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Interview With Bob Schieffer

Aired May 25, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn the critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Our special guest for you this Memorial Day weekend, chief Washington correspondent of CBS News, the host of "Face the Nation," the author of "This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV," Bob Schieffer. Welcome.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: This Jayson Blair story just keeps getting stranger. You've covered a lot of political scandals. How badly is this media scandal hurting "The New York Times?"

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think it hurt "The New York Times." I think things like this hurt all of journalism. "The New York Times" is a great newspaper, it will continue to be a great newspaper, but ...

KURTZ: But they didn't handle this very well, did they?

SCHIEFFER: They really bobbled it. You know what, Howie, I mean, people say, well, it's the fault of the affirmative action program, it's this kid was a teacher's pet. What happened is some very smart people got conned by the little office conman, and that's what this kid turns out to be. And ...

KURTZ: And missed a lot of warning signals along the way.

SCHIEFFER: This does not mean you should stop having affirmative action programs. What it does mean is when people like this show up, you need to separate yourself from them as quickly as possible. This young man should have been fired. And there's just no other way to state it. He should have been fired, and that's kind of thing that sends a message to everybody else within the organization. Look, we don't tolerate this kind of thing.

Young people come along, they make mistakes, you help them, and you show them how not to make mistakes, but lying is something entirely different from a mistake. Maybe the first time around, you give them a sound warning. But the second lie -- no excuses, out of here.

KURTZ: Obviously, initially, "Times" editors didn't know that he was lying, but he had such a checkered work history, and there were so many problems raised with his work that you wonder how he survived. Now, I want to read you something that Jayson Blair told "The New York Observer." "I don't understand why I'm the bumbling affirmative action hire when Stephen Glass of "The New Republic" is this brilliant whiz kid, when from my perspective, and I know I shouldn't be saying this, I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism. They're all so smart, but I was sitting right under their nose fooling them. If they're all so brilliant, and I'm such an affirmative action hire, how come they did not catch me?"

He seems almost to be taunting his former newspaper over what he got away with it.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I mean, I think this young man just has a loose screw. And I think this -- this statement sort of affirms that. I mean, I hope that he's getting some kind of help, because clearly he needs help. But "The New York Times" got snookered. Some very smart people got snookered. They're not the first smart people that did, and they won't be the last, but...

KURTZ: It's happened in a similar fashion at other news organizations. Now, some people have said that it's unfair to drag race into this, that this might have happened -- you know, white journalists have committed frauds of this kind, but Blair himself says, well, yes, I benefited from affirmative action, but I also think there's racism at "The New York Times" and that some white editors don't want a black person to succeed. I don't know what to make of that at this point.

SCHIEFFER: Well, what I know to make of it is if there's that point to be made -- and I'm not sure there is -- he's certainly not the one to be making it. And I mean, this kid is just -- as I said, I think he's got a loose screw.

You get back to this whole affirmative action situation. You know, when we look at diversity, we all -- I mean it goes without saying, affirmative action is a good idea. We need diversity. Everybody believes that. But look at the institution in America that has made the greatest success of diversity. It's the United States military. They did not do it by setting up different standards for different sets of people. They helped people, they go out and recruit them, they bring them in, they train them. But they make sure that they all adhere to the same standard. And when you don't do that, I mean, frankly, it's demeaning to the people you're bringing in under affirmative...

KURTZ: It's a double standard to treat somebody who happens to be a minority more leniently because you're not holding them to the same kind of high ideal that you expect from any other new hire.

SCHIEFFER: Well, it's also just really -- that really is racist, because what you're saying is we don't think you're capable of living up to the kind of standards that the other people are capable of doing.

And -- and what the military has done, is they've made sure everybody knows what the standards are, they know what's expected of them, and that they're expected to do and come to a certain -- a certain level there. But, I mean, I go back to this business about lying. Lying is different then making a mistake.

KURTZ: We've all made mistakes.

SCHIEFFER: At my mother's house, you might get away with one lie, but that second one, there were no excuses.

KURTZ: Good advice for the news business as well.

Now, the White House spokesman also made news this week. Let's take a brief look at Ari Fleischer.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I mean, look, the job of anybody who is the White House press secretary is to faithfully articulate what the president is thinking and why he's thinking it. And that's what I do for a living. The job of the press corps is to try to find out everything you possibly can about everything under the sun, and I try to help you as much as I can, wherever I can.


KURTZ: Now, the complaint about Ari Fleischer, of course, is that he didn't help the press very much. A lot of reporters were frustrated by what they saw as his very disciplined, on-message style, not able to get information out of this White House very easily. How do you rate Ari Fleischer? You've covered a lot of White House administrations and press secretaries.

SCHIEFFER: I think it's pretty hard to rate Ari Fleischer with people like Jodie Powell, with Marlin Fitzwater. They had a much more free rein, it seems to me. I think -- and Ari's a nice fellow, I've known him for years, I think he's a person of real integrity, but I think Ari was pretty much carrying out the strategy that was decided high above Ari Fleischer, and that is that this White House has a strategy of tell the reporter the talking points, and then when they come to you on background, tell them the talking points again.

This is not a White House known for giving out a lot of information.

KURTZ: And that raises the real question about the tension in that job. Because obviously, you're working for the president and you're trying to spin on behalf of the president. But some press secretaries, Mike McCurry comes to mind, they would be a little more helpful on background, or off the record, away from the bright lights of the briefing room. And in that sense, they would build up more credibility with the press. You got the impression if you woke up Ari Fleischer at 3:00 in the morning, he would tell you the talking points, and I think they prided themselves on that.

SCHIEFFER: I think that's right. And I think that's basically what Ari did, and I think that is basically what they wanted Ari to do.

KURTZ: So does that approach help President Bush or simply frustrate the press corps, or they don't particular care if they frustrate the press corps? SCHIEFFER: President Bush's approval ratings are very high right now. So I guess the people in the White House would say that their strategy is working. I'm not sure in the long run that that's the best strategy, but it is certainly their strategy. I would neither blame nor credit Ari Fleischer for that strategy. He carried out the strategy that I think he was given. And in that sense, I suppose you could say he did a good job.

KURTZ: Speaking of the president, you got to know George W. Bush when he was a partner with the Texas Rangers. Your brother was involved with that ball club, and now the U.S. ambassador to Australia. What was your impression of him then? And did you think -- I mean, you played golf with him. Did you think that you were perhaps hobnobbing with the future president?

SCHIEFFER: I had no idea that I was, because it never occurred to me that he was -- would some day think of running for president. I thought he was perfectly happy being involved in Major League Baseball. George Bush is a lot of fun to be around. He's a good guy to go fishing with, he's a good guy to go to a baseball game with, and he's a good guy to play golf with. He's just genial, he's wise- cracking, he's very down to earth, and also...

KURTZ: But has that personal association changed your view of him as president?

SCHIEFFER: Not necessarily. He's also -- and this is one part of him that I recognized then and I do now, he has very good political instincts. I thought so at the time, I still think so. I think people who tend to underrate George Bush are wrong. He -- the difference between George Bush and his father, his father, I thought, was a very good public servant. I don't think he was a very good politician, and I don't think he liked politics very much. This George Bush likes politics, he likes to play the game, and I think he's pretty good at it.

KURTZ: This George Bush is on TV a lot. Certainly true during the war, but just about anytime, you turn on cable you're likely to see the president giving a speech. Meanwhile, there are nine Democrats running for his job. About two-thirds of the American people can't name one of them. Is the Democratic presidential field being undercovered by the press?

SCHIEFFER: Well, it is so early. It is so early.

KURTZ: But they're out there campaigning.

SCHIEFFER: I know they're campaigning. But people -- I don't think people can really focus, and when there are this many candidates out there, as there are right now, I think it is pretty hard to separate them.

But I think that this election in the end will come down to two things -- and that is, is the economy going to be good or bad when we get close to the election? And what happens from here on in in this war on terrorism? If we have another terrorist attack in this country, if it appears that al Qaeda is strong and powerful and we have not deterred them, Democrats are beginning to make the case now George Bush went after the wrong person. He should have been going after Osama bin Laden and he went after the other one...

KURTZ: But that can bring you back to the media coverage...

SCHIEFFER: If all of that is not in very good shape, then I think George Bush is vulnerable. If it is in good shape, I think he's going to be hard to beat.

KURTZ: Do the media give the incumbent president -- this was true when Bill Clinton was running for reelection -- a huge advantage, because so much of this huge machine focuses on one man, and then you have all these challengers, particularly when there are so many of them, trying to get just a sliver of that limelight.

SCHIEFFER: It is very difficult in the television age to take on an incumbent president. I think you're exactly right about that, Howard, because a president can get press attention almost whenever he wants it. The president calls the news conference, everybody is going to show up.

KURTZ: Or gives a speech, or plays golf, or goes on vacation (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SCHIEFFER: Or flies to an aircraft carrier.

KURTZ: Right. Good point.

SCHIEFFER: The press is going to be there, and they are going to report that. And that really is a problem. I'm not sure how you go about solving that. I'm not sure how you make it 50/50. Maybe you never do. Incumbents have an overwhelming advantage now.

KURTZ: You mentioned the war on terrorism, the question about how that will go. The war in Iraq got probably the most saturated media coverage of any military conflict in history. Is the media losing interest now? I mean, there's still a really important story going on there about winning the peace, which may be a lot more difficult than winning the war, but the media seem to have kind of moved on.

SCHIEFFER: It's never as dramatic when you're trying to figure out how to get the electricity up and running, how to get drinking water for the people of Iraq, how to do those kind of very mundane things that are so important. That just isn't quite as exciting as a war, where people are shooting at each other.

KURTZ: But is that justification for...

SCHIEFFER: That's not good -- I'm not saying that is good or bad ...

KURTZ: You're just explaining.

SCHIEFFER: I'm just saying that's what makes it very difficult, and I think that the media has pulled back. I mean, our attention span lasts only so long in any situation. And I think we should be doing more. We're doing -- we still have people there. We're still covering this story. And if something goes really badly wrong, it will be back on the evening news and it will be on the front page.

KURTZ: Can't argue with you on the short attention span indictment, that's been true of our business for a long time. We have to take a break. And when we come back, a look at the Sunday morning talk show wars with the host of "Face the Nation."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're talking with Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News.

You and Wolf Blitzer are now the only Sunday morning talk show hosts who have never worked in politics. I mean, you have George Stephanopoulos, kind of the new kid on the block, famously worked for the Clinton White House, Tim Russert, years ago worked in Democratic politics, and Fox's Tony Snow worked in the first Bush White House. Do you have any hesitation about this sort of revolving door?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I -- no. You know, I mean, we don't license journalists in this country. We don't force you to take a test to see if you can become a journalist. The way you become a journalist is you say, "I am a journalist." And the test is, do people believe what you have to say? Do they find what you have to say relevant? Some people are able to make that transition, and some are not.

I think all the people you mentioned are good and decent and smart people, and I think they're all doing very well. So I don't have a problem with it.

KURTZ: OK. Now, it seems to me that the Sunday morning booking wars, where you all try to get the best guests, the most newsworthy guests that week, have really become intense. And I really can't help but notice that when the administration wants to put out Don Rumsfeld or Colin Powell or Condi Rice, that person may be on three, four, even five Sunday morning talk shows. Does that frustrate you, because then (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

SCHIEFFER: Yes, it does. And I would guess that I speak for all of us on Sunday morning television when I say that. That's the one thing we don't like. And this administration has done this, and really started making a habit of it, of not -- they're very careful about -- you have to go through the White House Press Office now to book any administration official, even down to the Centers for Disease Control, I discovered the other week, they're now -- they have to sign off on that, which I think might be just a little step beyond where it ought to be.

But be that as it may. But what really does kind of concern us when they are starting to say, well, we're going to allow the secretary of defense to be on Sunday's talk shows this Sunday, but he's going to be on three different shows. KURTZ: And they shuttle from studio to studio, and you try to ask questions I guess different from what you think the other guy's going to ask.

SCHIEFFER: You have to make a judgment each time you do that, is this something, do we owe it to our viewers to put Colin Powell on, or should we pass?

KURTZ: Do you sometimes pass?

SCHIEFFER: Well, we did recently. They decided to put the secretary of the treasury on five shows, Sunday before last, and we just said thanks, but I think we'll go another direction. And we did that.

KURTZ: So you just said no.

SCHIEFFER: You know, if it had been Don Rumsfeld or Colin Powell, we might have given it a little...

KURTZ: Little harder...

SCHIEFFER: It might have been a little harder to turn that down.

KURTZ: A little bit harder. Talk a little about your style, because you know, Stephanopoulos is obviously the former political insider, Tim Russert kind of markets himself as the pit bull interrogator. How do you describe your interviewing style?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I try to make the person being interviewed the star of the show. I mean, that's the way I've always gone about television.

KURTZ: I thought you were the star of the show, Schieffer?

SCHIEFFER: Yes, but I think it reflects well on me -- look, I am what I am. You know, I mean, I'm up in age and I'm not going to be anything other than what I am, whatever that is. I think the way to conduct an interview is to ask a person a question and listen closely to what they say. I think most of the news comes in the follow-ups that you ask after that. I have always said I'm not trying to get people to say something that they don't mean, I'm not going to trip them up. I'm trying to find and get them to say exactly what they mean, and then hold that up to scrutiny.

KURTZ: Now, in this book, "This Just In," hold it up here, you recount a very long and colorful career. You started for CBS here in 1969, I believe.

SCHIEFFER: Yes, I did.

KURTZ: How did much of the television business change, particularly in terms of the interest that the bosses in New York have in Washington, when there's not a war or an impeachment going on?

SCHIEFFER: Well, there's still an interest. The way the business and the way television has really changed here in Washington is there's just so much more of everything. When I came here, Howie, there were 400 reporters accredited up at the U.S. Capitol. I think there are now at last count, something like 6,000. You now have these large herds of reporters; you also have more officials to deal with them. When you had these large groups of officials and the large numbers of reporters, it tends to formalize it more, you tend to have more news conferences and organized backgrounders, rather than an official calling you in and you stand there at his desk...

KURTZ: But isn't it harder for you to sell a story about Capitol Hill, where you do much of your reporting, unless it's something dramatic? I don't see congressional hearings very often covered on the network news anymore.

SCHIEFFER: We don't do nearly as many process stories as we used to. I think...

KURTZ: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

SCHIEFFER: Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not so good.

KURTZ: You can be the State Department's spokesman with that.

SCHIEFFER: Yes, I don't mean to dodge that, but yes, you're right, we don't do as many Washington stories as we used to.

KURTZ: Sometimes you go out in the heartland and talk about how government policies are affecting the people out there.

Well, we're out of time. Bob Schieffer, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck with the book.

SCHIEFFER: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: And when we come back, truth or fiction? How Hollywood portrays Washington on the small screen, and just where are all the conservatives? That's next.


KURTZ: Here's the scenario -- the threat of terror is in the air. The president is worried that the head of the National Security Agency may be a rogue agent. Here's how the president handled that frightening situation, President David Palmer, that is, on the Fox series "24."



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would you like me to do, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Extract information from Roger Stanton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If he resists, how far am I permitted to go?


KURTZ (voice-over): Hollywood's portrayal of Washington take a few liberties, to put it mildly, as I learned in moderating a recent discussion sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And as the president, actor Dennis Haysbert freely admits...

DENNIS HAYSBERT, ACTOR: One thing you really have to understand, it is an entertainment. Any truth that you get out of it is almost completely accidental.

KURTZ: Gene Sperling went from the Clinton White House to the Bartlett White House on NBC's "West Wing." I asked him if Martin Sheen's staff bears any resemblance to his old administration colleagues.

GENE SPERLING, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER, WEST WING CONSULTANT: I usually say yes, except that we weren't as funny, we weren't as good looking and we didn't walk as fast.

KURTZ: Or take "Mr. Sterling," the absurdly idealistic senator played by Josh Brolin. Here he is on the floor in the NBC drama.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My amendment would require all members of the United States Senate to prepare their own tax returns.


KURTZ: Lawrence O'Donnell, the former Capitol Hill aide who created "Mr. Sterling" admits that's a personal fantasy.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, CREATOR, "MR. STERLING": When I was on the Finance Committee, oh, if there was one law I could pass, it was all senators, or at least members of the Finance Committee must prepare their own tax returns.

KURTZ: The Beltway consultants are supposed to provide a reality check for those Hollywood screenwriters who conjure up these too hip to be true scenes. And, says Gene Sperling, he tries.

SPERLING: So and so's bringing his girlfriend on Air Force One. You could never just bring your girlfriend on Air Force One, and they looked at me like, get a life.

KURTZ: Sometimes, of course, reality intrudes on prime-time television. After the 9/11 attack, says Dennis Haysbert, some scenes were deemed too sensitive, even for a weekly thriller like "24."

HAYSBERT: We had a plane that exploded, and that had already been shot. So what we did is we took out the explosion.

KURTZ: One thing these programs have in common, conservatives are practically invisible. President Bartlett is a Democrat. Martin Sheen, in fact, made anti-war ads before the invasion of Iraq. "Mr. Sterling" is a California liberal based loosely on Jerry Brown. Why aren't there any Republicans?

O'DONNELL: You will never get that TV show. You'll never, ever get the Republican TV show. the Writers Guild of America, my union, is at a minimum, 99 percent leftist liberal and, like me, socialist. And we don't know how to write it. We don't.


KURTZ: I guess we won't be seeing a Karl Rove drama anytime soon. These shows are important, because they help shape the public image of politicians and show the characters wrestling with real issues, but not too real, it turns out, not if you want really big ratings.

In a moment, we'll see what our viewers have to say about Jayson Blair and "The New York Times." Stay with us.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at our viewer e-mail. Last week we asked, who is to blame for the Jayson Blair fiasco at "The New York Times?" Mark in Ohio wants to know: "How are all the memos over time regarding issues about Jayson's work and other warnings missed or ignored by management? Where is the Bob Woodward style uncovering of what really happened? Are members of the media afraid to investigate their own peers?"

Bill in New York says: "It will take years for 'The Times' to repair its credibility. Blair has tainted all the writers at the paper and their integrity. The only person to benefit from this corruption will be Blair when he pens his book."

But Larry, another viewer, asks: "What's the big deal? This thing is being blow way out or proportion. He lied, he cheated, he resigned. He should have been caught earlier. End of story. Let's move on to more important things than one person being unable to do their job."

Finally, it looks like "The New York Post" has a Jayson Blair of its own. The paper recently carried a story about Wal-Mart dropping a sports (UNINTELLIGIBLE) produced by Kathie Lee Gifford, a story that freelancer Robin Gregg lifted, almost word for word, from the "National Enquirer." The New York tabloid says Gregg has been banned from its pages.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern when our special guest will be White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.


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