The National Urban League and black America lost a dear friend earlier this month (“Requiescat in pace,” Editorial, June 19, 2008). Tim Russert was one of the rare leaders in media who never feared to ask or answer the tough question. For Russert, honesty and fairness were non-negotiable.
I saw that first hand when he asked me to join a racially and ideologically diverse “Meet the Press” panel on Sept. 4, 2005, to discuss Hurricane Katrina. Russert did what few others dared in those early days: He encouraged us to discuss the role that race may have played in the government’s delayed reaction. It was a necessary, emotional debate that I believe helped spur public demand for a more effective government response.
In 2006, the National Urban League issued a report entitled “Sunday Morning Apartheid: A Diversity Study of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows.” It showed that less than 40 percent of Sunday morning political talk shows featured black guests, and that only 20 percent of the broadcasts contained interviews with African Americans. After releasing the report, we requested meetings with all of the shows’ executive producers, and the producer of “Meet the Press” was first to respond. When we walked into the meeting we were surprised to see not only the executive producer, but also Russert, the show’s longtime moderator.
Russert got it. He understood that diversity in programming and a broader pool of guests improves the quality of debate, offers a richer and more varied array of information and helps fulfill news outlets’ responsibility to educate their audiences so they will be better equipped to make informed political and policy choices. He had not only read our report, but admitted that “Meet the Press” and other shows needed to do better. After the meeting, several black commentators joined the show’s roster, including Eugene Robinson, Gwen Ifill and Michele Norris, giving “Meet the Press” the deepest pool of black commentators of any Sunday morning show. The overall trend is inching toward greater inclusion; while white males still dominate the Sunday morning shows, there are more women and African Americans in front of the camera, too.
As the 2008 presidential campaign, with its first-ever African American candidate, kicks into high gear, we know that the issue of race will be unavoidable. In order for that discussion to be meaningful, it must include perspectives from African American citizens and commentators alike. We are grateful that Tim Russert stood by us and with us in this important fight. We will miss him.