"It's never the question that's the problem, Matt, it's the answer."
-- NBC's Tim Russert
"It's 'never the question that's the problem'? Really?
Spoken like the guy who gets to ask the questions."
-- CJR's Liz Cox Barrett
Meet Tim Russert
"It's never the question that's the problem, Matt, it's the answer."
-- NBC's Tim Russert
"It's 'never the question that's the problem'? Really?
Spoken like the guy who gets to ask the questions."
-- CJR's Liz Cox Barrett
MSNBC recently began running commercials touting its coverage of "Decision 2008." One begins with on-screen text asking, "Why do people care about politics?" Viewers then hear Tim Russert explain: "It's about the war. Our sons and daughters. It's about the economy. Our jobs. It's about education. Our schools. It's about health care. Our families' well-being. It's about everything that matters." The ad ends with the on-screen declaration: "That's why you care. That's why we cover it."
The serious and high-minded approach to political coverage Russert brags about would be a welcome change from the political coverage for which Russert is responsible.
During this week's Democratic presidential debate, Russert didn't ask a single question about global warming, continuing his longstanding habit of all but ignoring the topic. He didn't ask a single question about the mortgage crisis. (As one Cleveland resident noted, "We've got the mortgage industry's toxic waste scattered all over this city, but Mr. Blue-Collar-Buffalo-and-Cleveland-Marshall-Guy Russert couldn't be bothered with a question about it.") He didn't ask a single question about executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil-liberties concerns. But that shouldn't come as a surprise; of all the questions he has asked while moderating presidential debates during this campaign, only one has dealt with any of those topics.
Funny, Russert doesn't mention UFOs or haircuts in that MSNBC promo.
Russert's performance as a moderator of this week's debate has drawn widespread criticism. Most appalling was his bizarre fixation on Louis Farrakhan.
Russert asked Barack Obama about Louis Farrakhan's praise for the Illinois senator. Obama, who had previously denounced Farrakhan, did so again. Then Russert asked about Farrakhan again. So Obama reiterated his denunciation. Then Russert, (who, I can only assume, was not bothering to listen to Obama's responses) asked about Farrakhan again. So Obama again reiterated his denunciation. Russert, plowing ahead, asked yet another question about Farrakhan, prompting Obama to answer yet again.
Josh Marshall summed up Russert's behavior nicely: "It was a nationwide, televised, MSM version of one of those noxious Obama smear emails."
This wasn't the first time Russert made the odd decision to ask Obama about controversial comments made by a famous African-American. During a 2006 interview, Russert asked Obama about controversial comments Harry Belafonte made the day before. But Belafonte, as Jane Hamsher noted at the time, had made similar comments two weeks before, and Russert had never asked any guest about them. Russert gave no indication of why Obama was uniquely qualified or required to comment on Belafonte's comments. (The only other time Russert has ever asked anyone about any comments made by Harry Belafonte, according to Nexis? 2003, when Russert asked then-Secretary of State Colin Powell about comments Belafonte made about U.S. actions toward Cuba.)
Given Russert's badgering of Obama about Farrakhan, you might be wondering how he handles endorsements by controversial figures who have a history of statements that are widely considered to be anti-Semitic ... when the endorser and the endorsed are both white Republicans.
Last November, Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani during a joint event at the National Press Club where Giuliani praised Robertson as "a person of great, well-deserved reputation." Robertson has endorsed Jerry Falwell's claims that 9-11 was the fault of "abortionists," feminists, and the ACLU. He has suggested that the annual Gay Days event at Disney World would result in "the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs, it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor." He has linked Hurricane Katrina to legalized abortion. He has said "Jewish people" are "very thrifty" and "very wise in finance."
Robertson wrote a bizarre conspiracy theory book called New World Order that, Anthony Lewis noted, "relied [so] heavily on a British anti-Semitic writer of the 1920's, Nesta H. Webster ... one sometimes thinks of plagiarism." Lewis concluded of Robertson: "Perhaps Pat Robertson in his heart is not an anti-Semite. He just thinks a satanic conspiracy led by Jews has threatened the world for centuries. The best you can make of such a defense is that he is a plain, ordinary crackpot."
That's who Pat Robertson is; that's who Rudy Giuliani praised as "a person of great, well-deserved reputation." Now: How did Tim Russert react to Giuliani's enthusiastic acceptance of Robertson's endorsement? On Today on November 8, 2007, Russert said it would be "helpful" to Giuliani. In early December, Russert hosted Giuliani on Meet the Press. Russert didn't ask Giuliani a single question about Robertson. On January 24, Russert moderated a GOP debate. Russert didn't ask a single question about Robertson -- even though the debate took place in Florida, which was central to Giuliani's campaign "strategy" and which is home to a large number of Jewish voters who might not look kindly on Robertson's theories about a "satanic conspiracy led by Jews."
So: During this week's Democratic debate, Russert grilled Barack Obama about Louis Farrakhan, who Obama had repeatedly denounced prior to the debate, whose praise Obama did not accept, and who Obama reiterated his denunciation of multiple times during the debate.
Yet Russert never once asked Rudy Giuliani about his enthusiastic acceptance of Pat Robertson's endorsement or about his praise for Robertson. Not one question. He never said on NBC or MSNBC a single word about Robertson's history of inflammatory comments causing problems for Giuliani.
The double standard couldn't be clearer. The only question is, what it is about Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani that makes Tim Russert treat them so differently?
Why does Tim Russert think Barack Obama and Colin Powell are uniquely required and qualified to talk about Harry Belafonte? Why does Tim Russert think Barack Obama has to explain praise from Louis Farrakhan that he did not accept, but Rudy Giuliani doesn't have to explain an endorsement from Pat Robertson that he did accept?
Given the intensity with which Russert questioned Obama about Louis Farrakhan -- a person whom Obama has nothing to do with -- two of Russert's own associations may be of interest:
- At the beginning of Russert's June 2004 appearance on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, Limbaugh noted: "We don't have guests on this program, but we made an exception here for our friend Tim Russert of NBC News." Russert replied, "It's an honor to be here, Rush. Thank you very much. " Later, the two reminisced about sharing a steak dinner. Although the appearance came just weeks after Limbaugh's comparison of the torture at Abu Ghraib to a fraternity prank, Russert politely chose not to ask his host about the comments, or about any of Limbaugh's countless inflammatory statements about women and minorities.
- Russert was a frequent guest on Don Imus' radio show and appeared just two days after Imus' comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team that ultimately led to his firing. Russert didn't say anything to Imus about the comments, nor did he comment on the Imus controversy in any other forum. Phil Noble noted in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2000 that at least one of Russert's appearances on Imus' radio show featured the two men engaging in what Noble described as "kidding" about homosexuality. Noting Imus' lengthy history of anti-gay rhetoric, Noble concluded: "Russert's kidding was the equivalent of sharing a watermelon joke with David Duke."
Back to this week's debate. Russert asked Obama a question about "keeping your word." When Russert sets up a question by announcing that it is about the candidate's character, there's a pretty good chance that he is about to reveal something about his own. (Last fall, Russert began a question to Hillary Clinton by announcing that the question "goes to the issue of credibility." He was right; the question went to his credibility: Everything he said after that was false. More on that below.) In this case, Russert asked about Obama's position on accepting public financing in for the general election if he is the Democratic nominee:
RUSSERT: Senator Obama, let me ask you about motivating, inspiring, keeping your word. Nothing more important. Last year you said if you were the nominee you would opt for public financing in the general election of the campaign; try to get some of the money out. You checked "Yes" on a questionnaire. And now Senator McCain has said, calling your bluff, let's do it. You seem to be waffling, saying, well, if we can work on an arrangement here. Why won't you keep your word in writing that you made to abide by public financing of the fall election?
This is horribly misleading. In fact, in response to the questionnaire Russert referred to, Obama wrote: "Yes. ... If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
So when Obama now says, as Russert puts it, "if we can work on an arrangement," that isn't "waffling," that is entirely consistent with his response to the questionnaire. Russert mischaracterized Obama's response to the questionnaire in order to accuse him of "waffling" and not "keep[ing] your word."
In response, Obama correctly noted that what he had previously said was that if he is the nominee, he will "sit down with John McCain" to pursue an agreement. Russert then followed up: "So you may opt out of public financing. You may break your word." But as Obama had just explained (and as his answer to the very questionnaire Russert cited confirms) the "word" Obama had given was that he would pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee -- exactly the position he holds now. Russert was dishonest in saying that Obama would be breaking his word if he opts out of public financing.
As bad as his performance this week was, it wasn't as bad as his handling of last fall's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. That may have been the all-time worst performance by a debate moderator. To cite just two examples: Annenberg's FactCheck.org agreed that Russert's question about the Clinton archives was "breathtakingly misleading." Another question misrepresented previous questions Hillary Clinton had been asked (including one of Russert's own questions), misrepresented her answers, quoted her saying things she did not say, then concluded by suggesting that Clinton is a liar. Somebody was lying, all right, but it wasn't Hillary Clinton. I explained Russert's stunningly bad performance in greater detail at the time.
It takes a special kind of dishonesty to falsely describe someone's previous comments in order to accuse them of lying and breaking their word. There should be a word for that kind of behavior. In light of Russert's question to Clinton last fall and to Obama this week, perhaps it should be called "pulling a Russert."
After Russert was blasted by FactCheck.org for a "breathtakingly misleading" question to Clinton about the archives, you'd think he would be extra careful to get it right next time, wouldn't you? In this week's debate, Russert again asked Clinton about the archives -- and Russert again got the facts wrong.
Russert's mishandling of the influence that comes with his lofty perch atop the political media food chain is by no means limited to his conduct during presidential debates.
Last year, Russert was interviewed for a Bill Moyers report about how the Bush administration "misled the country" into the Iraq war with the help of a "compliant press ... [that] pass[ed] on their propaganda as news and cheer[ed] them on." During the interview, Russert famously complained that, during the run-up to the war, nobody called him to tell him they had concerns about the administration's case for war: "My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them."
Though the image of one of the nation's most influential reporters staring at the phone, waiting for it to ring rather than actively seeking out the news might strike you as appallingly poor journalism, it isn't the most self-damning thing Russert said during the interview.
When Moyers asked him about the three networks' reliance on the Bush administration for their Iraq stories, Russert responded: "It's important that you have an opposition party. That's our system of government" -- suggesting that the reason the media relied on the Bush administration for Iraq reporting was the lack of an opposition party. The notion that the media shouldn't challenge the government unless the political party out of power does so first is self-evidently wrong. But Russert was also wrong about the lack of an opposition party, as I explained last year:
There was an "opposition party" during the run-up to the Iraq war. The majority of congressional Democrats opposed invading Iraq and voted against the law authorizing the use of force. Among the Democrats who voted against the authorization were some of the party's most prominent and powerful members, including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, and Dick Durbin, and Reps. John Conyers, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel.
Given that the majority of congressional Democrats voted against the authorization, including such household names as Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer, how could Tim Russert suggest there was no "opposition party" during the Iraq debate?
Maybe because there was scant evidence of an opposition party on Russert's Meet the Press during the run-up to the Iraq war. On his personal blog earlier this year, Media Matters for America Senior Fellow Duncan Black examined five months of Meet the Press guest lists, starting on the day Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq to the day coalition forces actually invaded. Of the appearances by Democrats that involved a discussion of Iraq, eight appearances were by Democrats who voted for the authorization, and only three were by Democrats who voted against it.
Remember, a majority of Democrats voted against the authorization; but on Russert's Meet the Press, there were nearly three times as many Democratic supporters of the authorization as opponents.
Is it any wonder that Russert said there wasn't an "opposition party" during the Iraq debate?
In November 2006, Russert demonstrated that he still didn't have room for the "opposition party" on his television show: The first broadcast of Meet the Press after Democrats won control of both houses of Congress, due in large part to their opposition to the Iraq war, featured two guests: John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Neither was elected as a Democrat. Both are among the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war.
Over the years, Russert has regularly smeared Democrats and progressives over issues large and small:
- Last year, John McCain launched a petty attack on Barack Obama over an Obama press release that spelled "flack jacket" with a "c" in the word "flack." You might think that a United States senator treating a debate over war as though it was a spelling bee would be mocked by the media for trivializing questions of life and death. Not when the senator is John McCain; not when the media figure is Tim Russert.
Here's how Russert reported the flap: "Senator Obama talked about Senator McCain going to an Iraqi marketplace warring a flak jacket and surrounded and protected by American troops, but misspelled the word flak. And Senator McCain seized on that, suggesting that Senator Obama doesn't have the necessary experience in military and security affairs."
Other than the inanity of repeating McCain's attempt to correct Obama's spelling, Russert made another mistake: He didn't bother to check to see if McCain was right. In fact, Webster's, NBC congressional correspondent Mike Viqueira, and several U.S. military websites all agree that "flack" is an acceptable spelling of the word. So Russert's repetition of McCain's attempt to spell-check Obama's press releases was not only inane, it was also fundamentally false.
- During a January interview with Hillary Clinton, Russert aired a truncated quote by former President Bill Clinton to falsely suggest that Bill Clinton had been talking about Obama's presidential campaign when he said, "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." In fact, Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment had been about Obama's record of opposition to the Iraq war, not about his bid for the presidency. Before airing a clip of Bill Clinton's remarks, Russert told viewers: "This is exactly what President Clinton said in Dartmouth. Here is the tape." But the clip showed Clinton saying only 15 words, and omitted the sentences immediately prior, which make clear that Clinton was talking about Obama's position on Iraq. Russert's use of the video clip was beyond misleading and well into dishonest -- the whole dispute was about the context of the "fairy tale"; the transcript shows Russert was clearly wrong, and he played a video clip that omitted any of that context and acted as though it proved he was correct.
- Russert blamed Bill Clinton for the fact that North Korea had purportedly expanded its nuclear weapons program from having the ability to build two nuclear devices in 1993 to 13 in 2006: "When President Clinton said that, the North Koreans probably had the potential to build two nuclear devices. It's now up to 13. And if nothing is done, when George Bush leaves office, it could reach 17. It seems as though the United States talks tough with North Korea, but allows the program to go forward." Russert omitted the rather important detail that, as Media Matters noted, "North Korea did not produce any plutonium, nor build or test any nuclear bombs, during Clinton's eight years in office."
- Five months after Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in a campaign in which the Iraq war was a central issue, Russert announced that "Democrats have always had a difficulty being competitive with the Republicans in the public voters' mind on national security and foreign policy issues." Not only was Russert's claim contradicted by the results of the most recent elections, it was contradicted by contemporaneous polling.
- In June 2006, Russert asked a guest if same-sex marriage was an issue "that the Republicans used successfully to demonstrate that the Democrats were out of sync on cultural -- and values." But, as Media Matters noted, polling leading up to the 2004 election "found that the public was split equally on which party better represented their values," and that "[m]ore recent polling indicates that more people think Democrats better represent their values than do Republicans."
- Immediately following the January 15, 2008, Democratic presidential debate he moderated, Russert misrepresented statements by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards in order to suggest that their positions had shifted since a September 2007 debate Russert moderated. (Russert, in other words, "pulled a Russert.")
- In October 2006, Russert falsely claimed that "one-third of [convicted lobbyist Jack] Abramoff's money went to Democrats." In fact, Abramoff, a powerful Republican activist, never gave a dime to any Democrat. This is not an obscure fact; the false GOP talking point that Abramoff had contributed to Democrats had been debunked long (and often) before Russert made the claim. Earlier in the year, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell faced a barrage of public criticism for repeating the false claim.
- In November 2006, Russert suggested that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) opposed lobbying reform and the creation of the Office of Public Integrity. In fact, Reid had introduced lobbying-reform legislation calling for the creation of that office.
- Speaking about Hillary Clinton earlier this year, Russert suggested that there is irony in a "self-avowed feminist" having shown "some emotion," as though feminists are the dour, humorless beings Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson think they are. At least Russert stopped short of using the term "feminazis."
- In February 2007, Russert said: "My ear heard something that I had not heard from Democratic candidates in some time. Up front, Senator Obama began his speech with references to his faith, and then came back to that same issue in the speech. ... What's that about?" This is abject nonsense. It is a Republican lie to say that Democrats do not discuss their faith.
Just the week before -- seven short days -- Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had talked about his religious upbringing. Where? In an interview on Meet the Press. Tim Russert's Meet the Press. How did the topic come up? Russert read Edwards a quote of Edwards saying, "I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It's part of who I am. I can't make it disappear." Edwards responded in part: "I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, I was baptized in the Southern Baptist church, my dad was a deacon. In fact, I was there just a couple weeks ago to see my father get an award. It's, it's just part of who I am."
So: On February 4, 2007, Tim Russert read John Edwards a quote of Edwards talking about his faith. Tim Russert then (presumably) listened as Edwards spoke of his faith, of having been baptized, of his father being a deacon. Seven short days later, Tim Russert told America that it had been "some time" since he last heard a Democratic candidate talk about faith.
Other examples of Democrats discussing their faith abound: Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton. John Kerry (including in his speech accepting the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, which, presumably, Russert listened to at some point). Name a significant Democrat; it's a near certainty he or she has discussed his or her faith. It is simply false to suggest otherwise, as Russert did. Russert wasn't telling the truth; he was peddling a right-wing smear of Democrats.
- In 2006, as Democrats were criticizing the Bush administration's decision to allow a company owned by the government of Dubai to run terminals at six U.S. ports, Russert suggested that Democrats were criticizing the deal in order to exploit it for political gain. "Here's the situation," Russert told viewers. "Democrats believe they can look tough on national security." Russert made no mention of the other possibility: that Democrats were talking about port security because they had been talking about port security for years.
The most prominent Democrats in the country -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards among them -- had been discussing port security for years. They had been doing so in the most high-profile ways available to them: in speeches at the 2004 Democratic convention, during presidential debates. Even on Tim Russert's Meet the Press, where, presumably, Russert was listening to them.
Yet, in 2006, Russert suggested Democrats had just discovered and were cynically exploiting the issue. (A few weeks later, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press and told Russert: "I heard you on another show with [Today host] Katie Couric, Tim, saying something, in effect that the Congress hadn't done much either. Back in 2001, we introduced legislation for port security and rail security; 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. It's been repeatedly spurned by the administration.")
- Last year, during congressional debate over Iraq, Russert said that "the Democratic leadership realizes to vote against funding for the troops would be seen in a general election as not supporting the troops." Russert said nothing similar about Republicans who had voted against a previous version of the bill. To Tim Russert, Democrats who vote against a war-spending bill are voting "against funding for the troops" and will be seen as "not supporting the troops." But when Republicans vote against a war spending bill ... no problem.
Russert is also a serial misinformer about Social Security, frequently parroting bogus talking points produced by conservatives who want to privatize the program:
- In questioning guests about Social Security, Russert uses a pro-privatization talking point about the declining ratio of workers per retiree to join the privatizers in suggesting that the system is in crisis: "When Social Security was created there were ... 42 workers for every retiree. There are now going to be, soon, two workers per retiree."
But economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot explained in their book Social Security: The Phony Crisis that this statistic is grossly misleading: "[T]he decline in this ratio has actually been considerably steeper in the past. ... These figures also neglect to take into account the reduced costs faced by the working population from having a smaller proportion of children to support. A more accurate measure of the actual burden faced by the employed labor force would be the total dependency ratio, which includes both retirees and children relative to the number of workers."
In using the alarmist pro-privatization rhetoric, Russert neglected to mention that the decline in the worker-to-retiree ratio has been steeper in the past. Nor does he mention that the total dependency ratio is, and is projected to remain, considerably lower than it was in the past.
- Contrary to his carefully cultivated reputation as a tough interviewer who won't let guests get away with anything, Russert allows advocates of Social Security privatization to spin and mislead with impunity.
- Russert employs crisis rhetoric favored by the privatization lobby and frowned upon by those who prefer to discuss Social Security accurately. He does so in part by trumpeting a decade-old quotation of Bill Clinton talking about the Social Security trust fund (and by attempting to use the quotation as a gotcha when interviewing Democrats). Clinton's comments were based on projections that were accurate at the time, but more recent projections show the trust fund to be in much better shape. Russert's use of Clinton's 1998 comments based on 1998 projections to argue that Social Security is in crisis now is like a child going to her parents in the dead of winter and citing a weather report from the previous July to argue that she should be able to wear shorts to school.
Along with his carefully cultivated image as a blue-collar son of South Buffalo, the thing everybody knows about Tim Russert is what a tough questioner he is. Like his regular-guy shtick, everybody knows this in large part because Russert himself keeps telling us it's true. He told Time magazine, for example, "I just don't let any kind of personal feelings interfere with my professional job, with my professional mission of trying to elicit information and ask questions. I believe very deeply, particularly about someone running for president, that if you can't answer tough questions then you can't make tough decisions. And so I apply that standard to all candidates from all parties."
In a piece headlined "How to beat Tim Russert," Slate.com's Jack Shafer wrote, "Plotting his interviews out like chess matches, he deploys aggressive openings, subtle feints, artfully constructed traps, and lightning offenses to crack the politicians' phony veneer and reveal the genuine veneer beneath. ... If you've switched your position on anything, or if your views on, say, the balanced budget clash with your advocacy of new tax cuts, expect Russert to grill you."
But this popular (and Russert-approved) view of Russert isn't quite right. There are a variety of ways you can avoid such tough questioning.
You could, for example, advocate Social Security privatization. If you do that, you can not only use a variety of phony arguments and bogus claims to buttress your position, you can do so with the confidence that if you need a moment to catch your breath, Russert himself will fill in for you.
Or you could be a Republican senator and presidential candidate talking about the decision to go to war in Iraq. Important Safety Tip: Do not skip the part about being a Republican.
In the first few months of 2007, Russert interviewed John McCain, John Edwards, and Joe Biden. All were running for president. All had been in the Senate for the 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Russert asked all of them about the decision to go to war. Russert asked Biden and Edwards why they voted to authorize the use of force despite the "caveats" in the 2002 NIE that cast doubt on the notion that Iraq was a threat to the U.S. But when Russert interviewed McCain a few weeks after interviewing Biden, he let McCain assert that the invasion of Iraq "was certainly justified" because "[e]very intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."
Oddly, Russert -- the notoriously tough questioner who won't let anyone get away with anything and who brags he applies the same "standard to all candidates from all parties" -- didn't challenge McCain about the doubts expressed by American intelligence agencies in the NIE. (A year earlier, McCain had claimed on Meet the Press that "every intelligence agency in the world believed that he [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction." Russert didn't challenge McCain that time, either. He does keep asking Democrats about the NIE, though.)
Media Matters has documented many other examples of Russert lobbing softballs to conservatives and letting them get away with misleading spin and false claims:
- Russert allowed former Reagan adviser Ken Adelman to claim that "no one knew" that intelligence indicating Iraq had WMD "wasn't true." In fact, many, people had challenged the accuracy of that intelligence. The "no one knew" claim has long been the GOP's defense against criticisms of its decision to go to war, but Russert was either unprepared to challenge it or uninterested in doing so (just as he would later give McCain a pass on the same.)
- On the May 20, 2007, edition of Meet the Press, guest Newt Gingrich asserted that an alleged plot to carry out an armed attack on Fort Dix was evidence that terrorists "don't plan to stop in Baghdad. They are coming here as soon as they can get here." This is a common right-wing talking point, but it has been repeatedly disputed by experts. In the weeks prior to Gingrich's appearance, The Washington Post, McClatchy, and NPR had all run reports that included intelligence officials and other experts disputing the claim. NPR cited, among others, retired Army Lt. Col. James Carafano, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. According to NPR, "calls asserting that terrorists will follow U.S. troops home naive and poor rhetoric." The NPR report also featured a clip of Carafano saying, "There's no national security analyst that's really credible who thinks that people are going to come from Iraq and attack the United States -- that that's a credible scenario." But rather than challenging Gingrich's claim, Russert turned to his Democratic guest and instructed him to respond to Gingrich's far-fetched assertions.
- In early 2006, Russert hosted Gen. Peter Pace, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and failed to challenge a series of dubious assertions Pace made in support of his claim that the Iraq war was "going very, very well."
- In 2004, Russert asked Jerry Falwell about his comments that abortion rights advocates, feminists, and homosexuals, among others, were responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Falwell falsely claimed that he "likewise" held responsible "a sleeping church, a lethargic church." Falwell wasn't telling the truth, but Russert let him get away with it. Russert also asked Falwell about a study that showed that "[t]he states with the highest level [of divorce] are the so-called Bible Belt, in the South." In response, Falwell asserted that "born-again, Bible-believing Christians who take the Bible as the word of God," the divorce rate is lower. That wasn't true, either -- but again, Russert failed to challenge Falwell. Keep in mind: Russert brought both of these topics up. He presumably had Falwell's 9-11 quote handy; after all, he read it to Falwell. But when Falwell falsely described his comments, Russert let him get away with it.
- Interviewing Sens. John Warner, a Republican, and Joe Biden, a Democrat, Russert asked Warner about whether the Bush administration distorted or withheld evidence that the aluminum tubes sought by Saddam Hussein didn't have anything to do with WMD. When Warner dodged the question, not saying anything about the aluminum tubes but instead simply asserting that Bush "would not intentionally take any facts and try and mislead the American public," Russert did not press Warner either on that dubious assertion or on his failure to answer the question. Instead, he turned to Biden and grilled him on his vote to authorize the use of force, asking Biden about the 2002 NIE that contained caveats about the WMD intelligence. Russert didn't ask Warner why he voted to authorize force despite the NIE caveats.
- Russert allowed Richard Perle to suggest that former Vice President Al Gore supported the invasion of Iraq in a 2002 speech. In fact, during that speech Gore opposed the invasion.
- Russert repeatedly failed to challenge false and dubious claims by Vice President Cheney during a September 2006 interview.
- In 2005, amid speculation that the investigation into the Bush administration's outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame would yield indictments on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, conservatives were frantically trying to downplay the seriousness of those charges. Appearing on Meet the Press, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did so by claiming "there were charges against former President Bill Clinton besides perjury and obstruction of justice" during his 1999 Senate trial on impeachment charges. In fact, there were not, as Russert should have known; the impeachment trial was a fairly high-profile event. Nevertheless, Russert let Hutchison's false claim go uncorrected.
- In 2005, Russert hosted RNC chair Ken Mehlman, who claimed that the 9-11 Commission had "totally discredited" the notion that the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence. Given that the 9-11 Commission didn't even address the administration's use of prewar intelligence, this was a pretty big falsehood. But Russert let Mehlman get away with it.
- In early 2007, Russert let John McCain make a series of wild claims without challenging them. McCain claimed Joe Lieberman's re-election in Connecticut was evidence that it was not "clear-cut" that the public opposed the Iraq war. Russert failed to note that exit polls showed that Lieberman was re-elected in spite of his support for the war, not because of it. Nor did Russert note that Lieberman spent the bulk of the campaign frantically pretending to be a war critic and trying to convince voters that he intended to end the war and bring the troops home.
McCain also claimed that at the time of the first Gulf War, "only 15 percent of the American people thought we ought to go to Kuwait and get rid of Saddam Hussein there." In fact, a Gallup poll taken the day before the launch of Operation Desert Storm found 79 percent of Americans supported going to war in the Gulf. McCain could hardly have been more wrong, yet Russert didn't correct the glaring falsehood.
- Interviewing Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Russert asked such hard-hitting questions as whether or not Schwarzenegger agreed with the assessment that he had a "mastery of the state's rising independent center"; whether Schwarzenegger thought a description of him as a "moderate" was "fair," the open-ended "What is an Arnold Republican?" and, best of all: "You're a Republican winning in California, a Blue State, in a Democratic year. People would have you on the short list for the Republican nomination in 2008. But they can't for one reason: You were not born in the United States. Is that fair?" Russert had a follow-up to that one: "You've been a citizen for 23 years, shouldn't you have an opportunity to run for president?" In between tossing Schwarzenegger softballs, Russert let him get away with whoppers like his claim that "we have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years or so." That was true -- if by "30 years or so" Schwarzenegger meant "six years."
Russert doesn't just toss softballs to conservatives when he interviews them. He carries their water in other ways, too.
- As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert has explained, during the 2004 election, Russert apparently knew that then-Cheney aide Scooter Libby had given false testimony to the special counsel investigating the Bush administration's outing of Valerie Plame -- but Russert kept this information secret.
- President Bush and his press secretary indicated during the Plame leak investigation that anyone who had anything to do with the leak would be fired. When it was clear that Karl Rove had participated in the leak, Russert helped the Bush administration move the goalposts, describing Bush as having "said early on in this [investigation] that if anyone broke the law, that he would deal with it." Since Rove was never convicted of anything, under this standard, Bush wouldn't have to fire him.
- Russert adopted the GOP's inflammatory description of a Democratic Iraq proposal as "slow-bleed."
- Russert falsely claimed there was "no evidence" that former head of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi "was associated with Curveball," a relative of a top Chalabi aide who became the most influential source for U.S. intelligence on Iraq's biological weapons program. In fact, independent reporting and the then-recently released Robb-Silberman report on intelligence regarding WMDs (to which Russert referred) indicated a clear connection between Chalabi and Curveball.
- During the fight over President Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Russert twice claimed that when former President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans voted for them despite ideological differences with the "two liberal jurists." Russert also claimed that Alito's judicial philosophy is "no more conservative than Ginsburg and Breyer's were liberal." Russert wasn't telling the truth. Ginsburg and Breyer were seen as moderate nominees, not liberal, and had in fact been recommended for nomination by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
- Immediately after the 2004 vice presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney, Russert repeated Cheney's claim during the debate that he had previously never met Edwards until moments before the debate started -- a claim Cheney made in order to suggest that Edwards didn't show up for work at the Senate. The next morning, Russert noted that in fact the two had met multiple times before, including one morning in 2001 when they were both on Meet the Press and, according to Russert, "they stopped and shook hands." Russert said that, during the debate, he "thought that John Edwards would call him on it right at that very moment." So -- according to his own statements -- Russert knew while watching the debate that Cheney had lied. Yet after the debate, he repeated Cheney's lie, without giving viewers any indication that it wasn't true.
Is it any wonder that Cheney's staff believes they can control the message on Meet the Press? The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported during the Scooter Libby trial:
Memo to Tim Russert: Dick Cheney thinks he controls you.
This delicious morsel about the "Meet the Press" host and the vice president was part of the extensive dish Cathie Martin served up yesterday when the former Cheney communications director took the stand in the perjury trial of former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Flashed on the courtroom computer screens were her notes from 2004 about how Cheney could respond to allegations that the Bush administration had played fast and loose with evidence of Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Option 1: "MTP-VP," she wrote, then listed the pros and cons of a vice presidential appearance on the Sunday show. Under "pro," she wrote: "control message."
"I suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used," Martin testified. "It's our best format."
If you still aren't persuaded that on Meet the Press, it is often the question -- and the questioner -- that is the problem, spend a few hours poking around Bob Somerby's Daily Howler archives. Be sure to seek out his analysis of Russert's interviews with Al Gore, Howard Dean, and George W. Bush.