Goldberg: Russert Recognized Liberal Media Bias; Russert Interview

June 18th, 2008 5:30 PM
In an op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal (page A-15), “Russert Took Media Bias Seriously,” former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg observed:
What made Tim Russert different, and better, I think was his willingness to listen to -- and take seriously -- criticism about his own profession. He was willing, for example, to keep an open mind about a hot-button issue like media bias -- an issue that so many of his colleagues dismiss as the delusions of right-wing media haters.
Goldberg recalled that when he wrote Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, “no one in network television wanted to discuss the issue, no matter how many Middle Americans thought it was important.” But “Russert was the lone exception. He had me on his CNBC interview show, and we talked about bias for a full hour.” (Screen captures here and below are from that interview on the February 23, 2002 edition of Russert's CNBC show.)

In his op-ed, Goldberg quoted from an interview he conducted with Russert for his 2003 book, Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite.” (Below is a full reprint of that book chapter.)

Goldberg wrote in the Journal piece about the same admonition from Russert which Goldberg had highlighted Friday night on FNC:
Tim was a big proponent of diversity, but he wanted to go further than the usual stuff. "I am for having women in the newsroom and minorities in the newsroom -- I'm all for it. It opens up our eyes and gives us different perspectives. But just as well, let's have people with military experience; let's have people from all walks of life, people from the top-echelon schools but also people from junior colleges and the so-called middling schools -- that's the pageantry of America...You need cultural diversity, you need ideological diversity. You need it."
With Russert's funeral earlier today and his memorial service just ending, I thought this would be an appropriate time for a reminder of the values Russert brought to his position and concerns for his profession outlined best in his interview with Goldberg.

So, from pages 78-85 of Goldberg's 2003 book, Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite, a chapter titled “A Conversation with Tim Russert,” as typed up by MRC interns interns Lyndsi Thomas and Peter Sasso:
Watching Tim Russert, you get an idea of what a fair-minded mainstream press might look like. I know he used to work for Mario Cuomo, one of the most liberal Democrats around, as well as for New York's longtime moderate Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan. So I might guess which way he leans politically, but I'd only be guessing. Because watching him on the air, you don't know what his personal politics are, since he gives all sides a fair and equal say -- and just as important, he challenges all sides with equal skepticism and vigor.

Very simply, Tim Russert tries to be fair, and it shows -- which is why, I think, his Meet the Press is by far the most popular of the Sunday morning interview shows.

There are probably a lot of reasons Russert stands out from his colleagues in the world of elite journalism, so when he agreed to talk to me for this book, I thought that maybe the place to start was with his background.

GOLDBERG: I think a lot of people have seen a fairness in you that they're not used to seeing on the networks, and I'm wondering how much you think your blue-collar background has to do with it.

RUSSERT: There's no substitute for it, Bernie, believe me. I've worked on garbage trucks. I drove a taxi. I tended bar. I delivered pizzas. I worked with liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites; that's how you grew up in this interesting world, and people were always simply judged in the end on their quality as a person: Did they tell the truth? Did they honor their commitments? Did they show up for work on time?

GOLDBERG: What I learned from my father, who worked in a factory, while I was growing up in the Bronx, was the same thing: You show up to work on time, and if you tell someone you're going to do something, you do it. Those are old-fashioned values.

RUSSERT: My dad said that all the time: People are people; they'll treat you the way you treat them -- and I have adhered to that the best I possibly can. And I also believe that going to the schools I did -- St. Bonaventure school, Canisius High School, John Carroll University -- these are not fashionable, elitist schools. These are schools where you learn to read and write and learn right from wrong. But they would never wave a wand and say, this is the way you must think.

The key to it was always respecting another person's view and never suggesting that anyone had a monopoly on correctness. And that should be the centerpiece to being a journalist. You don't go out there bringing to your profession an attitude that you know what is right for the country or you know what view is the progressive one or the appropriate one to have.

GOLDBERG: On the other hand, I've worked with network people who literally referred to the audience as white trash. They were talking about people who didn't go to school in the Northeast and sometimes literally did live in trailers.

RUSSERT: They've said it about me: "Russert attended middling schools. Russert admits to being a practicing Catholic."

GOLDBERG: Admits???

RUSSERT: [laughing] Right!!! "If he didn't go to Harvard, if he's not Ivy League, how can he be smart?" Bernie, there's not a moment when I'm sitting there on Meet the Press when I'm not thinking about my dad. He's in my head; he's in my heart. That's why I ask them straight questions: What are you going to do about that issue? How about this one? Well, that's not what you said about this!

It's the way our dad engaged us -- always give the other guy the benefit of the doubt but hear him out. Hear him out. And don't dismiss him and don't brand him as anything. It's not right. I think it's so imperative, particular for those of us who have been blessed with these jobs in journalism, to approach things in an open-minded way.

GOLBERG: Does your blue-collar radar detect an elitism even amongst your colleagues?

RUSSERT: Sure, some. Among politicians, among journalists, it exists. I'm all for hiring women in the newsroom and minorities in the newsroom -- I'm all for it. It opens up our eyes and gives us a different perspective. But just as well, let's have people with military experience. Let's have people from all walks of life. People from the top echelon schools, but people from junior colleges and the so-called middling schools -- that's the rich pageantry of America.

GOLBERG: It seems to me, Tim, that you're a real proponent of diversity. You believe in it when it comes to race and gender and ethnicity because it's better to have lots of people with different points of view covering the news, and . . .

RUSSERT: . . . and you need cultural and ideological diversity, also. That's central to this. I'm a great believer in racial diversity and gender diversity, but you need cultural diversity, you need ideological diversity. You need it.

GOLDBERG: You say we need ideological diversity in the newsroom. But how do you actually do that? How do you get all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and worldviews into the newsroom?

RUSSERT: Take Meet the Press. Every person on Meet the Press staff started out as an intern. But I make sure they come from a cross-section of schools. We've had kids from Holy Cross and Fordham, for example.

GOLDBERG: So you go to places where kids might be traditionally liberal, but you also go to places where kids, because of their . . .

RUSSERT: . . . culture . . .

GOLDBERG: . . . because of their culture, might be conservative?

RUSSERT: Absolutely right.

GOLDBERG: When I say that I see a liberal bias in the news, a lot of journalists who live in a world of politics dismiss it. They say, "What are you talking about? We don't go easy on Democrats and tough on Republicans." And I say there's a lot of truth to that. But that's not my point about liberal bias. While there is no conspiracy -- no conspiracy -- there is like-mindedness in too many newsrooms . . .

RUSSERT: That's a potential cultural bias. And I think it's very real and very important to recognize and deal with. Because of background and training you come to issues with a preconceived notion or a preordained view on subjects like abortion, gun control, campaign finance. I think many journalists growing up in the sixties and the seventies have to be very careful about attitudes toward government, attitudes toward the military, attitudes toward authority. It doesn't mean there's a rightness or a wrongness. It means you have to constantly check yourself. John Chancellor used to say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

GOLDBERG: Why the closed-mindedness when the subject comes around to media bias? There are a whole bunch of people in the world of journalism and the world of academia who just shut the discussion down. They not only don't believe there's this cultural bias, they think it's not worth talking about.

RUSSERT: That, to me, is totally contrary to who we're supposed to be as journalists. My view was, invite Bernard Goldberg and Bias on my [CNBC] show. This is central to who we are. Let's talk about it! If we miss a story, if we got our facts wrong, we would have a postmortem and ask ourselves, where did we go wrong? How can we improve ourselves? So, if there's any suggestion in any way, shape, or form that there's a liberal bias, a cultural bias, let's examine it; that's what we do for a living.

GOLDBERG: When I was on your show we talked, off the air, during a commercial, about the op-ed I wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 1996 about liberal bias in the news, which caused quite a furor. You told me that you actually passed the op-ed around the newsroom in Washington. Do you remember that?

RUSSERT: The first person I talked to that morning was Tom Brokaw, and I said, "Did you see the piece?" and he said "I sure did," I told him that I was going to give it out down here. I talked to people about it. I said, "We have to engage on this issue. It is imperative that we talk about this issue." If someone suggested there was an anti-black bias, an anti-gay bias, an anti-American bias, we'd sit up and say, " Let's talk about this; let's tackle it." Well, if there's a liberal bias or a cultural bias, we have to sit up and tackle it and discuss it. We have got to be open to these things.

GOLDBERG: This willingness to be more open goes back to those early days in Buffalo, doesn't it?

RUSSERT: As I say, the people I grew up around had a wonderful way of encouraging, insisting that you understand people, that you give them their say and not be dismissive of any point of view. No one has a monopoly on what is right and what is wrong.

GOLDBERG: I think that piece of advice -- "don't be dismissive of people" -- while it may sound fairly obvious, just might be the single most important piece of advice you ever received.

RUSSERT: It's so imperative that when you sit around a table and discuss stories that people be there from different perspectives and different life situations. For example, for me a robust conversation is with people who are for abortion rights and people who are against abortion rights. It's just central to a journalist that we not adopt a code of correctness that this is the preferred position on the issue.

When I had [Democratic House Leader] Nancy Pelosi on Meet the Press, she said that when Newt Gingrich was Speaker, he was radical and extreme right wing and [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay is far right, and when I said then the dichotomy is that you would be perceived as far left, she said, "No, no, I'm moderate, I'm centrist."

GOLDBERG: But you see, Tim, in my view, that same point can be made about journalists, too. When you get to the big social issues -- whether it's race or gender or feminism or gay rights -- I think journalists see conservatives correctly as conservative, but they see liberals as middle of the road.

RUSSERT: I think this is the most important challenge confronting journalists: There is no preferred position. One cannot be dismissive of one person as extreme and find another acceptable just because of how you define liberal, conservative or mainstream. To a journalist covering this country, there should not be a preferred position on abortion, a preferred position on gay marriage, a preferred position on gun control, a preferred position on campaign finance reform. And you have to work at it and think back to where you came from and keep applying those same standards. It really is fascinating to me when you talk to political figures and to some journalists, they'll say the center is here -- if you are for abortion rights, for gun control, for campaign finance reform, that's a mainstream position; and those opposed to it are on the fringe. And that's just not the way reporters should approach issues.

GOLDBERG: But when you say it's the most important challenge confronting journalists...

RUSSERT: It truly is.

GOLDBERG: Is that because you see a problem in that area?

RUSSERT: Whenever we were going through the whole situation with President Clinton on a variety of issues involving his veracity, I would say in the newsroom: What if President Nixon had said this? And people would sit up [because they hadn't thought of it that way]. You have to apply a single standard. And the single standard has to be one of objectivity and not in any way, shape, or form demonstrating a preferred position. And if you call Tom DeLay -- and I have -- the conservative Texan, then I call Ms. Pelosi the liberal Californian.

GOLDBERG: Speaking of all this, you had Rush Limbaugh on Meet the Press? How did you come to that decision?

RUSSERT: He has the most widely listened to radio program in America, he has done an enormous amount to engage and encourage political discussion around the country; he articulates a political philosophy as well as anyone in the country. To suggest his views are anathema and therefore should not be put on . . .

GOLDBERG: But you have heard from the critics.

RUSSERT: Oh, sure. They want to know, "Why would you have Rush Limbaugh on Meet the Press?" I don't sanction his political views by having him on. But to suggest that he does not deserve the opportunity to present his views -- I mean, Meet the Press is a forum for ideas! And to have a censorship for his ideas . . . [laughs]

You may disagree with him philosophically, but his demeanor, his presentation was perfectly appropriate for Meet the Press. And to suggest otherwise is absurd.

By the way, when I have Ralph Nader on, I say to people, "I didn't hear any complaints there" [laughs].

GOLDBERG: Some conservatives complain that when the subject gets around to taxes you tilt to the Left, that you ask too many questions about whether we an afford tax cuts but not enough questions about whether the government is spending too much.

RUSSERT: I guess you can conclude that by watching me question people, that I think deficits matter. I guess if there's a bias, it's that yes, I do think that deficits matter. And you know where that comes from? [laughing] It comes form Mom and Dad's kitchen table. We never floated loans.

GOLDBERG: But there are two ways to balance the budget, whether it's around the kitchen table or in Congress. One is by raising revenue. So your father can go out and get a third full-time job. Or you can cut out some spending.

RUSSERT: Exactly right. I couldn't agree more. But I question both tax cuts and spending. I was aggressive regarding the cost of the Clinton health care plan. I was very aggressive about the cost of Medicare and Social Security. I constantly say to Democrats, "Can you have it all?"

GOLDBERG: Let's jump to another subject. When you interviewed Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press, you wore the red, white and blue ribbon on your lapel.

RUSSERT: That was on September 16, 2001, at Camp David.

GOLDBERG: And you heard from critics about that, too.

RUSSERT: A very good friend of mine died at the World Trade Center, and his family asked if I would, in his memory, wear this ribbon. I never thought for a second about it.

GOLDBERG: And to those who say journalists shouldn't wear red, white and blue ribbons, that by doing that somehow you're taking the government's side in some debate or another -- which I don't frankly see, by the way . . .

RUSSERT: It is imperative that we never suggest that there's a moral equivalency between the United States of America and the terrorists. Period. I'll believe that until the day I die. I have talked about being a journalist -- but also being an American. And first and foremost, you're an American. I want a debate about national security, and who defines national security. I understand all that. But in the end, you have to make judgements, and on that day I made a judgement that five days after the most horrific event of my lifetime and of my journalistic career, that for me to say to the country I too am part of this, I too have experienced this gut-wrenching pain and agony, and I too have enormous remorse and sympathy, with not only the people who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the field in Pennsylvania, but all of us -- we're in this together; this isn't covering Democrats and Republicans or the Bills versus the Redskins; this is us. The Taliban doesn't believe in the First Amendment.

I'm an American and then I'm a journalist.