Tim Russert goes head-to-head each week with the nation's top political minds on Meet the Press. But the NBC News senior VP and Washington bureau chief has also made a name for himself by simplifying politics with ideas like the famous dry-erase board he used in his Election Night 2000 coverage. During this week's midterm-election coverage, NBC will rely on Russert to translate several lower-profile races into a big-picture story about the state of American politics. He talked with B&C's Ben Grossman about Iraq, the tone of ads, and his wipe board.
How important do your viewers perceive this midterm election to be compared with elections in recent years?
This is probably the biggest midterm since 1994, because there really is the possibility of the opposition party capturing control of one or both houses, though nothing is certain. It seems to be a very energized electorate, and the debate is very feisty.
Does the absence of big names make your job more difficult?
I think what is important this midterm election is how important issues are. Iraq is just such a dominating issue, and people bring it up over and over again. It's almost as if the candidates are almost secondary to the issue.
How much are the networks shaping the agenda?
The candidates do; that's what goes on. They debate the issues, and we cover the debates. Plus, we learn from our viewers, such as through polls. I really don't think it's the networks shaping the agenda; it's the candidates and the voters.
With big money flowing into political advertising, how has the tone of the ads been overall?
Some of them have been very interesting and constructive and indicate big differences on big issues, but a lot of them have been very harsh and negative. Some of them are unbelievable. The one in Upstate New York where a candidate's staffer dialed 1-800 and then seven digits and then hung up because it was a sex line, then dialed 1-518 and the same numbers, and it was the criminal-justice office he was trying to reach. Everyone attested it was just a mistake in dialing, and yet the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee went on-air and said the guy was using taxpayer dollars to listen to sex talk. But I think that one really backfired, so that is good. If they are over the top, you pay the price.
How careful are you this time of year to stay out of the story?
I just don't want to be involved in the crossfire. It is hard, because what has changed is, there are so many advocacy groups with access to cable TV and talk radio and the Internet, and they view us as the referee. And they are trying to work the referee; there are a lot of coaches looking for a favorable whistle. I'll turn to one guest and say you voted against the war, and then turn to the other guest and say the opposite, and each side will take just the one half of the interview and call me biased. But they are pamphleteers; it's what they do for a living. I just try and be very measured in my approach and my reporting, and so far it has worked out.
What is this year's version of the wipe board you so famously used in the 2000 election?
I still have my wipe board in reserve if we need it. I'm not going to give it up.
Will any of the recent NBC Universal cuts make your job harder going forward?
I've been through several of these rounds, and you just try to do it all in a smart way. We're still No. 1; I hope we'll succeed this time. I'm very confident, if we do this right, we will continue to be able to be on top. Call me in six months, I'll let you know.