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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Celebrity Age

It is hard to believe that the death of Tim Russert has been the leading news story all weekend long. With the floods devastating the Midwest (potentially spoiling this year's harvest, with food prices already inflationary), tens of thousands of people out of their homes as a result, with violence surging in Afghanistan, and on and on . . . he nation finds time to mourn, at length, . . . a teevee talk show host.

I know that we're supposed to call Russert a "journalist," but I think that the reaction to his death undercuts that label. A journalist reports the news, s/he doesn't become the news. I think that it would be hard to name the children of most journalists, or to know more about them that they are good writers or have great sources. But I knew a whole lot about Russert--his family, his upbringing, his background, his religion. He was a celebrity.

In this celebrity age, the folks reporting the news have become well known, not for the accuracy or quality of their reporting--I think that this is safe to say--but for the fact that they are . . . well known. At least among those of us who watch a lot of news (especially cable news).

Russert's public image his own creation--like other celebrities, Russert knew that how the public perceives you is more important than anything else. How many times did we have to hear about how this five million dollars a year teevee host was "working class"? Or about Buffalo?

But think about what we didn't hear about, too. From time to time, it might be mentioned that Russert had a law degree. But did he mention the name of his law school--Cleveland-Marshall, a fine but not prestigious law school--on the air? I never heard it. Why not? Because attending such, er, a "working class" law school would undercut perceptions of his brilliance. Because why would a brilliant scholar of American politics go to a third-tier law school?

This is not to speak ill of the dead. But it is to speak ill of this celebrity age.

4 Comments:

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Marc said...

Random comment from a casual reader of your blog, if you don't mind. If so, I apologize in advance.

I completely understand where you're coming from with your comment about the celebrity-eque memorials of Russert that occurred over the weekend. However, I don't think that he was a celebrity.

He certainly wasn't a celebrity in that he was talked about on E! or any of the other celebrity-following news sources. Even among his peers he wasn't really talked about in such celebrity ways that may have surrounded Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric. No - I think that the outpouring that we're seeing is genuine affection for the man and the journalistic integrity that he embodied. Without buying into the hype *too* much, I do think that it takes a certain kind of person to be able to leave politics with an obvious political preference, and then enter journalism and rise to the ranks he did and still be seen among *everyone* in politics as "the" person to be interviewed by if you wanted to prove yourself in the public arena. He was the true fair and balanced journalism.

That's not celebrity. That's integrity. That's professionalism. That's about getting to the truth and getting behind the spin. That's Tim Russert.

 
At 10:19 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

Comments are open here. This is a free speech zone.

I won't remember Russert as fondly, but that's how it shakes out, eh?

 
At 1:20 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

To pick up on the "celebrity" idea, I'd say Timmeh was a celeb but only in a secondary meaning of the word. He's not in the Angelina/Tiger Woods way, of course--there is no pop tabloid aspect to his life--but in the way you refer to someone as a "celebrity chef" or a celebrity in the video gaming industry, etc.

His celebrity is primarily with a niche profession, one that also happens to be on TV all the time, which makes it easy to get the two types confused. Much of that celebrity came from being beloved inside his profession, a love that came from a developed know how in a body of work, combined with human decency and a commitment to that profession and its norms. But that doesn't necessarily translate for the rest of us who were not part of that profession. Still, I found the tributes extraordinarily moving. They gave the sense of a life well lived among people well loved. In Washington that seems rare.

 
At 4:03 PM, Blogger Wilson said...

Pride of south Buffalo. I didn't like his show. But he was a Bills fan, so he should be mourned.

 

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