CBS News' Bob Schieffer relives his life on deadlineFrom James Meredith's fiery admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962 to the recent take-down of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, Bob Schieffer has worked at the wellsprings of America's political history. It's often been history made in a hurry. The veteran CBS News correspondent had the unenviable job of deciphering the voluminous Starr Report while he was on camera live. Later, he did the same with the convoluted Supreme Court opinion that gave George W. Bush the presidency. His new book This Just In is a breezy, story-a-page account of what it's like to become famous while covering the famous. It is also a keen appraisal of the changing nature of news and reporting.
"There's just so much news now," says the affable Texas native, speaking by phone from Washington. "All of us are just pounded from all sides [with] this 24-hour news cycle. It's difficult to break through this great maw of facts and figures and get people's attention with something that's really important."Schieffer believes the assassination of President Kennedy marked the dividing line between old and new journalism. "That was the first time for many people to see reporters working," he points out. "You saw those live television pictures of reporters jostling around in the Dallas police headquarters, pushing and shoving. You saw that a lot of times gathering the news is not an orderly process. It gave people real questions about our methods, and I think it raised questions about our credibility." (Schieffer was a police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when Kennedy was shot and had the strange experience of giving Lee Harvey Oswald's mother a ride into Dallas to see her imprisoned son.)Nowadays, Schieffer observes, reporters are accustomed to doing a lot of their work in public, frequently with warranted trepidation. He says he had to do his summarizings of the Starr and Supreme Court documents the moment he got them because "people will turn on CBS to see if we know anything about this story. If we're not on the air talking about it, people will turn away from us and go to somebody who is. And once they turn away from you, they never come back." One of Schieffer's complaints about modern TV journalism is that it places no premium on good writing. "So much of television reporting these days," he says, "is what I call behind-me television' that is, the anchor switches to a reporter who's on the scene and the reporter says, Dan, in that building behind me . . .' or Dan, the flames behind me. . . .,' and that's the start of it. Then he interviews three or four people who've wandered by or maybe some spokesman from the police department, and then he throws it back to the anchor."This Just In has a wealth of gossipy, good-humored tales about such eminent talking heads as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Daniel Schorr and Roger Mudd. Schorr, now a commentator for National Public Radio, was such a relentless news hound that Mudd once dreamed he boarded a plane and found Schorr sitting in every seat. Of Cronkite, Schieffer says, "Of course, Walter is my hero. But he could just drive you nuts calling you up at 6:15 and asking you how much oil there was in the world. I mean, who the hell knows? My favorite was not a question asked of me but to Hugh Heckman, who worked on the evening news. One day [Cronkite] turned to him and said, Hugh, how long is Greenland?'"It troubles Schieffer that government officials in all branches and at all levels have learned how to divert and manipulate the press. "Government is so much more sophisticated in its press relations than it was 40 or even 20 years ago. Everybody has learned how you have talking points,' how you try to have a couple of things you want to say. Everybody has a public relations strategy. This is all relatively new."None of these roadblocks, however, appear to have blunted Schieffer's journalistic enthusiasm. He still talks with the eagerness of a cub reporter and notes at one point that it was he who broke the news that Lott would be stepping down as majority leader. "If there's a lesson in this book for young journalists," he tells BookPage, "it's that one reason you might want to be a reporter is that it's so much fun."