enough already with the encomiums to Tim Russert, whose untimely death has sparked a veritable chorus of eulogies depicting him as the epitome of objectivity and the greatest of journalists. This is all coming, quite naturally, from his fellow journalists and intellectual gatekeepers, who share his prejudices, his politics, and alas! his shortcomings. It’s time for a little Russert revisionism.
As Bill Moyers pointed out in Buying the War, his trenchant PBS documentary on how the War Party successfully sold us on the invasion of Iraq, Russert’s show was a favored venue for the administration to publicize stories they had planted in the media. Administration officials would get booked on Meet the Press and point to their phony reports as "proof" of Saddam’s WMDs.
Remember back when Vice President Dick Cheney was going around making speeches in which he asserted that "we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," that this was not in doubt, and he knew it for a fact? Few were skeptical, and the New York Times came out with yet another Judy Miller "scoop" that seemed to confirm Cheney’s claim.
Citing anonymous U.S. government officials, the Times averred that the Iraqis were engaged in a global effort to gather the means to make nuclear weapons according to a design that specifically included aluminum tubes. "And there," says Moyers, "on Meet the Press that same morning was Vice President Cheney" citing Scooter Libby’s best buddy. Clearly trying to create the impression that Saddam Hussein already had nuclear weapons, or that he was well on his way to acquiring them, the vice president ticked off three elements essential to the construction of a nuclear device: technical expertise, a viable design, and fissile material. According to Cheney, the Iraqis had all three and Russert just sat there, not challenging Cheney but actually cueing him:
Cheney: "The third thing you need is fissile material, weapons-grade material. Now, in the case of a nuclear weapon, that means either plutonium or highly enriched uranium. And what we’ve seen recently that has raised our level of concern to the current state of unrest, if you will, if I can put it in those terms, is that he now is trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs."
Russert: "Aluminum tubes."
Cheney: "Specifically aluminum tubes. There’s a story in the New York Times this morning this is I don’t and I want to attribute the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge."
There were plenty of scientists in our very own Department of Energy who were warning the administration that this aluminum tube scenario was based on highly dubious "evidence," but Russert, the alleged reporter, was too busy kissing Cheney’s butt to go out and find them. There were plenty of national security bureaucrats of one sort or another who strongly doubted the narrative Russert was allowing Cheney to present, unchallenged, on the most-watched political television show on the airwaves, but Russert didn’t know about them, and doubtless didn’t want to know about them at the time. In retrospect, however, Russert realized, at least to some extent, how badly he’d been used::
Moyers: "Critics point to September 8, 2002, and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times. And then the vice president comes on your show and points to the New York Times. It’s a circular, self-confirming leak."
Russert: "I don’t know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them."
As Moyers pointed out in his scathing documentary, some journalists not a lot, but a few of the really good ones "didn’t wait for the phone to ring."
Russert wanted to believe, as did the reporters and pundits who constitute the "mainstream" media, not only because this was the bipartisan consensus at the time, but also because of the incestuous relationship that often exists between journalists and the individuals whose doings they cover. The former are dependent on the latter for their bread and butter: if they don’t toe the line and deliver the right cues at the right moment, then they might not get that "scoop," and worse they could soon find themselves frozen out of the information pipeline that runs through Washington like an underground sewer.
Okay, so Russert was an enabler of the neocons, who allowed his vastly influential program to function as the War Party’s sounding board, but then again, so many were duped that it seems vindictive to emphasize this point so soon after his tragic death. Right?
Wrong. It wasn’t just his sycophancy in the presence of power that motivates my little exercise in Russert revisionism it’s what was clearly his vehement hostility to anyone who challenged the status quo in any way and sought to provide an antidote to the Dick Cheneys of this world. Example number one: his disgraceful interview with GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who made opposition to the war and our foreign policy of "preemptive" imperialism the linchpin of his remarkable campaign.
In what has got to be one of the worst examples of high-handed hectoring and attempted intellectual intimidation I’ve seen in my lifetime, Russert tore into Paul the way he should have lit into Cheney, impugning his integrity, spending half the interview on the arcane subject of the Civil War which Paul had never made a speech about, and obviously wasn’t even a minor issue in the campaign.
When Paul raised the issue of U.S. intervention in the Middle East as fueling al-Qaeda’s jihad and support for bin Laden, Russert fell back on that old neocon canard: "So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism."
When Paul pointed out that Bush was intent on invading Iraq just as soon as he got into office, and his war moves had little to do with 9/11, Russert’s response was open hostility:
"You mentioned September 11th; a former aide of yours, Eric Dondero said this. ‘When September 11th happened, he just completely changed,’ talking about you. ‘One of the first things he said was not how awful the tragedy was, it was, "Now we’re going to get big government."’ Was that your reaction?"
How pathetic: Russert couldn’t be bothered to get on the phone and talk to even one of many CIA employees who were trying to counter the administration’s line of BS about Saddam’s alleged WMD, but he went and dug up the demented Dondero, a fool who has made a career out of gunning for the Good Doctor ever since he was fired from Paul’s staff. Now that‘s American journalism at its best.
Oh yes, Russert did his research, all right, but he only utilized it to the War Party’s advantage. He sucked up to power and was little more than a stenographer for high government officials whose confidence he coveted. He was, in short, a great journalist, at least by today’s standards, and that’s why the media blowhards are turning his death into a celebration of themselves. Because they’re virtually all the same shameless, sycophantic suck-ups who will do anything to advance their careers and could care less about where it takes the country.
The sad state of American journalism is why Antiwar.com was founded: it’s why we continue to provide you with the real news about vital issues of foreign policy, war and peace, and the myriad deceptions of our rulers. The "mainstream," which is defined by its subservience to the powers that be, has simply abdicated its responsibilities, the execution of which are so vital to a free society. Few journalists exemplified this abdication more clearly and consistently than the late ringmaster of Meet the Press.