Saturday, June 14, 2008

RIP journalistic giants

By Rick Morris

The world of journalism saw three disparate but outstanding professionals pass on this week, and each happened before we could get a chance to address the situations individually here. Given their respect for other great talents, I'm sure they would be honored to be written about collectively.

Jim McKay was one of the founding fathers of sports journalism on television. Years ago, I read a copy of his memoirs that my mother owned. She was a fan of his because of his grace and professionalism, and these qualities shined through. He worked extremely hard to provide some great entertainment over the years and I have many fond childhood memories of "Wide World of Sports." The opening sequence is regarded as iconic, and rightfully so. This is one of these passings that does probably date you when you write about it, because unless you're at least in your thirties like me, you probably don't have many first-hand memories of McKay because he's been in quasi-retirement for so long. But he was a giant in his field, and one who never looked down on any of the "minor sports" that "Wide World" covered -- and as an enthusiast of many niche sports, I appreciated that greatly. Here's the tribute that ABC/ESPN produced about their longtime colleague:

Jim McKay's passing was not a shock. He lived to age 86 and had faded from the public scene over time. On the other hand, the sudden end of Tim Russert's life on Earth was the very definition of a terrible surprise. I have racked my mind in vain over the last day to generate comparable examples in recent years of someone who was an absolute giant in American life struck down in his (professional, if not physical) prime. He's been an omnipresent figure on the American political scene for two decades, and he dramatically revived one of television's most prized properties, "Meet the Press."

A former Democratic operative, he left behind his advocacy in a way that few figures who followed him through the revolving door of politics-and-journalism would ever be able to do. He was a thoroughly-prepared, relentless-though-polite questioner of politicians across the spectrum. I have seen way more sour grapes about his work since his passing from the left than I have from the right, which probably says something about the priorities of people who hold different political views, but now would not be the time to elaborate on that. Additionally, one more quick note: NBC News has been the focus of much attention over these past few months as they allowed the MSNBC prime-time political programming to devolve into left-wing infotainment. Now, more than ever, Russert was going to be needed to stand up for the integrity of the entire enterprise, and I can only hope that his followers in the ranks can successfully band together to keep the "Russert brand" out front at NBC News. It is almost impossible to imagine NBC's election coverage without him.

Notwithstanding what I just noted about how political blogs are covering this story, I'm struck by how many message boards are filled with notes from average people who looked up to him and counted on him for the coverage he provided to them every Sunday morning. There's not a lot of destination programming on the tube anymore. But far more than I realized, average people everywhere were tuning in every week because they counted on this man to help them make sense of the process. People are cynical about institutions these days; politics, the media, the sports world, entertainment -- all are corrupted by greed and a severe lack of ethics. However, Tim Russert had become an institution that people trusted and respected.

I admire his commitment to his blue-collar roots, as he was in the first generation of his family to attend college. I'm in the second college-educated generation of my family and I see a lot of similarities between my grandfathers and the "Big Russ" figure lovingly chronicled in Russert's books. As a fellow Rust Belt native, I share the same passion for my area sports teams that he did, and I noted on the local news in Cleveland last night many local folks who had fond memories of him from his college days here.

Of all the things being said about him, his commitment to faith and family are the greatest qualities of note. This Associated Press tribute captures the essence of the man.

Charlie Jones was a voice from my youth, broadcasting AFC football games on NBC. With the NBC depth chart being what it was back in the day, he was generally the play-by-play announcer on the #3 or #4-rated game on the network -- which put him on a disproportionate amount of games for my Cleveland Browns back then! He was just a natural, with a great voice for broadcasting and wonderful knowledge of the sport. This video from a 1983 playoff game gives you a feel for what he could do.

RIP Jim McKay, Tim Russert and Charlie Jones. Godspeed to you and your families.

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