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Covering Tim Russert’s death: As journalist? Or celebrity?

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On Jan. 15, Carsten Thomassen, a 38-year-old Norwegian who worked for the Oslo daily Dagbladet, died in a suicide bombing at a hotel in Kabul.

On Feb. 27, Shihab al-Tamimi, head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, died after being shot in Baghdad.

On March 29, Carlos Quispe Quispe, a Bolivian journalist for a government-run radio station, was severely beaten by protesters demanding the ouster of the local mayor and died.

On April 25, Jassim al-Batat, a correspondent at Al-Nakhil TV and Radio, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in a small town north of Basra.

On Friday, NBC News journalist and commentator Tim Russert died while doing voice-overs for his Sunday news program.

I — we— have obviously heard of Mr. Russert. But I had never heard of journalists Thomassen, al-Tamimi, Quispe, and al-Batat until I visited the Web site of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks deaths, injuries, and disappearances of journalists worldwide.

Mr. Russert’s life and legacy deserves the outpouring of grief and tribute after his unexpected death at only 58 years old. He was an admirable, competent and compelling interviewer and seeker of truth. But because he wielded an exceptionally large megaphone — the pulpit of “Meet The Press” — he was also a celebrity.

The amount and tenor of news coverage of his passing, particularly in broadcast media, reflected his celebrity as much as his journalistic accomplishments and integrity. Even print media, particularly large east-of-the-Mississippi metro dailies, said farewell prominently both in print and on Web sites. Today’s Web pages of The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, and his hometown Buffalo News carry extensive obituaries, pieces in memoriam, and appreciations.

At MSNBC, a black banner flies over a photograph of Mr. Russert and invitation for viewers to leave remembrances. This morning, CNN switched back and forth between Midwest floods and fawning remembrances of Mr. Russert by anchors and others. CBS News has a story and video of Mr. Russert on its Web site.

I did not know Mr. Russert. But I wonder: Would he have been embarrassed that so much air time, print space and Web usage was devoted to chronicling his passing? Would he have asked of gatekeepers: “You doing this because I’m newsworthy — or merely a celebrity?”

Without wishing to hasten anyone’s demise, consider the journalists still breathing — particularly those long-time, well-known, well-paid broadcast anchors and other pundits. When they push up daisies, will the coverage reflect that of Mr. Russert’s passing?

Reflect, please, on the August 2005 death of ABC newsman Peter Jennings, anchor of “World News Tonight” since 1983. Was the coverage similar in scope? I think yes. But why?

Reason 1: Broadcast journalists who spend decades on air and literally share our living rooms become a cross between family member (witness many of the remembrances printed about Mr. Russert) and a celebrity. We, the readers and viewers, want to know as much as we can about these people to salve our own feelings of loss, and newsroom gatekeepers know this.

Reason 2: Journalists of note who die have their colleagues back in the newsroom to place the news of their passing on prominent display. The best, most respected bakers, butchers and candlestick makers don’t have that luxury. That has always troubled me, that journalists can elevate the deaths of their brethren higher than most other occupations can. That is a significant power of gate-keeping, even though love and admiration of a colleague should not always equal automatic newsworthiness.

Reason 3: Big-name, big-salary journalists are extraordinarily influential in corridors of power. That makes them valuable assets to the corporations that hire them to be pundits. Mr. Russert’s annual salary no doubt had a significant number of zeroes after the first digit. Perhaps those left behind in the newsroom wish to remind those in the corridors of wealth and influence elsewhere that we’ve got the power, too, and don’t you forget it.

Meanwhile, other journalists with talent and determination — but not the ratings or readership reach of Mr. Russert — continue to die doing what the profession has historically done — seek the facts that illuminate truth. So far, 13 have died this year. Since 1992, 685 journalists have died with murder the most frequent cause. They have received far too little recognition for their sacrifice and dedication.

Journalism has the capacity of elevate its own. My newsroom godfather died far too early, at 56. He reminded us frequently that should he pass on, “Just do an obit. That’s all. Put in on the jump page with everyone else’s.”

We didn’t. The story ran on page one … but at least it was below the fold.

Rest in peace, Mr. Russert. “Go Bills!”

xpost: Scholars & Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 14, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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