Skip to main content

Russert: Old School Rules

Tim Russert is managing editor and moderator of NBC's
Meet the Press, the dominant Sunday news talk show and longest-running program in TV history. He is also NBC News' Washington bureau chief, having joined NBC News in 1984 after serving five years as special counsel in the U.S. Senate. Russert sat down with B&C's Bill McConnell during last week's Republican Convention to talk about campaign coverage and the news-talk-show Wars.

Your ratings are twice what other Sunday shows generate, but Meet the Press wasn't the dominant Sunday program when you took over. What did you do to capture the lead?

I simply put forward a program that was true to the mission of Meet the Press when it was created: Identify the most important issue of the week, find the best people and ask tough questions. Most of these people want to be president. You can't make tough decisions unless you can answer tough questions. Other programs will have these long setup pieces and lots of very slickly produced stylized things. I just cut it all out.

I talked to a competitor of yours, This Week producer Tom Bettag. He says the format is tired and stale.

I hope he believes that. I think the mission of Meet the Press has been consistent for 57 years.

The star of the show is the guest. Viewers want to hear his or her views: Where is he going to lead the country, where does he stand? I don't think there is any substitute for that approach. It is a rare oasis on television, one hour on network TV. If others want to fine-tune, add different segments and slick graphics—go for it. I'm going to be true to my mission.

You have more time to bore into any one issue than the nightly news, but it seems that political campaigns dictate the agenda. The Swift Boat debate seems to be a concoction of campaign partisans.

You can't be above the news. When John Kerry slides in the polls and Swift Boats is only thing that occurred, we can't say we're not going to cover that. When these stories emerge, you don't know which ones are going to resonate. Right now, you hear a lot of Democrats saying John Kerry has to be more outspoken on Iraq, his military service. Did the Swift Boat debate cause that, or did the lack of response from the Kerry campaign? I'll leave that for the viewers and the voters to decide.

What issues are being neglected?

I've been talking about Social Security and Medicare for five years. This system we have now cannot absorb today's demographic changes. Both candidates are reluctant to come forward with specific details. They're afraid of being accused of cutting Social Security.

Our job is to chisel through that. I'd like to spend time on North Korea and Iran. Iran is on verge of becoming a nuclear power, and North Korea already is. Talk about imminent threats. Rogue nations with nuclear weapons really should be considered imminent threats by both parties.