Alumnus shares his “Meet the Press” experience at NBC
By Joe Toohey ’10
Tim Russert’s ’72 career hung on the wall. One press pass after another chronicled Tim’s media life. They all hung in his home office, and whether it was the ’92 Democratic National Convention or his most recent NBC identification, he always had the same rosy cheeks and big smile. An old University Club paddle with T-I-M engraved on it greeted us as we walked in. I stood there in awe, looking around his home office that his wife, Maureen Orth, was gracious enough to let me see at her annual Christmas party. Tim interspersed Buffalo Bills memorabilia with pictures of him and former presidents, politicians, the pope, and his family. It was one of those “what the heck am I doing here?” moments.
I can’t tell you how many times after someone at NBC found out my official title, they told me, “This is exactly what Tim would’ve wanted. He always wanted to help people.” Tim’s impact on his co-workers is clear. It seems like everyone in the bureau had a story they wanted to share about him.
Because of John Carroll University, I’ll have this attachment to Tim Russert forever.
How did I get here?
When John Carroll first announced the fellowship toward the end of my junior year, I knew I wanted it. I probably spent my entire senior year overanalyzing every assignment I handed in, out of fear it’d somehow be used in the fellowship application process. I later found out this was false. I thought I almost lost the job offer when Betsy Fischer, the show’s executive producer, called and asked me to join the staff. I screamed, “Oh my gosh!” Then I stumbled and said, “Wow … OK … um … whoa … really? Wow, thank you! Um, yes! Yes!” Thankfully, she looked past my awkward, albeit excited, acceptance speech and gave me the job anyway.
Three months later I showed up to work and remembered a feeling of relief when I learned my first “Meet the Press” episode would be produced in New York. It allowed me to ease into the position. By the time the next Sunday rolled around, the show was back home in Washington, and I was ready.
My Sunday duties evolved throughout the span of my fellowship. They began with escorting guests and monitoring the green room and expanded into a slew of other responsibilities, including a position called Dr. Downstairs. It involved communicating between the control room and the show’s producers to make sure all the video elements we used look how they’re supposed to. I also had a hand in the show’s online presence through social media and the new Press Pass blog (presspass.msnbc.com), where I was able to post writings and videos, some of which have been viewed more than 25,000 times. It’s not something I would’ve expected doing a year and a half ago.
My professors would be proud
Often in journalism classes at JCU, we’d learn how cutbacks and the pressure to report something first has led to the decline of fact-checking and authenticity in the media. That’s not the case at“MeetthePress.” A significant part of my job during the week consists of research. This could be anything from reviewing Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) Twitter account to reading the new Newt Gingrich book. Whatever the assignment, the focus is accuracy.
I had to ease my way into more responsibility during my fellowship – earn my keep, so to speak. At first, I’d help with small research assignments, looking for specific issues. Then I was able to suggest topics and draft preliminary outlines about guests to give to David Gregory, the show’s moderator. Nine months later, it was still exciting when a quote or an article I found was used on the show.
Chris Donovan, one of the show’s producers, as well as Betsy and David, always use the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. They focus on not taking quotes out of context and often won’t use information if it doesn’t come from a reliable source. Wikipedia is a dirty word around the office.
Working with David
One of the more rewarding aspects of the fellowship was working directly with David. As the program’s host, there are many things that come his way, but he’s been more than willing to listen to my suggestions and answer any questions I have. I even helped him fill out his NCAA bracket this year. (No comment about whether he won his pool. The point is I helped.)
Open to new ideas, David allowed me to develop my research, writing, and digital journalism skills. Working on honing my skills with the moderator of “Meet the Press” is something that still blows my mind almost daily. This past March, I went with him to Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, to shoot video for his blog. He was there to moderate a panel discussion with players and coaches. When we arrived at the box set up for us, we enjoyed ballpark food, and he joked we should have our staff meetings at Nats games. I hoped he was serious.
The educational cushion
Being a fellow is fantastic. I perform work that affects the show, yet I still have an educational cushion, which allows me to pick people’s brains, attend different meetings, and occasionally travel. The Lincoln Leadership Prize dinner in Chicago is an example of one of those trips.
Held at the swanky Four Seasons, the event was filled with NBC and media heavy hitters – all out to pay tribute to their former colleague and friend, Tim Russert. I was lucky enough to be invited as a guest of JCU and sat in amazement listening to stories about Tim from the likes of his old college buddies, Tom Brokaw, and even video messages from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Vice President Joe Biden.
My favorite line was from McCain who said, “To this day, I couldn’t tell you if Tim Russert was a Democrat, Republican, or vegetarian” – to which Maureen Orth responded later, “To answer Senator McCain’s question, Tim Russert was not a vegetarian.”
A storied news program
The worst part of the fellowship was that it ended. It was an unbelievable opportunity, and I’m so humbled and thankful to have had the experience. Now, a few months removed from the fellowship, I’m working full time as a researcher for “Meet The Press,” and it wouldn’t have happened unless I attended John Carroll. Five years ago, I was another freshman from Pittsburgh with a general interest in politics and media; but because of Tim Russert and this fellowship, I’ve been able to work for, and contribute to, the most storied news program in the world.
As we were saying our thanks and goodbyes from what had been the best Christmas party I’d ever attended, I approached Luke Russert. “Hang on,” he said as he disappeared out to the back porch. A few more goodbyes to the likes of Judy Woodruff and Tim Shriver, and Luke came back. “Dad would want you to have this,” he said.
He handed me a 12 pack of Rolling Rock. JCU
Joe Toohey ’10 followed Andrew Rafferty ’09 in the NBC/John Carroll University Meet the Press Fellowship in honor of Tim Russert ’72 as the second fellow of the program. Visit http://sites.jcu.edu/mtp to read Toohey’s blog about his experience. Kristen Jantonio ’11 followed Toohey in the fellowship. JCU established an exclusive fellowship in partnership with NBC offering a nine-month, postgraduate opportunity with “Meet the Press” every year for one of the University’s graduating seniors. For more information about the fellowship, visit http://sites.jcu.edu/mtp.