In terms of being an old-fashioned, old-style media icon, nobody in broadcasting today could top Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press and the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, who died this past week without a hint of warning at the age of 58. Stephen Colbert is surreal, Jon Stewart is satirical, Keith Olbermann is outraged, and Russert was, well, tough and amiable and grounded, rooted in American politics as it has been played since the days of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
The airwaves and news pages have been full of well-deserved tributes to Russert. Among his memorable qualities was the sense, as so many observed, that he “never forgot where he came from.” (Russert hailed from the blue-collar precincts of Buffalo, New York, a city of undeniable grittiness.) If there is a problem with this line of remembrance, it is that the eulogists did not push it far enough. If Russert did not forget his roots, is that to say that others in journalism have trouble remembering where they came from? Or whom, or what, they are supposed to be serving? Hint: think the public interest.
The reporters and commentators today are not the civic heroes they once were. A 2004 public opinion poll suggested that, among the wretched, journalists score only slightly better than used-car salesmen, and on par with politicians, in terms of credibility. There is, of course, a gross dollop of unfairness in much of this, scorning the messenger for the bad news he brings. And there is much bad news to digest these days: war in Iraq and the prospect of conflict with Iran, rising gas and food prices. There is even talk of charging Internet users not flat fees but fares determined by how much they download. As the line between what was once considered news blurs with what was once clearly entertainment, those who seriously cover the facts are tarred with the sins of those who transmit gossip. It does not help that a handful of international conglomerates own most of the media. It just makes it easier to tar so many with the same brush.
Many, it is sad to say, deserve such treatment. Exhibit A in the most recent case against mainstream corporate media is that, in the run-up to the Iraq War, the press allowed President Bush to lie and hoodwink the nation into following his criminally mistaken lead. It is hard to imagine an issue closer to home than an international conflict in which American men and women are dying in the name of a bogus cause. But the sorry record of the press gets even sorrier when one considers what else Bush and the Republicans got away with for so many years: the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class got screwed.
The average American family makes about $31,333 a year. And while the average working-stiff reporter makes between $20,000 and $50,000 a year (a precise figure is hard to come by), top talents at the nation’s largest papers regularly make $100,000 a year or more. At big national magazines, the salaries of editors in chief often break $1 million. Surprisingly, TV salaries are not as high as some might think. Anchors in the 25 largest markets make an average of $130,000. These figures may not be the stuff of daily Champagne and caviar, but neither are they the stuff of abject want and longing. It is not a stretch to suggest that the press may not be sufficiently afflicting the comfortable because, as a group, it has gotten rather comfortable itself, too sure of its own assumptions.