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Before the start of last week's nationally televised Senate debate in Buffalo, moderator Tim Russert lectured the audience at WNED-TV studio on the need to act respectfully toward the two candidates.

It's too bad he couldn't follow his own advice.

Not long into the debate, the "Meet the Press" host and South Buffalo native leveled an astonishingly cheap shot at Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Russert dredged up footage of an interview she gave on the "Today" show in January 1998, which aired shortly after reports of the Monica Lewinsky scandal first surfaced. Then he asked if Clinton "regretted misleading the American people." Not that there seemed to be a need to ask the question, since Clinton has already answered similar questions before.

Like a bull in a china shop, Russert proceeded to challenge Clinton to "apologize for branding" anyone who had criticized the president as part of " 'a vast right-wing conspiracy' " (which misrepresented her original statement that had alluded to an orchestrated effort).

The problem is that there was no need for Russert to revisit the sex scandal. It seems only TV news -- where the line between legitimate and tabloid news coverage grows blurrier by the day -- never grows tired of it. However, Russert could have at least raised the issue -- and its painful consequences for Clinton -- with greater sensitivity and tact. But he didn't. Instead, he chose pyrotechnics over illumination, sensationalism over substance.

That's because Russert knew his bottom feeding approach guaranteed headlines -- even if it did so by taking the focus of the debate between Clinton and Republican rival Rick Lazio away from the needs of Western New York.

Russert's "Monica" questions stood in stark contrast to the questions posed by The News' political reporter Robert McCarthy and WGRZ-TV anchorman Scott Levin. Their questions concerned issues people in Western New York are concerned about, such as the upstate economy, education and affordable health care.

Russert's performance was a disappointment for a journalist proclaimed by Brill's Content magazine to be the nation's most influential talk show host. But it certainly wasn't out of character.

After all, during the media's coverage of the Lewinsky scandal throughout 1998 -- dubbed by New York Times columnist Frank Rich as "All Monica All The Time" -- "Meet the Press" continually wallowed in the sex scandal. In a black mark for network news programming, Russert's show was the first to heap respectability upon notorious Internet smut sleuth Matt Drudge by having him on as a guest.

Certainly not everyone considered Russert's "Monica" interrogation of Clinton out of bounds. In a phone interview the day after the debate, James Carville, President Clinton's former campaign manager and a close friend of both the Clintons, declined to criticize Russert.

"The rule of thumb in politics is there are no bad questions, only bad answers. He asked the question, she gave a very good answer to it and he (Lazio) gave a horrible answer," said Carville. "I'm sure she would have preferred (Russert) didn't do it. But then, my guess is that's the last time it's going to get asked."

Before the debate, Russert told the studio audience that journalists need to be balanced and objective. There was some irony to his words because the issue of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" -- explored convincingly in several books, including "The Hunting of the President" -- is something Russert, in his inside-the-Beltway thinking, has belittled on more than one occasion on "Meet the Press."

Danny Schechter, a former producer for ABC's "2 0/2 0" and executive producer of Globalvision, says Clinton's charge was outside of what the Washington establishment considers acceptable boundaries of political discourse.

"When Hillary made the accusation, she was saying what's happening in politics is not what you're seeing, but in fact there are interests behind what you're seeing. As a keeper of political orthodoxy, Russert invariably dismisses such ideas."

Russert also warned the studio audience beforehand that Buffalo needed to behave appropriately once the debate got under way, so that we would come across as a city to be proud of.

He shouldn't have been worried about us. We did fine. Native son Russert, on the other hand, embarrassed himself and his profession.

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