Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tim Russert's Impact on My Generation of Journalists

Hunt for Justice by Cynthia Hunt

There is no justice in
Tim Russert’s sudden death.

Tim Russert took over "Meet the Press" while I was in J school, and he has schooled me every Sunday morning since.

Tim Russert’s Enduring Legacy to Journalism

He showed me how to interrogate sources in a respectful, fair, yet aggressive manner. He taught me to dig. He taught me to prepare, prepare, prepare. Yes, he also taught me that it’s okay when your hair looks like a mess as long as you are working hard.

Russert’s lessons were especially important when I covered crime. Those stories involved the greatest of human tragedies: the unnecessary taking of innocent life and the rendering of justice. Justice here in Harris County, Texas courtrooms centers around a lot of capital crime and the rendering of a lot of capital justice.
Harris County is the death penalty capital of the United States. If the county seat of Houston were ranked as a state, it would rank third behind Texas and Virginia in executions.

The "Russert Effect" on my Crime Reporting

Russert’s example of the difference a hard-working journalist can make was a weekly reminder for me to dig more.

After covering the Andrea Yates case, I believe the probing of dedicated journalists--who refused to take what officials and family told them as fact--ultimately led to justice. Yates is the Houston, Texas mom who drowned her five children in the family bathtub in 2001. The district attorney ignored overwhelming evidence that she was insane and pursued the death penalty to the outrage of many.

In 2002, a Harris County jury convicted her but sentenced her to life instead of the death penalty. An appeals court overturned that conviction because the state’s fifty-thousand dollar witness, Dr. Park Dietz, lied on the stand. Two years ago, Yates was tried again and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

I truly believe journalists and our efforts to dig on the Yates story educated the public and led to ultimate justice. For my part, digging led to an exclusive about the subjugation of Andrea by her husband's traveling preacher who repeatedly told Andrea she was falling short and destined for hell. Yates's psychosis manifested in the belief that she was so damned that her children would be punished for eternity.

Evidence shows that she was seeing and hearing messages that did not exist but which reinforced her bizarre belief that the devil was after her children. I uncovered actual video of this preacher with a devil’s mask harshly preaching that very message of condemnation. Even though attorneys had this self-proclaimed preacher’s newsletters, seeing the video was a much more powerful lesson for the public.

I reported the story on my Houston station and on Good Morning America. I was proud that on a national story a little digging by me, a local journalist, helped uncover a small yet important piece of the puzzle. It was these kinds of pieces that ultimately painted the picture of what happened inside that house to a once loving and patient mother of five.

Go Ahead - Light My Fire, Tim

My Sunday mornings with Tim often reignited my fire to spend my nights and weekends off doing the most important work—hunting for the truth. In these days of flash-bang television television and print journalism, good-old fashioned digging is often overlooked. News managers hungry for one reporter to fill spots during two to three newscasts per day simply don’t give reporters the time it takes to uncover the real story. We in the business know it takes many hours of our personal time to deliver this to the public.

Russert’s discipline and dedication to his craft wouldn’t allow him to cheat our nation of his best. After his death, friend after friend explained how Russert never went out on Saturday nights because he was always preparing even more for his Sunday morning symphony of cutting questions.

And boy, did he make a difference. When I heard the news of his passing, I truly felt as if I had lost a mentor even though I had never met him. I cried the entire weekend and watched every single special anyone did on this great journalist and great man. I must confess that I feel unworthy now writing about what he meant to me and our shared passion, journalism.

Some Say Russert Coverage Overblown

Some journalists and pundits have blasted the wall-to-wall coverage of Russert’s death saying it was overblown. I say we need more stories like that—stories of great Americans who set an example for all to follow.

In newsrooms, where young, passionate, idealistic journalists are slowly turned into cynical, burned-out machines, I say we need more in-depth coverage of great Americans like Russert to remind us that individual effort is not only crucial but it’s the most important thing.

I cannot think of another journalist who would have received that kind of coverage. Russert had a unique spirit that won the respect and love of Americans. That universal feeling of loss to our nation justified the coverage.

It was appropriate to shine light on Russert's life as an enduring symbol of opportunity in our country. His legacy reminds us all that in America it doesn’t matter where you start. It matters where you end. Russert was raised the son of a simple sanitation worker in Buffalo, New York. I grew up in Alabama on a dairy farm in the small town of Eva (population 438). Tim’s ascendancy to the top of network news served as a constant reminder of what one can achieve in this nation with a mighty heart.

In a shallow world where constant coverage of Britney, Paris, and Lindsay rots away at our souls, the story of Tim Russert’s life helps many of us regain our passion and our perspective.

You know, I was wrong. There is justice in the passing of Tim Russert. His work created the most powerful closing argument on what a journalist should be. His life gave us the verdict that yes, the efforts of one matter greatly.

On the first "
Meet the Press" since Russert's death, NBC played a video tribute which ended with a shot of the capital after the funeral. There was a magnificent, bright rainbow arching across the giant Beltway sky. Go get 'em, Tim.


Leah said...

All I can say is AMEN! I loved Tim and I miss him dearly. It was hard to watch Meet The Press this past Sunday without him. And I am ashamed to admit that I didn't realize how much he meant to me until he passed. I too watched MSNBC all weekend and bawled my eyes out.

As far as too much coverage, I think this is precedent becuase I don't know of another News Personality to die while he was still on the air, do you? I may be wrong about that but I can't think of anyone else. So, no, I don't think it was too much coverage for a wonderful, honest journalist who did his best to bring us the truth each Sunday morning.

Jan said...

In this day of flash bang journalism, Tim Russert had the integrity to do his job well and live his life well. And to set a standard for all of us to live up to whether we write, fry burgers, or stitch wounds.

I hope it's a lesson not soon forgotten.