Tim Russert by Giovanni Rufino/MSNBC
It didn't take long for media critics and bloggers to start whining over how much time NBC News and its cable network are devoting to the death of Tim Russert
"The Russert coverage will be remembered as one of the most embarrassing chapters in television journalism history," wrote whiner-in-chief Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel
Too long. Too sentimental. Too self-indulgent. Boedeker and others are certainly entitled to rant. But to suggest that the coverage was a disservice to the viewer shows a complete lack of understanding about cable news works and the TV landscape in general.
Let's look at the news value of Russert's death. Here was a guy who had been at the top TV journalist in Washington for more than a decade and was only getting bigger during the 2008 presidential campaign. He was a rare instance of someone who was an iconic TV presence and still vital to the national conversation. In an instant, he was gone. There has never been an occurrence like that in the history of television. The death of ABC's Peter Jennings, arguably a more dominant presence at his network than Russert was at NBC, was monumentally heart breaking. But once the news was out that Jennings had lung cancer, his coworkers and the public had months to prepare for the end.
The sudden departure of Russert is likely to have an impact on the coverage of the presidential campaign in ways that we won't know until well after November. The Sunday morning public affairs shows have a major role in setting the agenda for the campaign and Meet the Press
was hot seat where guests squirmed the most. What happens with the program over the next few months is bound to be a story.
Russert also happened to be a colorful figure and a really good guy. All of the nice things his colleagues and friends have said about him in recent days were actually true.
So do those points justify round the clock cable news coverage on MSNBC? If you care about Tim Russert, yes. If you don't, Nielsen Media Research says the average TV household has more than 118 channels to choose from. If you want to look at the same footage of floods in the Midwest, you could have watched CNN, Fox News Channel, Headline News or your local non-NBC affiliate. Let's not forget the Internet.
Russert's death was a big story that happened in NBC's house and the network owned it. It was a story that many viewers wanted to immerse themselves in, judging from the boost in MSNBC's ratings the weekend after he died. The public was not disenfranchised in any way by MSNBC's saturation approach. To think otherwise, is to live in the past. Related Russert News:
" This Week, Brian Williams Will Meet the Press
" The Biz Asks: Who Will Be Russert's Successor?
" Remembering Tim Russert, TV's Political Enthusiast
" TV Guide's Last Interview with Tim Russert