When journalist Tim Russert died in June, the media expressed buckets of emotion about and reverence toward one of its own. Inevitably, coverage of the coverage emerged, as a few people were willing to voice their distaste for what they saw as unduly hagiographic treatment.
Lewis Lapham (above), former Harper's editor and founder of the newish Lapham's Quarterly, was one of the naysayers. "There was a time in America when the press and the government were on opposite sides of the field," he said in July. "The press was supposed to speak on behalf of the people. The new tradition is that the press speaks on behalf of the government. ... Tim Russert was a spokesman for power, wealth, and privilege. That’s why 1,000 people came to his memorial service. Because essentially he was a shill for the government. It didn’t matter whether it was Democratic or Republican. It was for the status quo.” Fittingly, Lapham delivered the quote at a premiere for a movie about Hunter S. Thompson.
Today, Gawker is reporting on a Lapham column that will appear in the new September issue of Harper's (it's not available online yet, except to paying Harper's subscribers). Called "Elegy for a Rubber Stamp," the piece pays respect to Russert as a good father and friend and then goes on to refer to him as a "pet canary" and as a reporter with "the on-air persona of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter."
Gawker passes on a couple of passages from the piece, including this one:
To an important personage Russert asked one or two faintly impertinent questions, usually about a subject of little or no concern to anybody outside the rope lines around official Washington; sometimes he discovered a contradiction between a recently issued press release and one that was distributed by the same politician some months or years previously. No matter with which spoon Russert stirred the butter, the reply was of no interest to him, not worth his notice or further comment. He had sprinkled his trademark salt, his work was done. The important personage was free to choose from a menu offering three forms of response—silence, spin, rancid lie. If silence, Russert moved on to another topic; if spin, he nodded wisely; if rancid lie, he swallowed it.
Lapham also says this about journalism: "Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession."
Whether or not you agree with Lapham, there's no denying his own willingness to go against the grain, and maybe reduce the number of attendees at his own funeral. What do you think? Are his view too purist?