Life lessons in journalism

W hat makes someone great at what they do? What propels them to the top of the pack?

W hat makes someone great at what they do? What propels them to the top of the pack?

Tim Russert was one of America’s most trusted television journalists, before being struck down by a heart attack at 58.

For 16 years he hosted the country’s most influential news program, “Meet the Press.” He was also NBC’s favorite political analyst, was the network’s DC bureau chief, and managed to find the time to host a second weekly interview program and write a pair of bestselling books. He was also loved by his family, friends, colleagues and competitors.

How did this son of a garbage man from Buffalo, N.Y., do it? Russert left behind four lessons that work for anyone from any background at any age in any field. You want to succeed in life? Here’s the roadmap he left behind. Recent graduates, pay close attention.

Russert had a passion for politics. That’s lesson number one: Choose something you love and try to make a living at it. Russert was in politics before he covered it, working for both Senator Pat Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. He built a career on that passion. You can do the same. Russert not only loved politics, he liked most people in it. This is key. If you don’t like the kind of people who gravitate toward advertising or corporate law, avoid working in advertising or corporate law.

Lesson number two: The Scout motto never fails. Be Prepared. Everyone knew that when Tim Russert interviewed a senator, he had the senator’s record in front of him and plenty of conflicting sound bites ready to roll. It was the follow-ups, not the initial questions, that made him America’s best interviewer. People who are prepared always get noticed.

Lesson number three: Respect your customers. Russert’s background was strongly Democratic. You would never know it when he interviewed Democrats on “Meet the Press.” He knew that his audience (the customers) respected thoroughness and evenhandedness. He respected their intelligence and their sense of fairness by reflecting it back on them. Doing that to your customers in any line of work is a must because people always notice when it happens… and when it doesn’t.

Lesson number four: Don’t pretend. Russert’s dad, a WWII vet, worked two jobs without complaining for 30 years in Buffalo, N.Y. and didn’t spend his time wringing his hands over whether Tim would one day get into Harvard. He instead focused on shaping his son’s character and emphasizing the importance of faith and fair play. When “Big Russ” retired, his son noticed that he had over 200 unused days of sick leave. “Why didn’t you take some of them?” asked Tim. “Because I wasn’t sick,” his dad replied. Russert went to Catholic school, where, he once said, he was not only taught to read and write but also how to tell right from wrong. He went on to John Carroll University and got his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Far from hiding his modest background, Russert was proud of it. He knew that moving ahead was about who you know from what you’ve done, not from who you know because you both matriculated at Yale.

It is tragic losing someone of his stature and reputation at the top of his game. But he made both politics and journalism better professions. And he showed us, as his father showed him, how to do the right things the right way. So long, Tim.

• John Carlson is co-host of “The Commentators” on KVI talk radio, broadcasting weekdays.