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Russert delivers Red Smith Lecture

Claire Reising | Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press” and Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News, discussed journalists’ responsibilities while interviewing political figures and gave the audience an idea of preparation involved for interviews in his lecture “When Politicians Meet the Press” as the keynote for the 25th Red Smith Lecture Monday in Washington Hall.

Robert Schmuhl director of Notre Dame’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy, said Notre Dame President Emeritus Theodore Hesburgh instituted this lecture in 1983 to commemorate Walter W. “Red” Smith, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1927 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Hesburgh also attended the lecture.

Red Smith’s son, Terence Smith, introduced Russert, saying that this lecture is relevant to Indiana’s current political climate.

“The timing of this lecture tonight with Tim Russert is pretty extraordinary, right in the heart of the most dramatic primary campaign that this country has seen in decades,” he said.

Russert said his mission is to learn as much as he can about the guests’ position on issues beforehand and take the opposing side, while maintaining a civil atmosphere on the show.

“I’m in a position to call them out and try to bring them back to the point where they’re giving an honest answer to an honest question,” he said.

One example of this occurred in October 2002, when Russert said 80 percent of the American population supported going to War in Iraq and two-thirds of both houses of Congress voted to authorize it because of a “consensus” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He debated, however, whether or not leaders considered possible implications of war.

“There had been much discussion about the lead-up to the war and whether the appropriate questions were asked of our leaders,” Russert said.

He said the Sunday before the war began, Vice President Dick Cheney was a guest on “Meet the Press” and made “a variety of assumptions” about the situation in Iraq, including that Iraqis would greet United States troops as liberators.

“At that time, I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, what if you are wrong? What if we are not greeted as liberators, but occupiers, and with a long, protracted, bloody battle [and] insurrection, particularly in the Baghdad area?’ He said, ‘I disagree. That will not happen,'” Russert said.

To ask difficult questions, Russert stressed that journalists must thoroughly prepare for their interviews. He said he reads several publications to follow current events.

“It is essential that I do what I didn’t do when I was in college,” he said. “I had been taught that if I read my lesson before class, show up in class on time … review my notes after class, the exam would be easy. They were right. I did not do [that], but it is what I do now, each and every day.”

With the variety of news sources available today, including politically biased pundits and “pamphleteers,” Russert said the public, and not only journalists, should listen to multiple points of view.

“It is not enough to confirm your political views by only accessing and reading outfits that reinforce your views but do not challenge them,” he said.

Russert also addressed some challenges of interviewing politicians, including euphemistic rhetoric and their reluctance to alter their positions on issues.

“I am continually surprised that more politicians do not say, ‘I have changed my mind. I did say that four years ago, but let me explain what I have learned since then and why I will vote differently next week,'” he said.

Even though “Meet the Press” gives politicians an hour of publicity, Russert said candidates are sometimes reluctant to appear on the show because of scrutinizing questions.

“A politician would much prefer that you would go to their website and look at their positions or look at their 30-second commercials than have to watch them struggle to answer a question on ‘Meet the Press,'” he said. “But they also realize that there’s sometimes no alternative, that it is part of the obligation … to go before the American public and take account for [the questions].”