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Tim Russert and the Dead Woman: Real Men Always Cry

Jesse Kornbluth on emotional media and "Meet the Press"

By Jesse Kornbluth - October 3, 2005

meetpress.jpgIt's not exactly breaking news that 'Meet the Press' has become something of an infomercial for the White House—Arianna Huffington takes a baseball bat to Tim Russert's kneecaps for this sin on her site every weekend. Ms. Huffington is more than equal to the task of counting the number of times per show that Russert bends to kiss the ring of a Cheney, Rice or Rumsfeld. There's no need for me to follow her lead—I am as in awe of her persistence as I am by Russert's lack of embarrassment.

And yet I am forced to write about Russert. The catalyst is two interviews he did with Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard. New Orleans was still flooded the first time Broussard came on 'Meet the Press,' and he was quite emotional as he told the story of a woman who drowned:

Sir, they were told, like me, every single day, "The cavalry is coming." On the federal level, "The cavalry is coming. The cavalry's coming. The cavalry's coming." The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard Nursing Home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama. Somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.

On that occasion, Russert seemed not to know how to respond. He cut away from Broussard and moved on to an interview with Mississippi Governor—and veteran Republican leader—Haley Barbour.

But on Broussard's return visit, Russert was prepared. Indeed, he had a mission—to confront Broussard.

First, Russert replayed that 'painful, emotional moment.' Then he dug in:

Well, it was important, I think...that our viewers see that again because MSNBC and other blog organizations have looked into the facts behind your comments and these are the conclusions, and I'll read it for you and our viewers. It says: "An emotional moment and a misunderstanding. Since the broadcast of [Meet the Press] interview...a number of bloggers have questioned the validity of Broussard's story. Subsequent reporting identified the man whom Broussard was referring to...as Thomas Rodrigue, the Jefferson Parish emergency services director. ...Rodrigue acknowledged that his 92-year-old mother and more than 30 other people died in the St. Rita nursing home. They had not been evacuated and the flood waters overtook the residence. ... When told of the sequence of phone calls that Broussard described, Rodrigue said 'No, no, that's not true. ...I contacted the nursing home two days before the storm [on Saturday, Aug. 27th] and again on [Sunday] the 28th. ...At the same time I talked to the nursing home I had also talked to the emergency manager...to encourage that nursing home to evacuate...' Rodrigue says he never made any calls after Monday, the day he figures his mother died... Officials believe the residents of St. Rita's died on Monday, the 29th, not on Friday, Sept. 2, as Broussard has suggested."

Watching this, a reasonable viewer would go, "Huh? What's this guy's point?" And whatever it is, why is Russert gunning for a 'gotcha' moment? That's not what he does. And yet here's an attack for the highlight reel—one of the biggest names in television news is telling us that it doesn't matter how unimportant you are, if you get the facts wrong, he's going to be hellhound on your trail.

But there was a problem. Before Russert could deliver the knock-out punch, Broussard—a bug on the windshield of media, a nobody who'd go unrecognized in New York or Washington—insisted on having his say. And Broussard was clearly reading from a different script:

Sir, this gentleman's mother died on that Friday before I came on the show. My own staff came up to me and said what had happened. I had no idea his mother was in the nursing home. It was related to me by my own staff, who had tears in their eyes, what had happened. That's what they told me. I went to that man, who I love very much and respect very much, and he had collapsed like a deck of cards. And I took him and put him in my hospital room with my prayer books and told him to sit there and cry out and pray away and give honor to his mother with his tears and his prayers.

Now, everything that was told to me about the preface of that was told to me by my own employees. Do you think I would interrogate a man whose mother just died and said, "Tommy, I want to know everything about why your mother just died"? The staff, his own staff, told me those words. Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued. Tommy could tell you that he sent messages there through the EOC and through, I think, the sheriff's department, "Tell Mama everything's going to be OK. Tell Mama we're coming to get her."

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man's tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death? They just buried Eva last week. I was there at the wake. Are you kidding me? That wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried last week. That was a man's mother whose story, if it is entirely broadcast, will be the epitome of abandonment. It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother's died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can't get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff's office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? Mother Nature doesn't have a political party. Mother Nature can vote a person dead and Mother Nature can vote a community out of existence. But Mother Nature is not playing any political games here. Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we're living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you're in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything's a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Wow! Russert had Broussard on the ropes, but Broussard didn't get it. None of this 'Russert's game, Russert's rules' for him. He came out of his corner, jabbing, and he connected with every punch. 'What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death?' Recognize yourself, you prick? 'That wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried last week.' Chew on that, you heartless, coffee-drinking, toilet-equipped bastard.

Aaron BroussardBeyond the sheer thrill of watching an unranked club fighter pound the hell out of the champion was the meta-drama: Broussard took a factual error and showed it for what it was—not the kind of lie that Administration officials have told without significant challenge on "Meet the Press" for almost five years, but a tiny shard of a larger story that was truthful in every other way.

On the psychological level, what Broussard did was even more astonishing: Just as he did on his first appearance, he jumped into the moment and relived it. Like a flashback. Or, to use a term of art, abreaction. And when he came out of it, he wasn't dazed and blinking—he was breathing fire at the sick son-of-a-bitch who, with people dead and displaced, would cook up an exercise like this.

Russert wasn't listening. Or if he was, he couldn't stop to debate Broussard—he really did have an "agenda," which he finally revealed:

Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they're saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue on Friday or on Saturday....And, in fact, the owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mable Mangano, have been indicted with 34 counts of negligent homicide by the Louisiana state attorney general. So it was the owners of the nursing home and the local government that are responsible for the lack of evacuation and not the federal government. Is that fair?

In other words, get outta President Bush's face, little man! The villains? People who know, Mr. Broussard. Your local colleagues. Your friends. Maybe even you, pal.

Again, Brossard wouldn't play:

Sir, with everything I said on Meet the Press, the last punctuation of my statements were the story that I was going to tell in about maybe two sentences. It just got emotional for me, sir. Talk about the context of everything I said. Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That's for history to document. That's what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn't come. The Red Cross didn't come. I'll give you a list of people that didn't come here, sir, and I was here.

When somebody wants to nit-pick these details, I don't know what sick minds creates this black-hearted agenda, but it's sick. I mean, let us recover. Let us rebuild. If somebody wants me to debate them on national TV, hey, buddy, be my guest. Make my day. Put me at a podium when I got a full night's sleep and you will not like matching me against anybody that you want. That person is going to be in trouble. If this station or anybody else or any other station wants to do that, you just give me a full night's sleep, sir. I haven't had one in about 30 days. But you wind me up with a full night's sleep, I'll debate every detail of everything you want, sir.

And that was it. Russert thanked Broussard 'for coming on and correcting the record and putting it in context' and said he hoped to talk with him again. Nonsense. Broussard will never return to 'Meet the Press.' He may well be blacklisted on all networks owned by General Electric; he can't be trusted to honor the protocol of news shows, which is, above all else, to make the host look good.

And more: Broussard is too emotional. These shows are about policy; they're too high-minded for visceral appeals to moral principles. Geraldo, voice cracking, as he holds up a baby....Shepherd Smith bitch-slapping Hannity for daring to suggest he lacked 'perspective'...Anderson Cooper confronting the governor of Louisiana—all that was fine when New Orleans was under water. But that moment has passed. Check your emotions at the door.

New Orleans was an exceptional situation: a visible tragedy unseen by Washington. That upped the emotional pitch of the reporters on the scene. The willingness to 'go there' transformed a few TV reporters into instant heroes; it made Brian Williams a god. But New Orleans was a one-off, and with the flooding gone, the media no longer cares much about the black and the poor, just as it doesn't want to look closely at the white and rich. We're back to the old stories and the old way of telling them.

Which doesn't mean emotion has no place.

The question is: Who cries?

I believe that journalism—like fiction, like film, like all the arts—is manipulation. You gather your material, fix on a point of view and then set about telling a story. After the first pass, the writing (or broadcasting, or painting) is not an act of self-discovery. It's a premeditated, calculated process.

I cannot remember an important story I've done that did not, at some point, reduce me to tears. The mother of an 18-year-old who was lynched by the KKK but who told me that any proceeds from her lawsuit would go to those who were really hurting—afterward, I sat in the car for a long time before I was together enough to drive. Touring the bedroom of a Harvard-bound girl who'd been killed by a hit-run driver—of course I cried with her mother. And there were other stories that demanded I sit in the victim's chair, so I'd have some idea what kind of hell that was.

And when I went to write, more tears. But you never saw them metaphorically splotching the page. For me, the writer's task in telling a story roiling with emotion is to tighten a vise on the reader until he can't help but feel the impossibility, the sheer awfulness, of the situation. And then, with one anecdote, with a seemingly minor quote, you breach the levee of the reader's ability to cope—you push him/her into empathy, into tears.

You may question that method. I call it art. And I call it necessary, because there is so much media noise these days you have to do something to get your story noticed. And what's a more honorable way to do that than a true story, told at its deepest resonance?

kornbluth.jpgMy problem with what Tim Russert tried to do to Aaron Broussard is not that he'd never raise the bar so high for an Administration official. It's that he can't feel—for anyone. There's a great interview to be done with Donald Rumsfeld that ends with Rumsfeld in tears; Russert hasn't a clue how to do that. Ditto Rice. Maybe even Bush.

An interviewer can't take anyone to a place he won't go himself. And it's not simple to go to those places. Therapy, meditation, solitude, a good relationship—these all help. But just as nutrition is barely taught in nursery school, empathy is rarely mentioned in the training of journalists. And so one of the greatest techniques of the trade remains an open secret: In private, real men always cry.

Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.



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