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Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, steering committee member, dies

From the Summer 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9. Tim Russert, who died of a…

From the Summer 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

Tim Russert, who died of a heart attack at NBC’s Washington bureau on June 13, served on the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for the past six years. He was a giant in journalism, the beloved host of Meet the Press and a voice of authority through this year’s long presidential primary season on MSNBC.

Russert, 58, was recruited to run for election to the steering committee in 2002 by veteran Supreme Court reporter Tony Mauro, who recalled after his death that Russert was at first hesitant. Mauro said Russert didn’t want to run for a board and not have time to participate. But after learning more about the work of the Reporters Committee, Russert told Mauro he’d join with enthusiasm. “Just send me the decoder ring and the secret handshake and I’m in.”

It was characteristic Russert gusto. News of his death stunned the journalism community in Washington and met an outpouring of affection from the Potomac to Western New York, and beyond.

“Tim had a larger-than-life personality that made him a natural leader of journalists,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “He helped this organization whenever he was asked, and we are grateful for his generosity.”

As any regular viewer of Meet the Press knows, Russert was a native of Buffalo. He moved away to pursue a career in politics, working on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1976 senate campaign and Mario Cuomo’s bid for governor in 1982, according to NBC News. But his loyalties stayed with his working class Buffalo roots, not least when it came to professional sports. Edward R. Murrow had his sign-off, “Good night and good luck.” Russert had,“Go Bills.”

A variety of careers could have grabbed Russert. He was a graduate of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, and admitted to the bar in Washington and New York, NBC News said. But he opted to step across the politics-news divide not long after Cuomo took office. He started at NBC News in 1984, according to the network, and took over “Meet the Press” in 1991.

Russert framed the tradition-laden show in his way; it was ever the go-to spot for politicians looking to test their mettle before broad American audiences. Heads of state jostled with top newsmakers for Russert’s hot seat. But he added a warmth, an urgency, and a little Russert twist — as Washington Post veteran Ben Bradlee told NBC the day Russert died, according to The New York Times, “He didn’t take himself too seriously or the rest of the charade too seriously.”

In an age of touch-screen maps and cable news shows that flicker and gleam, it was a simple dry-erase board and Russert’s scrawled words, “Florida Florida Florida,” that presaged history the night of the 2000 presidential election.

With a post that visible in the orbit of political news, Russert became a media focal point in the scandal of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. Her undercover status was blown in a newspaper column after her husband wrote a piece critical of the Bush Administration’s rationale for the Iraq war.

Russert was called to testify in the ensuing leak probe twice — once before a grand jury, then again at the trial of I. Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff for Dick Cheney. In the 2007 court case, Russert denied slipping Plame’s covert status in a phone conversation, as Libby claimed. Libby was ultimately convicted of lying to authorities investigating the leak of Plame’s identity.

It seemed particularly unfair that Russert would die in the middle of a presidential campaign he seemed to relish covering. He appeared regularly on primary nights earlier this year on MSNBC, and his pronouncements on the state of the campaigns — particularly on the viability of Hillary Clinton’s bid — were weighty.

Russert is survived by his wife, Maureen Orth; his father, Timothy (also the inspiration for Russert’s two New York Times bestsellers,) and a son, Luke, who is joining NBC News as a reporter.