WASHINGTON – Journalists covering this year’s elections should ask questions about the big issues that candidates want to avoid, such as the future of Social Security and Medicare, Tim Russert of NBC News said at an SPJ Legal Defense Fund luncheon held by the Washington Pro Chapter on April 5.
“If the candidates aren’t talking about some issues, then it’s our responsibility to ask them, ‘Why not?’,” Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and host of “Meet The Press,” told the crowd at the National Press Club.
“When politicians say, ‘I’m going to preserve and protect Social Security, there’s one simple question that has to be asked: ‘There are now 40 million people on Social Security and Medicare. In 15 years it’s going to be 80 million. How are you going to absorb twice as many people at the same benefit ratios and still balance the budget?’ If you talk to the political leadership privately, they will say, ‘We know it’s not sustainable.’ … Fifteen years from now, we’ll either have to double the payroll tax or cut benefits by a third. Those are the hard, cold, objective facts, and neither candidate wants to talk about it because it’s painful and they don’t think the American people are mature enough to have an honest, grown-up debate and discussion about the next generation.”
Questions should also be asked, Russert said, about the 25 million children he said lack the social skills and cultural values to function in society. “There are all kinds of ways to address it,” he said of the problem, “but the first is to start talking about it.”
He said the U.S. cannot remain the world’s leading economic, military and moral force with so many of its people left out of society, and he cited the trend toward outsourcing as an example. Companies say they hire workers in countries such as India and Ireland because they speak English and are willing to work hard, and Americans “can’t call their bluff. We can’t provide the workers who are capable and willing to do those jobs,” he said. Russert concluded, “These are the kind of big issues that I believe the political candidates have an obligation to talk about, and that we in the media have an obligation to address through our questions and our coverage.”
He suggested that American journalism may have failed to recognize a big issue that became much bigger less than a year after the 2000 election – terrorism, which he said was mentioned only twice in the presidential debates. “We never asked George Bush or Al Gore about Al-Qaeda,” he said. Now that a chief rationale for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, alleged weapons of mass destruction in that country, has not panned out, Russert said, journalists and officials both must find out what happened.
“If it was wrong, then we are honor bound to find out, and cover the story why, and official Washington, I believe, is honor bound to find out why, because it is imperative in the future when any president, Democrat or Republican, goes to the country and goes to the world and says ‘We have incontrovertible evidence that, in fact, North Korea or Iran has weapons of mass destruction,’ that their word be believed. It is essential that we find out what happened, whether or not the comments made were because of faulty intelligence, or embellishment or untruth.”
Russert said the Bush administration’s decision to “embed” reporters with units in the invasion worked out better than expected.
“We were pleasantly surprised” with the access and independence given to journalists, he said, though he added that both might have been less if the war had been tougher.
Russert said embedded journalists withheld information at officers’ request but later challenged some of those requests that they felt were not justified. “Although we may have erred on the side of caution in specific instances,” he said, “we were also willing to go back rather aggressively to say, ‘What you advised us about or against hasn’t turned out to be true, and we’re going to put this on the record.’ “
Russert said the experience developed mutual respect between journalists and soldiers, who learned to trust journalists and saw that they shared their dedication to duty and loyalty to country. “We were journalists, but we were also patriots, in that we could report the hard truths without compromising our journalistic integrity, but we would never do anything or report anything that would put the lives of American men and women at risk,” Russert said.
“Was it perfect? No, but it was an important start, I believe, in allowing the media more and more access as the United States embarks on occupations or involvements in countries around the world.”
He said it is ever more essential that the American people know what their military is doing in an era when the armed services are populated through volunteers and not the draft – which before its end in 1972 brought a broader range of American society into the military.
“It is absolutely essential that it never be viewed or branded as a mercenary force with no ties or connection to the body politic of the nation,” Russert warned.
Answering questions from the audience, Russert declined to evaluate Bush’s widely panned appearance on “Meet The Press” in January, saying he never comments on a guest’s performance; said he never accuses an interviewee of lying because that would create sympathy for the target, and viewers “get it” when a repeated question is not answered; and said viewers can still prod TV networks into asking certain questions of candidates: “I guarantee you it’ll have an influence.”
The luncheon, which included a silent auction and a live auction conducted by LDF Chair Christine Tatum, raised an estimated $1,800 for the fund. The top two items were a “Meet The Press” 50th anniversary book signed by Russert and a Florida 2000 general-election ballot signed by U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, then Florida’s secretary of state.
Al Cross is a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.