Accuracy in Media

A correction has been added to this article

This has been a rough year for Tim Russert, though you wouldn’t know it the way he is treated by the media. Russert hosts the premier Sunday morning interview show, “Meet the Press,” and is considered one of the top political analysts in the business. His image took a beating during the Scooter Libby trial as I pointed out  at the time, both in terms of his memory and his credibility, though it was largely ignored by the media. Before the trial, he talked about it on the air, in a form of pre-trial publicity, even though he was likely to be a witness, and after the trial it became known that he had a relationship with one of the jurors, who had been a reporter for the Washington Post. 

But recently Russert has been on the air doing a book tour promoting the release of the paperback version of his 2006 best-selling book, , as Father’s Day approached. The book is a heartfelt story about Tim’s relationship with his dad, plus the paperback version includes some of the tens of thousands of letters he received from people relating similar stories about their fathers. Russert is very likable, and very well liked and respected among his peers. 

But what was striking was some of Russert’s political analysis that went largely unchallenged. Russert was talking about the 2008 presidential race. On Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show on NBC, Russert said, “The key is the primaries are coming very early, the first week of January. So we will know who the Democratic [and] Republican nominees are by February of ‘08, so we only have six or seven months. This is the first time in 80 years, Conan, that a president or vice president, an incumbent president’s or vice president’s name is not going to be on the ballot. It’s a wide open race.” 

He made the same point on Hannity and Colmes, telling Sean Hannity, “This is the first time in 80 years that an incumbent president or vice president is not running an aggressive campaign to be the next president. It’s wide open.” 

The only problem is 1952. Neither the incumbent president, Harry Truman, nor vice president, Alben Barkley, made it onto the ballot for that year, though Truman did run in the New Hampshire primary before announcing his intention to not run again. He certainly didn’t run an “aggressive campaign.” In every other presidential election since 1928, the incumbent president or vice president was on the ballot as his party’s nominee. 

Also, speaking to Conan O’Brien, Russert said, as if going out on a limb, that “Barack Obama, I believe in two weeks, will have new numbers, will raise more money and have more donors than Hillary Clinton.” 

That might be a bold prediction if it hadn’t already happened in the first quarter of this year. As this Bloomberg article points out, in the first quarter of ‘07 Obama set a record for money raised in the first quarter for a presidential primary election, and had 104,000 individual donors as compared to Hillary Clinton’s 60,000. If you add in the money Hillary raised for the general election, she came out slightly ahead in total dollars raised. 

And to his point that by February 2008 “we will know” who the nominees of the two parties are, that is far from certain. It is certainly possible, but if today’s polls are any kind of accurate reflection, it doesn’t really seem likely. For the Democrats, Hillary leads overall, by double digits in the most recent national polls. But among the key states, Edwards is leading in Iowa, and Obama is leading in South Carolina. Some in Hillary’s campaign have even suggested that she stay away from Iowa. And on the Republican side, most recent polls show that none of the top four candidates―Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and presumably Fred Thompson―even reach 30%. 

There is a very real possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, that no one in either party will have wrapped up their party’s nomination by early February, when most of the primaries will occur. And with very few primaries left between then and the nominating conventions in the summer, it could be that both conventions will actually determine who gets the nominations. 

While most of the reporters at NBC and MSNBC seem giddy at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, Russert’s problems have more to do with carelessness and accuracy than bias. People have a high regard for what Tim Russert has to say about politics and government. That’s why he needs to make a greater effort to get his facts right. 

Correction:

In this column, I wrote that, before the trial, Tim Russert talked about the Libby case on the air, in a form of pre-trial publicity, even though he was likely to be a witness, and “after the trial it became known that he had a relationship with one of the jurors, who had been a reporter for the Washington Post.”

I received an email from Neil Lewis, who had covered the case for the New York Times, saying that it had been known since jury selection that Russert had a relationship with that juror. I have double-checked the facts. Mr. Lewis is correct that the relationship had been written about at the time of jury selection in January. I should have said that Russert’s relationship with the juror was not widely known, and on that point I stand corrected. My review of stories and commentary indicates that many others were also surprised that the juror, Denis Collins, should have been allowed on the jury in view of his relationship with Russert. Collins, who wrote a book about the CIA, had worked for Bob Woodward and knew Walter Pincus, both of the Washington Post. Woodward and Pincus were both witnesses in the case.

Lewis didn’t comment on my point that Russert should not have used his position as an interviewer and commentator to weigh in on a case that he was to be a witness in. This was a clear violation of the journalistic ethics set down by the Society of Professional Journalists. They declare that a journalist should “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Nor did Lewis point to anything else factually wrong in my column.




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