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Tim Russert's Hidden Genius

Like a lot of opinion journalists, I've been known to lament Tim Russert's central place in the media cosmos. Russert elevated the gotcha question into an occasionally tedious art form, then forced us to admire his handiwork. Those of us who believe a public official can be more than the sum of his inconsistencies--or, for that matter, less than the sum of his consistencies--sometimes had trouble forgiving him this.

But you have to give Russert his due. While just about every other mass-market news organ has suffered an absolute bloodletting these last two decades, the fortunes of "Meet the Press" have moved in the opposite direction. 

The program was averaging well under 3 million viewers per week when Russert took over in 1991, versus 3.5 million for the reigning colossus of the genre, ABC's "This Week." By the late '90s, however, even as competitors like Fox News materialized and broadcast-TV ratings declined overall, Russert was well above 4 million. And though his numbers sagged during the dog days of the Bush administration in 2006 and 2007, they never dipped below "This Week"'s high-water mark. More importantly, even before the viewership jolt that was this year's primary season (nearly 4.5 million viewers some Sundays), "Meet the Press" remained enormously influential in setting the weekly agenda for newspapers, magazines, and cable.

How on earth did Russert pull it off? Unlike the nightly broadcasts, which have become irrelevant in a world of ever-present headlines, and unlike cable chatter, which can be less illuminating than the lunchtime din at a moderately-selective prep school, "Meet the Press" consistently made news, a rare and precious accomplishment for an interview program--for all of television news, in fact.

Of course, the real trick is figuring out Russert's secret news-making sauce, which is slightly more complicated. A show like "Meet the Press" hinges on a delicate equilibrium: Prominent guests show up to impress its important viewers. But the important people only watch if the guests say semi-interesting things. Without the opportunity to impress all those viewers, the guests wouldn't show (at least not with the same frequency). Without the chance at some drama, the viewers wouldn't tune in (at least not in the same numbers).

Russert's ingenious solution to this problem: The gotcha. The delicious possibility of seeing a secretary of state or joint chiefs chairman get that shifty-eyed, busted-for-filching-the-homeroom-Jolly-Rancher-stash look when they contradicted an earlier pronouncement kept us watching week after week. But the questioning was rarely so probing or aggressive or unpredictable that a reasonably agile guest couldn't study his way to a passing grade. 

The gotcha may have been a wearying journalistic device. But, as a strategy for getting big names in front of big audiences on a regular basis, and driving the political news cycle in a way that no other TV program could, it was a stunning success. For that, Russert deserves real credit.

Update: David Remnick has a somewhat similar take--though his is far more elegantly written.

--Noam Scheiber