CBS' Bob Schieffer on Ratings, His Rivals and How Politics Has Changed

CBS via Getty Images; David Handschuh; AP Images

"Now the lowliest subcommittee chairman has a media coach and a press secretary," says Schieffer, whose 'Face the Nation' is beating its competition as the show approaches its 60th birthday on Nov. 7

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In a rapidly changing media environment, there are few constants. But CBS News' Sunday morning public affairs program Face the Nation on Nov. 7 celebrates 60 years on television. And as Bob Schieffer, himself a 45-year veteran of CBS News, puts it, the show hasn't changed much. (The Nov. 9 anniversary show will features interviews with both President Obama and his Oval Office predecessor George W. Bush.)

"The whole mission of the program is exactly the same as it was 60 years ago: Find the key newsmaker in the biggest story of the week, sit them down at the table and ask them questions," he says. "The Sunday shows are different than any other time period on television because we're still trying to advance a story. We're not about the gotcha question. We're not about anchor antics. We're not about bells and whistles. We're just trying to find a new lead to the story."

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Schieffer has been moderating the program since 1991. In 2012, Face the Nation became the No. 1 Sunday public affairs program, overtaking NBC's Meet the Press for the first time (actually the longest-running program on television at 67 years). So far this season, Face the Nation is averaging 3.3 million viewers with 963,000 in the 25-54 demographic targeted by news programming, narrowly beating ABC's This Week in the latter measure. Chuck Todd, newly installed as host of Meet the Press after a messy handover from David Gregory, briefly climbed back atop the ratings for his Sept. 7 debut on the program, which featured an interview with President Obama.

Schieffer's longevity in the business — he began at CBS News as a Pentagon reporter and has been chief Washington correspondent since 1982 — is a testament to his credibility in Washington. He's not afraid to criticize the politicos he also recruits to sit at the FTN roundtable. He's been particularly outspoken about the current do-nothing Congress, lamenting in a recent commentary: "Our once proud shining city on a hill is becoming just a town where nothing works."

What has been the biggest change in terms of covering Washington since you started?

You have information coming in from so many places 24/7. People, while they didn't always agree with the editorials in the paper, they generally took it that the things that were on the front page or the network newscasts, that they were true, that reporters had gone to some trouble to check it out. And so they based their opinions on common facts. That's no longer the case because now you can get the news served up from any political slant you want. You have what I call validation channels, where you turn on this channel because you agree with their point of view. I think that's one of the reasons for the great partisan divide in the country. And I think the greatest challenge for us is to try and fight and claw and dig our way through this huge [amount] of information.

Do you think cable news, the validation channels, have been bad for political discourse?

I think an informed person today cannot rely on one source for news. It's almost like it was in Abraham Lincoln's time where there was no such thing as objectivity. You had to read a variety of publications to come to some understanding about what was going on. It's an evolution. But I don't think it's going to change very much. It's the golf course we play on now.

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Politicians can go on a friendly channel and only answer the questions they want to answer. Doesn't that make your job harder?

And some politicians choose to do that. What both politicians and the journalist need to always remember is we have two very different missions. The politician's mission is to deliver a message. Our mission is to try and get at the truth. You should not come on one of the Sunday shows unless you're prepared to answer the questions. If you come on and you evade the questions, if you let some PR person tell you what answer to give no matter what the question is, [viewers] know that. They understand when someone's evading the question. And they don't like it.

But there are so many more controls now.

Absolutely. And it's not just in politics; information management is now a part of almost everything. When I came to Washington in 1969, most members of the House did not even have press secretaries. Now the lowliest subcommittee chairman has a media coach and a press secretary. Mostly what that does is limit access. People always ask, "What is the most manipulative and secretive administration you've ever covered?" And I always answer, "Whichever one happens to be in office right now." They all learn from the previous occupants.

Politicians can talk directly to constituents through social media. How has that impacted bookings?

I always say that someone who is trying to deliver a message and deliver a broader point of view is going to reach a much more sophisticated audience in an interview than with a tweet. I have great appreciation for what social media can do. But I think some things just require more than 140 characters.

What's your relationship like with George Stephanopoulos and Chuck Todd?

Oddly I don't see them that much. I've known Chuck for many years. He's a fine fellow. George I've known since he was working for Bill Clinton. [CNN's] Candy Crowley I've known since she covered Capitol Hill when I was a Capitol Hill correspondent. I not only knew [Fox News Sunday anchor] Chris Wallace's father [Mike Wallace] very well, I also knew his stepfather, Bill Leonard, who was my boss [at CBS News]. I have great respect for all of them. At this level, you've got to be pretty good to do these jobs. I know if we don't do our best on Sunday morning, we're probably going to get scooped. We're professional competitors. But basically we're all friends — or at least we all know each other.

Do you pay attention to the ratings?

Well of course we do. And anybody who says they don't is not telling you the truth. That's like politicians who say, "Oh, I never watch the Sunday shows." These are not charities, these are businesses. We have to pay attention to the ratings. But we don't invite the guest on by what we think is going to get us the biggest rating. If you get the right guest, the key newsmaker in the story that everyone is interested in, the ratings will take care of themselves.

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Did anyone ever walk out on you?

No, but years ago Oliver North almost did. When he decided to run for the Senate, he came in here to be interviewed. I was asking him about Iran-Contra. He has said he was under oath when he said something. And I said something like, "Well you're not under oath now. I take it that you're telling the truth?" I must say he was the only one who didn't shake hands when he left. He just up and stormed off. Most of the time, they might be mad, but most of them are professionals.

Are those moments possible now? Or is everyone too rehearsed.

Oh yeah. I got into several rows during the last [presidential] campaign with [GOP hopeful] Herman Cain. He had run an ad with [his campaign manager] standing there smoking, trying to look real cool. Being somebody who had bladder cancer — which was a direct result of smoking; I used to be a very heavy smoker — I wanted to know why he thought that was cool. So we got into quite a little thing about it. He wasn't in the green room when I got finished with the broadcast. (Laughs.)

Which interview surprised you the most?

People always ask me, "What is your favorite interview?" And I always say, "Whoever happens to be president at that time." There's nothing more fun than interviewing a sitting president. But we had Maya Angelou on one Sunday. Of course I knew who she was and admired her and read her books and all that. But she was just the sweetest, most delightful, and if I may say it, one of the sexiest old women I have ever encountered. We just had a great time. She was just an amazing woman. I was just blown away by her. And I had her on several times after that.

Who was your role model in the business?

Walter Cronkite is who I always wanted to be as a young reporter, and he's still who I want to be. He had a profound impact on me. When I had the opportunity to come and work for him, he was exactly the way I wanted him to be. So many times you meet these celebrities and you think, "Oh, he must be a wonderful guy," and then you find out they're kind of a jerk. Walter was exactly the same in person the way he was on television. He was a great mentor to me. And he always looked out for me, which is not a bad thing, especially when you worked at CBS.

What do you consider your career low point?

In 1979 I was the White House correspondent and they came to me [because] they were going to create this new morning news program. They were always creating a new morning news program in those days. And someone had said to me, "You know Walter Cronkite is going to retire pretty soon. If you play your cards right you might have a chance at that job." Well I wasn't in line for it. It was either going to go to Dan Rather or Roger Mudd. I think they just had a hard time finding someone to do [the morning news]. It was not a very good show. I did not know how to do it. I had not spent much time operating without a script. So when they decided to give the [Evening News] job to Dan, I asked if I could come back to Washington. And I thought I had really been a failure. I later came to realize it was one of the best things that ever happened to me: I learned how to ad lib; I learned how to conduct interviews on camera. I was feeling pretty low at that point. But I learned there's life after low points.

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And the high point?

I don't know, I'm still looking for the next big story. One thing I've learned as a reporter is you never know what's going to happen next. I always wanted to be a reporter from the eighth grade on. I got to do something that was important. I can't think of anything that would have been more fun or more exciting. I had a great time. If my life ended tomorrow, I would not in any way feel shortchanged.

So no thoughts about retiring?

I really gave it serious thought back when I was 65 — that was 12 years ago (Laughs). I have thought about it a couple of times since then. But I just decided to not think about it for a while. My wife keeps an eye on me. She says, "When you start drooling, then it will be time to go."

 

Nov. 6, 7:40 a.m. Updated with information about the Nov. 9 edition of Face the Nation.

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