Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Great Communicators

-They say the deaths of great people come in threes. Well, I'm not exactly counting, but I would say Jim McKay, Tim Russert, and George Carlin passing in the last few weeks add up to three pretty great ones.

Like most, I was a Jim McKay fan without really knowing it until he wasn't available to be seen that much anymore. After his retirement, we were left with a much less sophisticated batch of communicators on the tube. Oh, Costas, Nance, and a few others rise to McKay's level of journalistic integrity and thoughtfulness when faced with a camera. But McKay, when you think back on it, was the standard-setter for how to broadcast televised sports events, no matter how cheesy, with grace and dignity. He was the anti-Cosell.

Many of today's adults weren't alive for, or old enough to remember, his riveting and emotionally perfect reporting of the Munich Olympics tragedy of '72. For almost an entire weekend he faced the camera and provided continuous reportage of some of the 20th century's most tragic moments. He did so with a sense of the history of the moment and a third-person view that many of today's talents would never consider. Today the anchors are inclined to report about their own experiences and involvement in a situation. McKay understood that it wasn't about him. ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge understood that McKay would be the perfect link from Germany to the United States for a news/sports story of such magnitude. In relegating Howard Cosell to beat reporter status for the coverage, he made a major statement. We need the gravitas of McKay, not the bombast of Cosell. He was so right.

Tim Russert's passing provides baby-boomers with another reminder of our graying status, mortality, and the fickle nature of fame. Here's a man who was on top of his game. By all accounts he was the best communicator of the political landscape around. Not only that, he brought an "every man" quality to his Meet The Press program every Sunday that made one think he was the perfect human to be grilling the politicos on behalf of the rest of us. His humanity showed through brilliantly in all of his work. In most cases that's the best that can be said about a mass-communicator. All of the broadcasters that we've fallen in love with over the years have had the ability to fabricate their thoughts effectively as well as immerse them in a large portion of their own personality. For my part, I will, as long as I have left, remember being in the studio for my show at KMOX the Sunday after Mr. Russert's death and keeping one eye on the NBC coverage. Several times it was posted--Timothy J. Russert--1950-2008. This reporter was born the same year. A powerful reminder that every sunrise is to be celebrated.

George Carlin, in my opinion, is one who will be respected and revered more in death than in life. Many of his comedy routines were filled with observations and opinions that took a genius to communicate. And, make no mistake, the brilliance of Carlin was based in his ability to take an observation and formulate it into an idea worthy of discussion, then elevate it into a comedic presentation. He was a brilliant communicator, whether or not he was funny. He, especially for a largely uneducated person, understood the nuances of our language, society and its mores, and timeworn traditions. He could, and did, ask questions about all of them in a hilarious way. Sure he went over the line with language from time to time. But he always made you think about why that line was located there in the first place. Why do we feel that way about language? What are the rules and why? How did we get to the place where this is acceptable and that is not? He was much, much more than a hippy-dippy weatherman...man. He was a genius, and will likely for many years to come be considered a hero of the common man.

In the communications world, we can only boast about those who break through to immense achievement and fame. Very seldom do communicators make a real difference in the world unless they do so in government. These three did so outside the realm of partisan politics. Rest well gents, we are lessened by your absence.

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