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So What Do You Do, Luke Russert, Correspondent, NBC News?

'I know what kids are going through, and I try to bring that perspective'

By Steve Krakauer - October 29, 2008
He's interviewed Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. He's reported from both the DNC and RNC and each of the presidential debates for NBC News. And six months ago, he was graduating from college. Luke Russert is one of NBC News' newest, and certainly youngest, correspondents. Russert is assigned to cover youth issues, and with youth registration up significantly this year, he has had no shortage of material. But in political terms, just as some on the right and left have questioned Gov. Sarah Palin or Obama's experience, similar questions have been raised of the 23-year-old.

Of course, Russert is also a, well, Russert. When journalism icon Tim Russert died suddenly at the age of 58 on June 13, his son Luke was on the air paying tribute to his dad less than 72 hours later. He certainly looks like him, and with the NBC News job, he's headed down the same career path. But there's more to Russert than just the name. Luke has more than two years of experience as a radio host on XM, and, as he tells us, "This is a business I was raised around."

When we interviewed Russert in a conference room at 30 Rock, it was another busy day: That morning he had been a guest on The Martha Stewart Show, and in the afternoon, he was appearing via satellite on The Oprah Winfrey Show and on MSNBC. In between, talked to Russert about how networks can gain youth viewers, the future of Meet the Press, and more.

Name: Luke Russert
Position: NBC News correspondent
Resume: Interned at ESPN's Pardon the Interruption and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Has co-hosted 60/20 Sports with James Carville on XM Radio (now Sirius XM) since March 2006. Joined NBC News in August.
Birthday: August 22, 1985
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Education: Double major in history and communications from Boston College
Marital status: Declined to comment
First section of Sunday Times: Week in Review
Favorite television show: Sportscenter
Last book read: Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen
Guilty pleasure: Chipotle

It seems that every election storyline is always, "young people will be coming out in record numbers," and it never seems to happen. Do you think this year will be any different?
I do. From what I've seen on the ground, it certainly looks like kids will turn up in bigger numbers this year. But if you just look at the trajectory of the numbers, if we go from 2000 to 2004, there was a nine point increase in the number of kids who came out to vote. [For] the midterm elections in 2002 to 2006, there was a substantial increase as well, I believe in the range of eight to 10 points. At the primaries, 6.6 million young folks turned out to participate. So, given all of those statistics and those numbers, on paper it certainly looks like the youth vote will come this election.

That being said, no one really knows for sure. There [are] massive new voter registration numbers. If you look at the state of Virginia, there's been since January, I think, about four or five hundred thousand people who have been registered to vote. Of those hundreds of thousands, people under 34 make up 62 percent of that new number. So if those folks come out to vote in a place like Virginia, it could really sway things. And I think they will. I mean, if they don't come out in this election, I don't know when they ever will come.

Let's talk about Virginia. After a Today show segment, you seemed to imply smarter kids went to UVA, and favored Obama. On your blog you described the comment as "dumb" and called the experience one of your first lessons with the "perils of live television." What did you learn from that?
Yeah, it was dumb, it was an absolutely dumb comment. I learned that when you're going to go on live TV, you have to really, really prep yourself, and be prepared for anything. We were originally going to talk about the fact that there were some questions about young folks being able to register to vote in the town where their college is. If you remember, there was a story that came out, I think it was at Virginia Tech, where some election officials told kids, "If you vote here, it affects your tax status back at home," and that sort of thing. That's what I was prepared to talk about. And then we sort of switched it up -- to, if you could say that UVA was an adequate microcosm of the state. And Matt [Lauer] said there were a lot of smart kids there, and he said smart and I went off of that. What I was really trying to say was that kids that go to UVA come from very, sort of, affluent educated households, who statistically support Obama. That being said, I took a lot of flak for it from Newsbusters, from kids who went to William & Mary, got a lot of emails from them. They actually sent me this thing that said the SAT scores at William & Mary are higher than those at UVA.

To prove they're smarter?
To prove they're smarter. And I learned to never really wing it to a degree. You obviously always have to be prepared to think about different things that you could be asked or that you could say. And avoid being very blunt like that. I think that's something I stepped in, just saying, "Oh, of course smart kids do that," and that's something you kind of have to draw out. You have to learn that your audience is not thinking the same way you are, and you really have to explain yourself. I made the mistake of assuming people would understand what I meant and just forgetting that at face value, that looked really bad. And that's why it was dumb, and that's why it was stupid. And hopefully I won't make another mistake like that again, but who knows. We all wish we'd never make mistakes again.

"Did my name get my foot in the door? Absolutely, I'll be the first to admit that. But has my performance and ability got my butt through the door? Yes."

You have been out there covering youth issues for months now. What do you see as something the mainstream media is missing when trying to connect with these potential viewers?
I think what they're missing is they don't necessarily provide a forum for young kids to speak out themselves. I really like what MTV did recently; they had a forum where you have a panelist and young folks grabbing the microphone. But I would take one hour of primetime and make it sort of a debate format, where you have a debate for young folks. Where the candidates have to answer young folks' questions, have the networks cover it for an hour and young people would be engaged -- they would tune in to that.

This isn't about mainstream media in general, but I think that a lot of stories stereotype young people as being apathetic, or smoking pot, watching Entourage, playing XBOX all day. Just not caring. And then you have these stories where so-and-so did something in the community or someone who's really politically active, and it's sort of this novel concept, when in reality I think if you were actually on the ground, it's widespread. I mean, kids are involved in all different facets of this democracy. Whether it be through community service, whether it be through political participation, and the one thing I would like to see is that it's normal to see a young person contributing. Young people are productive members of society; they're not just leeching on the government and their parents.

NBC News president Steve Capus called you one of the rookies of the year during the 2008 election. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel really good. On top of that, it's humbling to hear that from someone like Steve. He is a tremendous boss to work for. It's rare in the news business to have someone who is understanding, who listens, who is willing to hear out new ideas. And he is someone who encompasses all that's good in the business. I had someone come up to me once and was like, "What do you think of Capus?" And I said, "He's a great guy," and they go, "He just seems way too nice to be in that type of position for broadcast news." And it's a credit to what he's been able to do. It shows that you can run a news division and not be, shall we say, a hardcore... I'm not going to say the curse word. [It shows] that you can run a news division and not be an overzealous micromanaging individual -- that you can actually listen to people.

At the same time, it begs the question: Should a "rookie" be reporting for NBC during this election in the first place?
I agree that I have a very unique position. And I think I'm an interesting case study because I come from radio. I've been doing the radio show with James Carville for two and half years, so it's not like I'm just being plucked from the ocean and thrown in front of a camera and they're saying "Oh, what do you think about youth issues?" I was actually going to do a lot of stuff for a channel called POTUS for Sirius/XM doing much of the same stuff -- talking about youth issues, young people's concerns, engaging their reaction. I was approached by NBC News to bring that perspective to television. I understand people who say it's a big jump, but I also think its territory that's never really been explored before. It's an area where news divisions and news networks definitely want to get involved because we are the future. In many cases we are future viewers and media consumers, but we are also future members of this democracy and this country. And for that reason, I think they were sort of trying to get in at the ground level with the new demographic. I think I've been able to do that.

"If I didn't want [this], I could be in a log cabin right now, blogging."

Is it the kind of thing where you think having someone who is technically "youth" cover youth issues is important, rather than having another correspondent assigned to youth issues?
Without a doubt, and studies prove that when you have peer-to-peer communication, people view it as a lot more authentic. We're roughly the same age, when we're talking to each other, we have sort of our own types of language because we're young and you sort of view me as being more authentic because we're in the same age range. When I've gone to college campuses, a lot of kids have come up to me and said, "We like that you're here, a lot of times we'll have some 35-year-old that comes up to us and says, 'So, what is it really like to be young?'" And you know I'm only a few months removed from school -- I know what kids are going through, and I try to bring that perspective. Look, in news, 35 is very young, without a doubt. And I think people in positions of power look at 35 as being very young. College kids don't see 35 as being young. 35 is old to a lot of people. And I think that's where I've been able to come in and say "Here's someone who's 23, here's someone who's learning almost with the demographics he's covering." That's an interesting perspective. I'm right there with them trying to absorb information on the same scale that they are.

The other side of it is also the nepotism thing. Can you talk a little about that?
Sure. A lot of people have said that if he is not Luke Russert, he doesn't get where he is. I respect their opinion. But in regard to that, I did have a radio show, for over two-and-a-half years, that was re-upped with a contract recently for two more. I don't think that people in power at Sirius/XM, at NBC, would throw money at someone simply for the reason that their last name is Russert. Or is Zucker, or is Capus, or is Brokaw. If you are going to be in a position where you are representing the network, you have to know what you're doing. Did my name get my foot in the door? Absolutely, I'll be the first to admit that. But has my performance and ability got my butt through the door? Yes.

And one thing that I think is very important is we hear about self-made individuals and I think it's a wonderful story. But nowhere in the course of human history -- maybe the guy who invented the pet rock is an exception -- has anyone made it from the bottom to the top without any help at all. There's always been some sort of connection, some mentor that has brought them along the way. And so I understand the nepotism charges, and I know it's something that will always be a part of any article that's written about me for probably a long time, probably if I'm still doing this 20 years down the line, it'll still be there. But it's important to understand: this is a business I was raised around. Something I know in many ways like the back of my hand. I think if you look at other examples in media, Chris Wallace is a perfect example, who was raised in a media household who has done extraordinary things. If you look at the sports world, Joe Buck was getting one of the Games of the Week at FOX at age 25. And look at Jeff Zucker, 26, being the executive producer of the Today show, albeit not by name, but I think if there's younger folks that have a certain talent, it's not a disservice, especially if they do have a name, to put them forward.

Have you seen any pushback to your rise at NBC from people within the network?
Not overtly. As there is at any company, I'm sure there's people speaking behind my back, but I'm sure there's people speaking behind your back at TVNewser. There's people speaking behind people's backs at Wal-Mart, at Goldman Sachs, wherever. So no, has anyone ever come up to me and said anything snotty or rude? No. But is it being said? Absolutely. But that's going on everywhere.

You signed a one-year contract with NBC just before the conventions. What do you see as your role with the network after the election, and also beyond this current contract?
My role, first and foremost, is to see if whoever is president keeps a lot of the promises being made to young folks. In the case of Obama, I think this $4,000 to use towards college in exchange for community service, I want to see if that program actually gets passed and gets put into place. You know, a lot of young folks are voting on that issue, solely. Apart from that I definitely want to try my hand at some different types of reporting. There's a possibility of doing a Dateline piece, possibility of having more presence on the Internet, maybe MSNBC, and just see if I'm comfortable in television. But I really am going to try to learn more about TV and learn if I want to be a part of it. And I've said before, radio is my first love, my true love, it's what I enjoy doing the most. At the end of the year, if I don't necessarily see myself in television, I have no problem walking away. Obviously, I'd like to stay here for 50 years, but if I don't think I'm doing a good job or I'm not happy, I'll go to radio and be more than pleased to settle down.

MSNBC and NBC have become a focal point for those who charge liberal bias in the media during this election. Do you think that's a fair point?
I don't necessarily know if it's fair to categorize the entire network as having a liberal bias. I think what you have, much like you have at FOX, is MSNBC has opinionated journalism in time slots. [Keith] Olbermann is opinionated journalism. Rachel Maddow is opinionated journalism. And they'll be the first to admit, they take on the current administration, and there's definitely a left-lean there. Do I think they speak for the whole network? No. And I think that when you have folks from the right that say "MSNBC has become the liberal version of FOX," I don't think that charge is accurate when describing NBC News, and I don't think it's accurate when describing MSNBC during the day -- nor do I think it's accurate when describing Fox a lot during the day, because I think during the day a lot of the stuff is just news. Sure, there's some commentators on, but we're talking about prime time hours. And prime time hours are there to attract viewers. There's a lot of conservatives in the United States, there's a lot of liberals in the United States, and I think what MSNBC has done, which is brilliant, is bring those people into the fold. I don't think in any way do Olbermann and Maddow speak for the whole network at all.

Well a difference between Fox News and MSNBC is that Fox doesn't have this other outlet, which is a network. Do you think that some of what people charge about MSNBC ultimately hurts the NBC brand, or do you see it as separate?
To some people, possibly. I don't necessarily think the general public sees them as intertwined. I mean, the people on the right will make the case that what's happening on MSNBC bleeds over into the network, but if you can find me an example of Brian Williams, Chuck Todd or Tom Brokaw or any stapleholds actually on the network broadcast, or Lee Cowan, Kelly O'Donnell, as being biased or even showing any hint of bias, send me the tape -- I'd like to see it.

What do you see as the future of Meet the Press?
I think it's entering a different time. My dad was a real staplehold there for 17 years, and I think it's a show that is probably, most likely, going to change in format, whether they have two people asking questions, whether or not they bring in more panelists. But I see it as a show with a very successful formula, a blueprint that if someone goes in there and works hard, they can without a doubt achieve ratings success.

How closely have you been monitoring the program that is most directly associated with your father?
I don't watch it as much as I watched when he was on, obviously. It's still tough, to some degree, to watch it all the way through. I see who they have as guests, and I tune in. I think Brokaw's been doing an absolutely outstanding job. Honestly I think, given the situation being dealt, it was so nice of him to essentially come out of retirement and lend his veteran presence. So yeah, I pay close attention to it. I care about what happens to it. I think it really is -- and all the Sunday morning shows are -- really the last frontier in terms of a format that is watched by millions, in which people can actually have a conversation. I just hope it stays in that realm.

We live in a culture now where a public person's privacy is fairly nonexistent. If you look back to 2005, Gawker and other sites picked up on your Facebook page, the hot tub picture. Do you think its fair that you have to combat these private things in your life being on display?
In 2005, when Gawker did that, I don't necessarily think it was fair, because I wasn't involved in any sort of public media. I was just "son of, going to college." And they've done other things where they've taken pictures of Caroline Kennedy's daughter having a glass of wine in high school and putting that out there, and we remember the stuff with Judge Alito's son and sort of tearing down the kids of celebrities, and I don't like that. Now, you know, post-radio, post-TV, I'm totally willing to accept them writing anything and them saying anything, because I'm a public figure, I've put myself in that position and I chose to live that life. If I didn't want it, I could be in a log cabin right now, blogging. But I chose to put myself out there, so by all means. If they feel inclined to take shots, I can accept them. I'm a big boy. If you spend your time reading sites like Gawker, and Jossip, and letting them get to you, you're not going to go very far in this business.

Steve Krakauer is associate editor of TVNewser.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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