There have been millions of words written and spoken in the past few days about Tim Russert -- words about how Tim knew his beat better than almost anyone in Washington, about how hard work was in his blue-collar DNA, and about what a decent guy he was. All true.
But days later another reality has finally sunk in: that while his colleagues loved and admired Tim, I'm not at all sure they really understood him, not the part that made him so important in American journalism, anyway.
Knowing politics as well as he did was part of it, for sure. But a lot of people in Washington know politics. Asking probing questions was part of it, too. But again, Tim didn't have a patent on tough questions. And it wasn't just that (unlike too many others) he was fair to both sides. No, 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. (Trust me on this one, I worked at CBS News for 28 years and know Dan Rather personally.)
In 2001, my first book, "Bias," came out. It was an insider's look at bias in the media. Not one network news correspondent would have anything to do with me. I couldn't get on any of their morning news shows to talk about the book (which was a national best seller), or their evening shows or their weekend shows or even their middle-of-the-night news shows. No one in network television wanted to discuss the issue, no matter how many Middle Americans thought it was important.
Russert was the lone exception.
He had me on his CNBC interview show, and we talked about bias for a full hour. He had me on his show two other times. About five years ago, we turned the tables and I interviewed him for a book I was writing on the arrogance that I believe pervades too much of American journalism.
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."
Tim understood that without that kind of diversity, journalism would be in trouble. He knew it wasn't good for journalism or America if almost all the people reporting the news lived and worked in the same bubble.
"There's a potential cultural bias. And I think it's very real and very important to recognize and to deal with," he told me. "Because of backgrounds 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 '60s and the '70s 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."
"Why the closed-mindedness when the subject comes around to media bias?" I asked him.
"That, to me, is totally contrary to who we're supposed to be as journalists. . . . 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."
His many friends in journalism -- the ones who spend their lives inside that comfortable, elitist bubble -- would do well to take those words to heart. Facing up to their biases and making a conscious effort to get rid of what Tim called "preferred positions" on important social issues (for abortion and against guns, for example) would be a lasting tribute to Tim.
We ended our conversation that day with an exchange about the criticism he took from some on the political left for wearing a red, white and blue ribbon on his lapel when he interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney on Sept. 16, 2001. He told me a good friend of his died at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and that the friend's family had asked if he would wear the ribbon, "and I never thought for a second about it."
"I want a debate about national security and who defines national security," he said. "I understand all that. But in the end, you have to make judgments, and on that day I made a judgment 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."
"But what about 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," I asked him.
"It is imperative," he told me, "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."
Which was way too soon.
-- Bernard Goldberg, a correspondent at CBS News from 1972 to 2000, is the author of "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News" (Regnery, 2001) and, most recently, "Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right" (HarperCollins, 2007), for the Wall Street Journal