Network might be looking for insider to fill chair

Tim Russert wasn’t just the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Judging from a weekend full of unique praise and tributes, he was “Meet the Press.”

And therein lies the challenge for Peacock news execs when the difficult time comes to figure out who will take over the show.

But Russert’s death leaves NBC with a much bigger hole to fill than just Sunday mornings. As the heart of the network’s political coverage, NBC will be going into the ’08 stretch election run without one of their top draws.

There were reports on Saturday that NBC is looking to an insider to assume the “MTP” moderator’s chair — either former White House correspondent David Gregory; Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball”; or ex-congressman and now host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough. NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust did not respond to a query about the report, but she did tell Daily Variety on Sunday that “no decision” had been reached even on who will host the show in the interim.

But asked about the different names to surface, another NBC source said “no way” that a cable personality would be considered for the job because the broadcast news division wants to keep itself “pristine,” meaning it wants to maintain a clear line between NBC News and what it sees as increasingly outspoken viewpoints that drive much of cable news, including MSNBC.

However, Gregory could be a contender, the source said, since he only recently began hosting a show on MSNBC and made his name and reputation as a “Nightly News” reporter.

Weekend coverage

Coverage of Russert’s death on Friday from a heart attack focused overwhelmingly on remembrances from friends, colleagues, rivals and former “Meet the Press” guests.

Professional courtesy played a role in how the networks broke the news of Russert’s death. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, the cabler’s D.C. bureau chief, David Bohrman, said he and his staff had gotten word Friday that “something really terrible” had happened at NBC’s bureau across town. Bohrman said he and Fox News’ D.C. bureau chief Brian Wilson quickly learned of Russert’s death, but both agreed to hold the report to allow NBC to make the announcement.

Overall, the reminiscences and comments painted a portrait of a man the likes of which NBC will be hard pressed to replace. Indeed, none of the other networks could ever find one to knock Russert off his perch as the top-rated Sunday-morning talkshow host.

Russert’s closest competitor was “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” which trailed “Meet the Press” by an average of 1 million viewers.

The keys to Russert’s success, as many who knew him said, were his almost-superhuman work ethic, his passion for politics, his training in Jesuit schools and law school and his enduring embrace of his working-class roots.

Russert’s style of questioning was unique in that he often resembled an attorney — which he was — cross-examining witnesses about their record. His reputation for prodigious research throughout the week — and often the weekend, leading up to the Sunday taping — echoed the work of a lawyer in the discovery phase of a case.

“He would’ve made a great prosecutor,” said MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle on a special Sunday edition of “Meet the Press.”

Russert began his career in politics, going to work for both Mario Cuomo, when he was governor of New York, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also of New York.

In 1988, he crossed over to broadcast journalism, working off-camera in the NBC D.C. bureau. Russert is often cited as the first to transition from politics to journalism with credibility.

Many noted that despite being the toughest political interviewer on television, Russert was ultimately fair — a point echoed by numerous Republicans and Democrats who appeared on “Meet the Press.”

Former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw noted over the weekend that Russert was “beyond shameless” in his love for his hometown Buffalo Bills, often rooting for them or even his son’s college teams when signing off of “Meet the Press.”

And as reported on almost as much as his career, Russert also regularly spoke lovingly of his father — The subject of bestseller “Big Russ & Me.”

NBC said it has received 13,000-plus emailed condolences, and there was, over the weekend, a growing memorial of flowers and personal notes left outside the NBC D.C. bureau.

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