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Tim Russert

If ever a man was most needed during a political campaign it was Tim Russert.

With his passing today, the country lost not only a television show host or political reporter, but rather one of the last columns holding together what remains of intelligent political discourse. We live in an age of rumors and unfiltered opinion and partisan programming–where it seems more young people look to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" for analysis of the day’s events than the nightly news or any of the cable outlets devoted to politics. There’s a reason for that: We simply no longer trust many of the people who are charged with the weighty task of reporting the news.

But we could trust Russert. While voices were shouting and clammoring and debating, Russert served as that voice of calm. Maybe he was, despite his relative youth, a man from a different age–not given to fits of anger or shouting, willing to calmly, sometimes coldly look over a situation with a knowledge of history that seemed unparalleled. When I chronicled the growing disconnect between the Washington press and the Bush administration as a media columnist for The New York Observer, Russert didn’t share the anger of some of his other colleagues. He spoke with a self-confidence that he could get what he needed from a place that reviled what he stood for.

"I have no problems with accessibility," he told me. "I can get my questions answered. Everyone has the same opportunity to talk to people the same amount of times. When it’s your time to talk to someone, you have to be prepared for a tough, comprehensive interview. It’s not the job of a journalist to turn over the interview for somebody’s political infomercial."

Russert certainly could be tough. We counted on him not to ask a question, listen to a canned response and simply move on. He asked the questions most viewers wanted to know, and would keep asking them until he got close enough to the truth.

Political coverage–particularly television coverage–has changed dramatically since Meet the Press first aired in 1947. The multitude of news outlets has given us some great political journalism. But it’s also given us a lot of bad reporting and figures whose egos overshadow the events they’re talking about. As a rule, television is not an introspective medium. But hopefully in the hours and days to come people will use Russert’s death as an opportunity for brief self-reflection, an opportunity for the industry to ask itself what exactly they’re doing and why.

There is no perfect timing for death. But Russert’s passing at the onset of the general election process is particularly awful. When we needed a man like Edward R. Murrow to take down a man like Joe McCarthy we had him, just as we had Walter Cronkite when we needed a voice of authority to tell us the war Vietnam wasn’t a war to be won. In that same vein, in this utterly hostile, toxic environment we needed a man like Russert to swat a way partisan rhetoric and shouting and on-air bickering we’ve come to sadly accept.

We needed–and still need–a man who could give us the facts.

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