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June 16, 2008

An Honest Voice

People across the country are grieving this week for the loss of one of the great figures in American media. On June 13, Tim Russert—the longstanding moderator on the popular NBC News program “Meet the Press”—was taken from us far too early at the age of 58, the victim of a heart attack.

None other than Walter Cronkite described Russert as “giant in our field — a standard-bearer of journalistic integrity and ethics” and this was certainly no exaggeration. Veteran CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, discussing Russert’s penchant for asking tough questions on “Meet the Press,” noted that he never asked them merely to catch his interview subjects off guard or embarrass them. The point of these questions was instead to divine what his interview subjects really meant; what they stood for when all the political nuance was stripped away. This is why Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein remembered Russert as someone who “was masterful at exposing hypocrisy … and sought a way to the truth, often unconventionally.”

For those of us in the gun violence prevention moment, a signature Russert moment occurred when he interviewed National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre on “Meet the Press” in March 2000. One week earlier, LaPierre had accused President Bill Clinton of tolerating killing and having “blood on his hands.” LaPierre’s “theory” was that the Clinton administration used gun deaths to further their political agenda.

Russert was relentless in his interview of LaPierre, asking him repeatedly if he would apologize for his comment or retract it. LaPierre refused to do either—in craven fashion, he would not even stand by his statement when pressed.

Undoubtedly, Russert was aware of the many steps President Clinton had taken during his two terms in the White House to prevent criminals and dangerous individuals from gaining access to firearms. This included his signing of the Brady Law (which stopped over 1.4 million prohibited purchasers from buying guns between 1994 and 2005) and the Assault Weapons Ban. Russert was likewise aware of the intense opposition of the NRA to this legislation—LaPierre & Co. fought the passage of the Brady Bill for seven hard years before attempting to take credit for it at the last minute.

In an era when our mainstream media is too hesitant to speak truth to power, the loss of Tim Russert will be sharply felt. We can all honor his memory, however, by holding our elected officials accountable and demanding serious discussion of the important issues that lie before us today.

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