By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Russert, Gitlin and Obama

This week the Columbia Journalism Review unveiled a new weekly feature called “Russert Watch,” to keep an eye on everyone’s favorite Beltway bloviator.

It’s not a bad idea. Tim Russert can be quite skilled at the art of the prosecutorial interview, but all too often his inquisitions devolve into “You said X in 1987. Why are you saying Y now?” Plus it ought to be a federal offense to have hacks like James Carville, Mary Matalin, Bob Shrum and Mike Murphy all on during the same week, as Russert does as frequently as he can.

But shouldn’t CJR have chosen someone other than Todd Gitlin to write the feature? Gitlin’s debut isn’t bad. But look at this: Gitlin publicly announced his support for Barack Obama back in February.

Gitlin is an academic moonlighting as a journalist. Yes, he’s a liberal opinion journalist. But even we opinion-mongers owe readers our independence.

I sometimes hear it said that journalists should say whom they’re voting for in the name of transparency. I disagree. Voting, and even stating your position on issues, is not the same as publicly supporting a candidate.

It’s not that you’re keeping your true beliefs a secret. It’s that it becomes much harder to evaluate someone honestly once you’ve identified yourself as a backer. Either you can’t bring yourself to criticize him, or you go overboard the other way so that you won’t be accused of being in the tank. Far better to keep it to yourself, even if your readers think they know how you voted — and even if they’re probably right.

Gitlin thought some of Russert’s questions to Obama strategist David Axelrod were unfair. So did I, given that one of them, as Gitlin notes, was based on the false claim that Obama had once refused to hold his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.

But Gitlin should not be doing this for the CJR, of all publications. Media Matters for America, maybe.

Cavalcade of responses. Gitlin responds. I respond to his response.

Gitlin photo by David Shankbone, and republished here under a GNU Free Documentation License.

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  1. io saturnalia

    While I rarely read CJR, let me just say, “Bravo!”Russert’s antics have worn thin, in my mind, everything from his Warner Wolf-style “Let’s go to the video tape!” to his suspiciously uncomplicated relationship with his father (“Big Russ = God”).Really, he seems like a nice guy, and he’s no by no means execrable — unlike, for instance, Morton Kondracke — but enough, already!

  2. wladimir

    You dopey newspapermen and your stupid “ethics” are a joke.Gitlin is judged for who he is and what he writes, not for some dumb idea of “objectivity.”In fact, that dumb idea is the whole reason a “Russert Watch” is necessary — Russert pretends towards objectivity, all the better to shill for the Republicans and the Catholics.

  3. Anonymous

    Let’s just stop listening to Russert. He sure won’t listen to all of his viewers: to post that video of cowardice once more.But props for the Hunter interview:, Russert tries to propose a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. Hunter slapped that down fast.”I don’t know we’ve ever linked Osama bin Laden or Saddam to this disaster down here. You couldn’t take this case to an American court room and win.”Later, in a different interview: “Who stands to benefit? Think murderer. Who had the opportunity and motive … I don’t know if I want to go into this on worldwide radio, here. Hell, I thought the U.S. government and the White House people did it to take the mind of the public off the crashing economy.”Then: We don’t need these well-established proper and prudent journalists to digest our information. They are war profiteers! We need rebellious, nitty-gritty reporters (with a sense of morality).

  4. Anonymous

    What possible difference does it make who he supports if he is going to write a column critical of Tim Russert? Or are you saying that since Tim Russert is a rightwing tool, and Gitlin supports a Democrat that he couldn’t possibly write a fair critique?Last I heard Russert was considered a journalist, and one whose behavior beats close watching (i.e., “All my secret conversations with high government officials planting stories and smearing the characters of innocent people are off the record.”)Your suggestion is preposterous.

  5. Anonymous

    It doesn’t matter.The only ones who will take take Gitlin seriously are retired hippies and Obama zombies.

  6. Anonymous

    Dan,As an Obama supporter, Gitlin would not be welcome to have a platform of any kind on Media Matters during primary season. Media Matters founder David Brock supports Hillary.Regards,Glen BergendahlWeymouth

  7. unclewalt

    Jeez, is there anyplace online that doesn’t have some 9/11 conspiracy loon cackling away?

  8. Bill McDonald

    While I doubt “etiquette” during the pledge of allegiance or national anthem has much significance for many journalists, there is little if any difference about what is considered proper behavior. During both, people are to put their right hands over their hearts. Is the issue that the “charge” was related to the pledge of allegiance when the breach occurred during the national anthem? Or is the issue of the behavior itself, which is either a display of ignorance by Obama, a lapse by someone seeking to be commander-in-chief, or a statement meant to appeal to those who feel such patriotic gestures are timeworn and uncool. Methinks Gitlin and Kennedy are both unfamiliar with what is considered proper behavior in these instances and find it an affront that a favorite has been called to task. Another point: when is a question a challenge? As a journalist, I found myself asking questions to which I knew the answer because my role was to report the subject’s answer not my own supposition. I considered the questions by Stephanopolous and Gibson to be _opportunities_ for Obama to address these issues, not challenges to the behavior. Sensitif!

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: I am both an Eagle scout and a former scoutmaster. (Surprised?) I completely disagree that it is customary to place your hand over your heart during the National Anthem unless it’s part of something else, like a flag ceremony. But if it’s the Pledge, you put your hand over your heart.

  10. Bill McDonald

    I wasn’t aware of your scout achievements, Dan. Congratulations. I only made Star rank myself. I can’t think of many occasions when a flag is not present when the national anthem is sung or played. It certainly seems to have been the case in the incident in which Obama is pictured. Fwiw, according to, “When the national anthem is played or sung, citizens should stand at attention and salute at the first note and hold the salute through the last note. The salute is directed to the flag, if displayed, otherwise to the music.”

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: I don’t doubt your information, it’s just that I’ve never seen that in practice. If you go to a ballgame and they play the National Anthem, everyone stands. Some might put their hands over their hearts; most don’t. But if they started with the Pledge, well, every hand would go over his or her heart.

  12. Anonymous

    That’s interesting. I live in the Rocky Mountain West, and have been to a lot of games around the region. Everyone stands and puts their hands over their hearts. Rare would be the person that didn’t. It might be different on the left coast though.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    ANON – do these hands contain their baseball caps, or do they leave them on?(A particular peeve of mine, as the head should be uncovered for the Anthem OR the Pledge…and I was a Scout leader too…is there a theme emerging in the blogosphere?)

  14. Anonymous

    My recollection is that most remove their caps (or cowboy hats) and hold them in a hand or put them on a seat. Some would leave them on.

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