Monday, June 16, 2008

Why the silence about Tim Russert's weight problem?

Yesterday's Meet the Press was, of course, a tribute to Tim Russert. You can watch the whole show here.

As you can probably guess from my post about how shocked I was by Russert's death and how important the show was, I found it hard to watch at points. (I was talking to A____ yesterday, who told me: "I read your post on Tim Russert. Now I want to hug you and buy you a drink." Thanks! I'll take you up on that.)

If you watch starting just a few seconds before 46:00, you can see Tom Brokaw had a hard time getting through the show too.

The clip at the very end is just heart-breaking.

I thought the tribute was well-done overall, but I couldn't help but notice one omission.

When George Harrison or Peter Jennings died at a too-young-to-die age, every single reference to their death in the media was accompanied by "and he died because he was a smoker!"

Yet out of all the media coverage of Russert's death (and I've soaked up more than enough of it this past dreary weekend), I've seen only one reference to his weight problem:

Dr. Michael A. Newman, Mr. Russert’s internist, just told Andrea Mitchell that Mr. Russert had coronary artery disease, but no symptoms. He had done everything he was supposed to do to manage the disease, although his weight was a problem. The doctor said that such attacks can’t be anticipated, but a defibrillator can make a difference.
And that's not even akin to the statements that were made about Harrison or Jennings. The above quote about Russert's weight is safely couched in the words of a doctor, but when George Harrison died, everyone seemed to feel free to connect it to smoking.

Now, I do think it's slightly crass to use someone's death as a springboard for lecturing the public about health, but I can accept that that's going to happen. There shouldn't be a rule that you're not allowed to mention a few of someone's faults as you're eulogizing them. And there's something to be said for the idea that if it saves a single life by prompting someone to quit smoking (for instance), it's worth it.

But what seems inexplicable is a double standard in which a famous person who's obviously very overweight can drop dead of a heart attack in his 50s, and no one in the media points out that his weight problem killed him.

If I had to come up with some principled basis for this, the one distinction would be: eating right is complicated. It's hard to know how to stay fit, and it's harder for some people than others. And it's not just eating, but also exercise, and some of it could be genetic, and so on.

Weight is also complicated by the fact that being underweight can be worse than the opposite. I would love to see Americans loosen up their attitudes about weight if it would reduce the incidence of anorexia and bulimia ... or if it would help people who might prefer to lose 10 or 20 pounds feel good about themselves the way they are.

So America's weight problem is complicated even though it's serious. Our smoking problem isn't just serious; it's simple. You shouldn't smoke at all, end of story. It's correct to say "The less smoking, the better," but it'd be idiotic to say "The less eating, the better" — or even "The more exercise, the better."

But let's face it. Smoking doesn't guarantee you'll die of cancer (or another smoking-related illness), just as obesity doesn't guarantee you'll die of a heart attack (or another obesity-related illness). They're both bad simply because they raise the risk of death.

It's not that smoking always leads to death; it's that it specifically caused George Harrison's death. And it's not that being severely overweight always leads to death; it's that it specifically caused Tim Russert's death.

So, I don't see the distinction.

According to Russert's doctor (from the same article linked above), he was very conscious of his heart disease and was trying to do something about:
Mr. Russert was managing his risk factors well, through diet and exercise. He had a stress test April 29, got to a high level of exercise and was pleased with himself. This very morning [the day he died], he was on his tread mill and was always excited about how he pushed himself.
By all means, let's remember him and admire him as someone who was fighting against his problem. But let's not forget that it was a problem.

And another reason why it's worth bringing up: there are specific reasons to believe that Russert himself would have wanted us to talk about it.

What makes me think that? Well, a couple of instances:

1. I remember watching an episode of Meet the Press where the guest was Ralph Nader. Russert proactively brought up the fact that Nader had criticized Michael Moore for his weight problem. Nader — who, back in his pre-reprehensible days, was an impassioned advocate for consumer protection — put his criticism of Moore in the context of America's increasingly serious weight problem.

So, Russert himself was willing to have someone talk about the health consequences of someone's weight problem to his face. Granted, Nader didn't explicitly mention Russert's problem. But Russert was a smart guy — he knew what he was getting into by bringing up the subject.

2. On Russert's other show (The Tim Russert Show), he was showing clips of Johnny Carson, who had recently died. You could plainly see Carson smoking a cigarette in the clips. After each one, Russert would talk about how terrible it was: "He was addicted!" (He also mentioned that he, Russert, was never a smoker, and that his guest on the show, Mike Wallace, used to be a heavy smoker but had quit.)

So, Russert himself approved of the idea of using Carson's death as an opportunity to criticize his health practices.

As we've been hearing over and over since Friday, one of Russert's favorite things to do was exposing people's inconsistencies on important issues. Surely if Russert could see the coverage of his own death, he would point out — with his characteristic exuberance — the media's double standard.


Anonymous said...

Well, I think it is more a matter of trying not to criticise just after he had passed away, rather than the media not pointing out that the late Mr Russert had weight issues.
Having said that, I am in agreement with you, JAC. Too many people are dying before their time, due to the fact that they wont take the small steps required to control weight problems, or do things to cut down the risk factors for coronary disease.
me for example- isuffered a severe heart attack in thefall of 2004, before I was 30. My attack was a sideeffect of the chemotherapy for brain cancer treatment.
I know that I ouhgt to ge off my butt and lower my body-fat %age, but, it is easier for me to act lazy, and use the cancer as an excuse. I am still weak and sick from the cancer, but, I need to WILL myself to go out and work out,and get fitter. But getting over the inertia can be really hard too.
Danny in Ann Arbor